The Good and the Bad of Ionic Mobile Development
So, you’re going to build a mobile app. Your thoughts might then turn to develop an app for the two main platforms – Android (using Java or Kotlin) and iOS (using Swift or Objective C) – natively. Native development offers high performance, easy access to hardware controls, API integration, and full functionality. But a native app also means that the expenses are doubled (or even tripled), depending on how many platforms you want to cover. That means two separate apps, two codebases, two development teams, and expenses for all of it. Daunting, but you can go another way.
Instead, you can create a cross-platform app with the help of tools like Xamarin and React Native. These tools are close to native in performance and allow for code-sharing between the platforms, reducing the overall expenses on development. But still, you will need to hire native developers to do specific tasks in each of the codebases.
If you are interested in differences between cross-platform vs native application development, have a look at our article dedicated to that topic. But in this post, we will focus on another tool for mobile application development, one that utilizes web technologies. You will learn what the Ionic framework is, its pros and cons, and its advantages over native and hybrid technologies in mobile applications.
What is Ionic?
Apache Cordova & Angular based. The first versions of Ionic were based on Angular, which is a popular front-end framework used for building dynamic web pages and progressive web applications, PWA for short. Ionic can use Angular CLI (Command-Line Interface) and components to create fully functional mobile applications.
Another part of Ionic responsible for accessing native functionality is based on Apache Cordova plugins. Cordova is a tool for building mobile applications using web technologies, relying on its own APIs instead of platform-specific ones. As long as Ionic uses WebView, it doesn’t have access to the device’s hardware APIs by default. Cordova provides those APIs packed as plugins to gain access to functions like a smartphone’s camera, gyroscope, or sensors. These sets of APIs are also known as Cordova Bridge. Apache Cordova provides Ionic apps with access to native APIs, serving as a bridge between the webview and the device’s operating system.
Ionic application in a nutshell
Ionic Native. When it comes to building an application, you want to reach every bit of the required functionality. For that purpose, Ionic Native was created. It’s a set of Cordova plugins designed to support standard APIs and integration. Ionic Native is available as a free set (Community Edition) and a paid one (Enterprise Edition), which is an extended version curated by Ionic’s team.
Ionic v.4 and web components
Since its creation, Ionic had been dependent on Angular framework components, as a tool for Angular users. The change came with the fourth and latest version of Ionic, which is chock full of new things.
With the fourth version, Ionic became framework-agnostic, meaning its independent of Angular. It’s planned to add support for React and Vue.js as well, but for now, Ionic can be used without any frameworks at all. The change was made possible thanks to the utilization of web components and the promotion of Ionic’s CLI. The CLI has now been refactored and tailored to work with Angular CLI. So, you can work with Angular if you like it, but also use other supported frameworks to widen the technology stack that can be used with Ionic.
Another big change is a shift to web components. Web components are sets of features that use standard APIs natively supported in nearly all mobile browsers today. Thus, those can be deployed on any mobile platform or used to create desktop apps with Electron framework, or PWAs. The usage of web components also allows for the utilization of any frameworks with Ionic.
Web components are basically encapsulated HTML elements that are interoperable with each other. Each of these elements contains a custom iOS and material design (Android) theme support by default. This makes theme-identity across numerous apps a fairly easy task. It was announced that Ionic will be distributed as a set of more than 100 web components. To support this initiative, the Ionic team launched Stencil — a vast library of web components and a tool to build new ones.
Ionic starter pack
There are a couple of things you need to start developing with Ionic. Thanks to Ionic’s team, it has precise documentation that covers various topics, including beginner guides. So, in this section we supply some links or recap some mentioned in the article:
General purpose documentation. The documentation covers CLI installation, platform launches, app development start, and other information.
Official migration guide. The most popular version of Ionic remains for now the third version. As there are a lot of apps written on it, the Ionic team’s documentation has a concise migration guide on the Ionic version 4.
Stencil library. This is for building and downloading web components.
Cordova plugins repository. Apache Cordova provides a set of APIs to access native functionality.
Capacitor plugins repository. Capacitor is another platform for Ionic, that provides APIs to connect with devices hardware. Its plugins can be downloaded from npm.
Integrations page. This provides a list of tools, modules, and native plugins that can be integrated into your application.
Ionic offers wide capabilities for developing mobile applications and spreading them across various platforms. But every technology it has its advantages and limitations. We’ll start with the advantages.
The Pros of Ionic Development
Ionic offers a number of conveniences for mobile application development, covering over 3.2 percent of the whole mobile app market, according to AppBrain.
A single codebase across various platforms
That said, Ionic allows you to build mobile applications without hiring native developers. Anyone acquainted with web technologies and Angular can use it, leveraging web skills to create fully functional applications. Forming just one codebase for all of your platforms, guarantees:
- Reduced costs on development, hiring native devs, codebase maintenance
- Faster time-to-market on both platforms
- Ease of maintenance via built-in browser instruments and debugging tools
- Availability of transforming your Ionic application into a desktop app or PWA
The economic purpose of utilizing Ionic is clear if you focus on the quick launch of the app in both application stores. Developing across Android, iOS, and maybe even Windows devices is a lot cheaper within a single codebase, compared to native development.
Popular technologies and ease of learning
Ionic is considered an easy-to-learn tool: frontend developers can quickly grasp the basics or choose between various web frameworks that Ionic supports.
Of course, having expertise in native development would only be a plus, as Ionic doesn’t compile the whole app into a native language. Instead, it compiles UI elements, using Cordova or Capacitor (a native-bridge platform for Ionic) plugins for the rest of the functionality. It’s easy to build and maintain an application with just the web technology stack. But if you will have to fix the plugin or develop a custom one for some specific functionality, and here you will need a native Android or iOS developer.
Wide range of integration capabilities and plugins
If you feel that you are not gaining enough of your Ionic application, you can always integrate it with numerous tools. The official list of technologies to integrate with can be found on Ionic’s website, providing easy access to analytical instruments, payment systems, security, and testing tools. It also contains a number of plugins that help integrate with a device’s hardware. But keep in mind that some plugins are available as a part of the Enterprise version of Ionic, which requires payments to use Premier plugins and tools.
For more plugins, you can also check the Cordova plugins list, which can be sorted by the platform availability. Or you can also use Capacitor plugins, downloading them from npm. A full procedure of using Capacitor plugins is described in the guide.
An extensive choice of UI elements and quick prototyping
Older versions of Ionic have already proven to be efficient in mimicking the look and feel of native applications thanks to its UI components library. These components can be used as ready-made elements to construct your graphic user interface (GUI) or utilize those elements for customizations. Paired with web components, Ionic is capable of speeding up the process of developing UI logic and retaining native look without additional costs.
UI components of Ionic consist of two parts, which can be broken out in the actual graphic element of your GUI and its functionality. Accessing the code of the UI component, you can change the way an element works. You may add an animation to the button, modify the type of scrolling, reconstruct the order of items, and so on.
Another aspect that boosts the speed of Ionic development is prototyping capabilities. Using ready-made UI elements helps to create prototypes of your future applications in a comparably short-time period. For that purpose, you are free to use a prototyping tool called Ionic Creator. It’s maintained by the Ionic team, offering a drag & drop interface to construct interactive prototypes, but it can’t be used for constructing the whole app.
Ionic UI kit example
As long as Ionic apps work only via a webview, the device’s browser can be used for testing the app. It is much more convenient because you don’t even have to use a testing device to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The same concept is applicable to a variety of mobile devices in the modern world.
Browsers offer built-in testing and debugging tools that make the whole testing process convenient. To test Angular components used in older versions, Angular CLI can be used, while Ionic CLI is suitable for web components testing. So, a testing device or emulator might be needed to test some native functionality only.
What do we use the documentation for? Most often, when you have a question about the tool, you would research specific forums and communities to find the answer. In the case of Ionic, everything is grouped on their website. The documentation can only be described as exhaustive, covering each and every useful topic on what the components of Ionic are, how to use them, and how they interrelate. In the documentation, you also can find guides for various tasks on installing, configuring, launching, and fine-tuning various instruments used with Ionic.
As long as creators of Ionic take care of accessibility of their tool for the users, the community will be growing. With more than 5 million developers and constant activity on the forum, you will be able to find the answer to any question, if it wasn’t covered in the documentation.
But – and there’s always a but – like any technology, Ionic has its weaknesses.
The cons of Ionic to keep in mind
Performance is lacking with native applications
When it comes to performance of heavy applications, Ionic lacks suitability. Using WebView to render the application, it shows good results for the common functionality of a mobile application. In case of heavy applications like Snapchat that use augmented reality via smartphone cameras, or graphics-heavy apps (games, those rendering a lot of 3D models), it will make your app crawl.
The reason is quite simple. Ionic renders its graphic elements via a browser, which takes several steps to start showing the image on the screen. The more we put in between, the greater the loading time will be. Add here Cordova callbacks and CSS animations loading.
Browser rendering broken by steps
In most cases, with the usual functionality, your performance will be good enough. Many community authorities like Josh Morony claim poor performance in Ionic apps is the fault of bad code, not the framework itself. You might check his exhaustive blog post discussing Ionic framework’s limitations in performance and ways to avoid them.
But in general, if performance is your primary goal, you would more likely choose another way to build your app. Xamarin and React show better results, as apps are compiled into native. Using languages that are close to machine code guarantees high performance of your app. In the case of Ionic, it’s possible to build high-performance apps, but you will have to study performance optimization techniques much deeper than it might be needed in React. If you want to know more of the differences between hybrid mobile development tools, check our comparison of Xamarin, React Native, Ionic, and NativeScript.
The case of plugin absence is very specific, and most often you can find a suitable module. If you need something that is not in store, you’d probably have to create it with the help of a native developer.
Absence of hot reloading
There are a couple of techniques used to add changes to your code. In software engineering, hot reloading is considered a standard feature. Hot reloading allows you to apply changes without reloading the whole app. The file you are working on would refresh, allowing the app to continue working, implementing changes in a live mode.
Ionic takes time to get used to as it doesn’t provide hot reloading, using live reloading instead. Whenever you apply some changes, live reloading would refresh the whole app to make changes active. That means every time your developers want to apply changes, they would have their application restarted. This may sound okay, but when it comes to the speed of development, refreshing the app each time you update code may slow down the whole process. Developer-wise, it doesn’t provide much convenience when working on the app, so it is considered as a drawback.
Possible security issues
You should not consider that point as a con of Ionic on its own, rather a possible pitfall you can face while working with it. When building hybrid applications, security is a common issue, as long as your app can be reverse engineered. Since version 4, Ionic CLI does provide built-in code uglification — a common technique of making the code difficult to read by hackers. But you also need to know that if you are using Angular CLI or older versions of Ionic, there is no code uglification going on. Your developers will have to uglify the code on their own.
There are a lot of ways to compromise what’s happening with your mobile app or PWA, like a man-in-the-middle attack. Why does it matter? Well, because basically, your Ionic application is a website, running on the device. The important takeaway is that Ionic communicates with the backend using usual HTTP calls. So, you also want to use the security measures on your Ionic app that you use to protect your website, like using HTTPS connection instead of the HTTP.
- plugins (Cordova, Capacitor, Native Ionic plugins)
- default libraries
- dependencies (Angular, React, or Vue, depending on what framework you use)
- CSS variables
The issue is completely true for Ionic version 3 apps, but in version 4, it was partially solved. Ionic CLI provides code uglification, which is one of the code minification techniques. You may also reduce the size of the icons, and delete unused styles, fonts, and images to minify the size of your app.
Which cross-platform tool to choose?
It’s important to understand when you can different frameworks. Some of them are capable of solving the task without any difference in the final application. But the difference may be in effort, money, and time you spend developing it. So in which cases should you use Ionic?
Ionic over React Native/Xamarin/Native application
React Native over Ionic/Xamarin/Native application
Xamarin over Ionic/React Native/Native application
Xamarin is another popular cross-platform tool for developing mobile applications. It offers you performance much closer to native apps than Ionic and allows for code-sharing between the platforms, which is great. However, Xamarin is a product of Microsoft, so it requires expertise in the Microsoft technology stack, namely .NET framework, and C# language. Xamarin.Forms is an additional tool commonly used for prototyping and active code sharing.
Native application over Ionic/React Native/Xamarin
If you rely heavily on the performance of your app and its stability, perhaps nothing can be better than a native application. Native code will integrate with all hardware APIs and leverage most of the platform’s capabilities in case your dev team has experience with Java/Kotlin (Android) and Swift/Objective-C (iOS). In the long run, maintaining two codebases may also be easier than a single one in an Ionic app.
In terms of business, there are no bad or good tools. There are just tools tailored to solve specific tasks. In the case of Ionic, the task it solves is the development of applications across various platforms, utilizing well-known technologies. It helps teams to save budget, time, and effort in development.