Within the world of development - whether it be mobile development, application development, web development, or enterprise development - there are a variety of critical terms that need to be understood for everyone to be on the same page. Developing a robust, efficient, and practical application requires a vast set of skill-sets from different specialists, along with various tools including Libraries, APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), SDKs (Software Development Kits), Toolkits, IDEs (Integrated Development Environments), Platforms, and Frameworks. The latter two - platforms and frameworks - are some of the most critical tools at the disposal of a developer, yet the two very different but similar tools are often used interchangeably and confused.
Within the realm of native app development and mobile development, it is even more critical to distinguish between the two tools since they are uniquely similar, but have different uses, leading to confusion and incorrect uses of the terms within conferences, meetings, project discussions and more. By understanding the two terms in their essential context, project conferences and project lifecycles can occur more rapidly and without confusion.
One of the easiest ways to remember the difference between a framework and platform is that, despite both including toolkits for mobile development, frameworks operate as software-only skeletons for building applications, and platforms operate as hardware and software systems that help run applications. The two terms are often wrongly used interchangeably since both are used for similar purposes in mobile app development.
What Is A Mobile Application Development Platform (MADP)?
In general terms, a platform is a set of hardware and software systems used to run an application, and act as the foundational system by which an application is built using included building blocks or tools. A platform is a host to an app, and often includes Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) cloud systems, hosted in the cloud, that interact with the code of the (separate) application itself. So while the application code is run within the scope of the platform, the business logic is contained and run by the platform.
MADPs help developers build and run their applications, both over the short term development cycles and over the long term. Since MADPs handle the business logic and management of the “moving parts” of the application, they can be instrumental in the world of mobile app development. Since platforms run the application itself, every device that has the platform installed can also execute the application via the platform’s function of making the app compatible with the hardware system and OS, allowing interoperable applications that are “cross-platform.” Platforms provide developers with one environment that contains all of the tools that they need to create and run a mobile application.
For a company to justify the use of a MADP, the “Rule of Three” is usually used, which states that a MADP should be used if:
- There is a need for mobile applications and/or solutions that connect with three backend systems.
- There is a need for mobile solutions that need to be compatible with three or more mobile hardware systems.
- There is a need for mobile solutions that need to work on three or more Operating Systems.
Cross-Platform Mobile App Development
A cross-platform application can run in all mobile operating systems without any need for extra codes. This ability is possible due to platforms running on each system and making the application (code) compatible with the OS and hardware of the mobile device. For instance, the JVM (Java Virtual Machine) and CLR (Common Language Runtime) solution for platform-independence allow applications to run on a myriad of different hardware platforms.
Popular MADPs Today
A myriad of mobile application development platforms exist, and it is up to IT officers and executives to decide which development platform fits best for their development projects.
At $90 a month for the Pro version and $200 a month for the Team version, Appery.io is a MADP that offers 2 GB and 5 GB storage respectively, while supporting 3-7 applications (three for the Pro version and seven for the Team version), as well as offering support for 1-3 users (for Pro) and six users (for Team). Appery.io is explicitly used to engineer hybrid mobile apps, web apps, and PWAs.
Mobile Roadie is a robust MADP that operates as an iOS and Android app builder by offering robust tools (e.g., a Content Management System) and management mechanisms for building custom mobile applications.
TheAppBuilder is a multi-function MADP that supports Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, and HTML5. It is one of the few MADPs that allows the creation of robust apps for nonprogrammers via a variety of powerful tools.
What Is A Mobile Development Framework?
Frameworks are skeletons that developers build upon to produce an application (one that typically uses the framework itself in the final product). Frameworks are software-only systems that include tools, standard components, libraries, classes, and SDKs (software development kits) to produce an application.
Mobile development frameworks can be likened to code libraries with an included architectural and structural design skeleton for use in developing an application. While libraries are sets of code that can be reused in development work, frameworks go beyond that by providing the necessary design elements for building the application’s architecture and core skeleton. This functionality allows specific mobile development tasks and workflows, such as GUI programming and UX/UI design, to be more feasibly carried out in a reduced amount of time. Mobile development frameworks help with both the development and design of mobile applications from the ground-up.
Popular Mobile Development Frameworks Today
Like the many MADPs available on the market, there are a variety of mobile development frameworks that exist that can aid your company with engineering powerful mobile solutions. The three top mobile development frameworks - which are open source - are React Native, Flutter, and Ionic.
React Native, which is backed by Facebook, is a mobile development framework that is used to build iOS, Android, and UWP applications.
As a mobile development framework that is backed by Google, Flutter is a robust and enterprise-level tool that is used to engineer Android and iOS applications. Flutter, however, is unique in that it uses Dart, a programming language created by Google, while also using other programming mechanisms from other languages.
Ionic is a robust mobile development framework used by businesses of all sizes to engineer hybrid apps and web, iOS, and Android apps.
How Do They Differ?
While it is easy to state that platforms and frameworks are different, many still don’t see the differences due to their similarities. While both platforms and frameworks include toolkits for development (and SDKs can be leveraged with both solutions), equating each with one critical term helps to set the two development systems apart:
- Platform (Environment): Developers build applications in platform environments so that their applications run on the platform/system. Platforms also include hardware and software systems and often are used in conjunction with SDKs.
- Framework (Skeleton): Developers build applications with frameworks - which include tools, libraries, and SDKs - for standard functions and tasks - so as not to have to “reinvent the wheel.” Frameworks only include software systems and do not run the application.
Using the construction of a house as an analogy, platforms would equate with the foundation of the house, while frameworks would equate with the constructed frame of the house.
Whether your company needs a mobile application development platform or development framework depends on the requirements of your projects. Both platforms and frameworks have their unique advantages such that using a hybrid approach (that is, using both) may help your company scale and reach its goals:
- Platform Advantages: The main advantage of platforms is that they include hardware and software systems to run your application, ensuring that your application will be compatible with any hardware system or OS that it needs to run on. Platforms also include tools for the development of the mobile app.
- Framework Advantages: Frameworks are more in-depth tools for mobile development, and include all aspects of tools and solutions needed to build - but not run - a mobile application. While platforms include tools for development, frameworks include not only loosely-related tools but an actionable skeleton of code and tools that helps developers both architecturally design and develop their application. Essentially, frameworks provide a pattern (skeleton) that guides developers, who only need to fill in the holes (the “meat” on the skeleton), which is what platforms lack.
Using the house construction analogy above, frameworks greatly help with reducing development time due to including a robust and comprehensive skeleton/frame for the application - so developers don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” - while platforms help with reducing the load required to run the application. Therefore, while frameworks may be better for building the application due to providing more exhaustive (and more useful) tools/libraries that are set in a defined pattern, platforms may allow for more freedom (due to not having such a defined pattern) and better ability to run the application, while providing less aid in building the application.
Platforms exist more for the sake of running the application, while frameworks (which aren’t used to run the application at all) are often better for building the app.
To understand the true capabilities of each development system, it helps to recognize the standard mobile development lifecycle, and how platforms and frameworks align with each critical phase of the mobile development lifecycle:
- Planning and Technical Requirements
- Support & Maintenance
To understand the scope of each development solution, one must understand the scope of mobile development and its SDLC (Software Development Lifecycle) phases. Throughout the SDLC for mobile development, platforms and frameworks act differently:
- Platforms: Platform use is more focused on hosting the application, and on building the application within the host/platform environment. Platforms can be used with SDKs and toolkits to build an app, while frameworks are only used for design/development, and not for hosting/running the application. Platforms are used for design/development, but also testing, deployment, and support/maintenance.
- Frameworks: Frameworks help developers design and develop applications, without the added benefit of running the application in the deployment phase.
The two different solutions align better with varying phases of the mobile SDLC:
- Planning and Technical Requirements: Neither Platforms nor frameworks are beneficial in the planning and strategic stages.
- Analysis: Neither solution helps in a critical way at the phases preceding design and development.
- Design: Frameworks include patterns and architectural tools to aid in the design and development of the application, and are often a better solution. Platforms can also be used with included tools for the design of an application, albeit without the imbedded and innate pattern (“frame”) that frameworks include.
- Development: Both platforms and frameworks help with the development of the application. While frameworks often provide more of a guide/pattern in development and have very robust tools, platforms help with the development of an application that has specific hardware systems - or OSs - in mind, if the goal is multi-platform, multi-tenant, scalable development.
- Testing/Debugging: Unless a specific testing framework is needed to design testing algorithms and apps, platforms often include end-to-end development toolkits, including tools for testing the application for quality and security.
- Deployment: If the application needs an easy solution for actually running (post-development), mobile development platforms are best for the deployment phase as such systems are used to run applications. Eventually, all apps need a platform (when “platform” is used in the non-development, general sense) to run on.
- Support & Maintenance: Since applications need to run in a hardware and software environment, support and maintenance are best done via platforms, the systems which run applications. At the same time, support frameworks can be used to develop maintenance systems and support systems.
For platforms and frameworks to be leveraged by businesses correctly, IT executives must fully understand how each system operates. Dependencies, or groups of code that are required (and depend on other code) and interdependent with other classes and groups of code for the entire application (i.e., platform/framework) to work, must be intact for the pertinent platform or framework to operate. Without such dependencies, regardless of how robust the platform/framework is, it will not work correctly.
Leverage The Right Tools
Choosing and using the most appropriate tool for developing your mobile applications is an integral part of the development process. While frameworks and platforms may seem similar, they have key differences that may or may not benefit a company, depending on whether the company needs to build a robust application or build and run the application in a multi-platform, scalable manner.
Platforms are often used more generally and broadly for mobile app development due to providing most of the basic tools needed to build and run applications. At the same time, many developers who have a specific vision that is aligned to the pattern set by a framework may choose the framework to cut development time and costs and to create custom solutions on top of a frame that already provides a fundamental and accepted solution at its core.
For your company to get ahead, get to know the key differences between platforms and frameworks, and decide which is best to leverage. Choosing a framework when the company needs a solution to run the application long term will present issues with the development solution. Selecting a platform to host the application may help you while needing to save time in building essential components according to a set design pattern, but it may not provide the full solution. That solution is composed of the framework for development, and platform for running the final application.