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Ionic vs. Xamarin

Ionic and Xamarin are two of the most popular options for mobile app development. The key contrast between them lies in the ecosystems that they embrace. See which one is right for you.

Matt Netkow

Head of Developer Relations

Ionic and Xamarin are two of the most popular options for mobile app development. Both endeavor to make app development faster, easier, and more accessible to a wider audience of developers. The key contrast between them lies in the ecosystems that they embrace.

Ionic is a platform that uses widely-known, standards-based web technologies and languages to create award-winning mobile experiences, and is built on the broader web and JavaScript ecosystem. Xamarin is a Microsoft product and embraces the Microsoft ecosystem.

The choice between Ionic and Xamarin depends a lot on which approach and community you, as a developer, architect, or IT leader, are willing to bet on. Even if you’re an existing C# or .NET developer, your options are vast. In fact, there’s never been a better time to switch to the web ecosystem.

Five reasons to choose Ionic over Xamarin

From our perspective, the web ecosystem (which Ionic embraces) offers greater opportunity for developers, both personally and professionally, and many clear-cut advantages when it comes to mobile development using Ionic. This article will explore those advantages.

Note: If you’re not yet familiar with Ionic or Xamarin, skip to our Appendix for some of the basic introductory information.

1. Ionic projects are easier to staff

When it comes to staffing your next mobile project, it will simply be more challenging to find quality C# and .NET developers. According to Stack Overflow’s recent Developer Survey, there are more than double the amount of JavaScript developers available (69.7% compared to 31.9% for C#). The same goes for backend technologies - compare Node.js (49.9%) to .NET (37.4%). A larger candidate pool means you’re more likely to find the right developers to bring your projects to life successfully.

Why are web developers so prevalent?

First, web languages are relatively easy to learn. Second, the web browser is the primary program used on desktops, mobile and smart devices today, so demand for this skillset is tremendous. And third, there are so many education options for anyone who wants to learn it, from free online bootcamps to major universities. In addition, the global community of web developers is always hungry to learn, share and grow - as evidenced by the plethora of conferences and meetups hosted every day.

TL;DR: With a platform like Ionic that empowers your web developers to build award-winning mobile apps with their web skills, finding talent to staff your mobile projects couldn’t be easier.

2. The web offers a broader, more diverse collection of tools, libraries, and frameworks

Simply put, there’s a solution for just about everything. You don’t have to go far to find the right tool for the job, and there are new JS libraries coming out all the time.

The massive size of the web community brings a creative force unmatched in other developer communities. There’s a joke that “a new web framework is created every day,” which is probably not far from the truth. However, don’t let this concern you: most developers have settled on one of the  top three JavaScript frameworks: React, Angular, or Vue.

React, developed by Facebook, is the most popular and can be described as a JavaScript library focused on making it easy to build UI experiences. Its declarative, component-based approach makes the code more predictable and easier to debug.

Vue, aptly named, is focused on the view layer only. By doing so, developers can incrementally adopt the pieces they need to build apps, leading to small codebases and thus, great performance.

Angular, created by Google, is a “batteries included” framework. It provides everything enterprise developers expect from a mature app development framework, including cross-platform deployment options, integrated tooling, unit and integration testing, and accessibility support. The Ionic team recommends Angular for Xamarin devs since it offers a familiar separation of concerns due to its “MVC” architecture (a la ASP.NET MVC).

Regardless of the web framework you choose, you’ll find plenty of tools to check out and a great deal of community support.

Microsoft has only recently embraced open source, meaning that there are far less Xamarin libraries/plugins available to leverage in your projects. Contrast this with the thousands of Cordova and Capacitor plugins available - you can implement any native feature imaginable. Additionally, if you have native iOS and Android developers on your team, Ionic’s Capacitor native runtime tool makes it easy for web and native developers to collaborate. Web developers can work on the main portions of the app, while native developers work on specific mobile platform-based enhancements.

3. Ionic can address mobile, desktop, and web from a single codebase

While Xamarin is great for mobile, and .NET is great for web, you still have to build and manage separate codebases if you want to target mobile and web with the same app. Especially if you want to build a traditional native mobile app that also will exist as a PWA, or Progressive Web App.

Ionic apps, based on web technologies, run directly on any desktop or mobile browser—all from the same codebase across mobile, desktop and web. Ionic apps run natively on mobile iOS and Android using our open source Capacitor native runtime or the open source Cordova native runtime environment, and on Mac and Windows desktop environments as PWAs. They also offer excellent web performance, features and navigation for mobile-optimized PWAs

You can use Xamarin to build native Android and iOS apps for mobile devices, and to build native Windows and Mac apps for desktops. However, Xamarin does not offer any web-based deployment options. Xamarin customers can write web apps using ASP.NET (Microsoft’s web application development framework) but you can’t share much code across Xamarin and ASP.NET applications, so you have to manage and maintain those projects separately.

The core issue here is inefficiency. If you build with Xamarin, you’re effectively building for mobile only, and with separate codebases. In order to standardize your entire company onto Xamarin, you’d have to get them to buy into the entire .NET ecosystem. Chances are that you already have a web team. Web development’s strength is that core concepts always carry over from framework to framework, so productivity ramp-up time is greatly reduced.

4. Ionic allows you to port your web component styles to your mobile UI (and customize everything)

Consider this common scenario: your business or client has an existing design system in place, with very specific and highly customized style guidelines that define what and how a UI component should look and act like in order to be on-brand.

In the ordinary world of web development, applying custom styling is relatively easy. Just port your existing components over to your new project, or apply the specific CSS edits that you need to make your app look and feel the way you want it to.

But in the mobile world, this becomes a lot harder. For example, Xamarin Native uses only the native components available on iOS and Android. You won’t be able to just copy over your existing component library, and the styling and theming options are extremely limited.

This is where Ionic’s approach is most valuable. Ionic UI components are just Web Components. By default, they are designed to look and feel native to iOS and Android; but under the hood, they’re just Web Components. If you already have a React or Web Component library, you can easily port those over to your mobile project. Or, you can edit any aspects of the UI using CSS, just as you would for any web project. This level of design customizability is unparalleled in the world of mobile app development.

5. You don’t have to give up .NET!

One of the best things about moving from Microsoft to the web ecosystem is that you don’t have to throw out your existing .NET skillset. In fact, we highly recommend pairing Ionic and .NET together.

How does it work? Just use Ionic for the front-end portion of your applications: build a progressive web app first, and add mobile apps as needed. Then, leverage your existing backend infrastructure built on .NET (C# APIs, Microsoft SQL databases, etc.) along with Azure for all of your cloud computing needs.

Tips for .NET devs who want to move to web

If you’re a .NET developer (and especially if you’ve worked with ASP.NET), chances are you’ve been exposed to web development before. But when was the last time you tried it? If your first experience was with an older framework like jQuery or simply plain JavaScript, you’ll be surprised at how much easier it’s become. Older JS frameworks lacked type safety, generated brittle code, and offered a poor developer experience. Fortunately, modern web development is a breath of fresh air.

The good news is that you’ll find plenty of resources to help you make the switch. And you’ll soon find that your existing .NET skills will translate easily into JavaScript (the logic portion, aka most akin to .NET development). In fact, if you’re new, consider jumping right into Angular, a “batteries-included” framework from Google. While Ionic can work without a JavaScript framework, we recommend Angular if you’re new to the space.

Conclusion

If you’re already vested in the Microsoft ecosystem and you’re looking for alternatives to Xamarin for mobile development, it’s clear why Ionic and the broader web ecosystem are a great choice. And given the vast resources and supportive community surrounding Ionic and web development in general, there’s never been a better time to make the switch.

Still not sure which platform is the best fit for your team? Schedule a Strategy Session to speak directly with one of our Solutions Architects.

APPENDIX

A Brief Overview of Xamarin

Xamarin extends the .NET developer platform with tools and libraries for building mobile and desktop applications. Xamarin provides two distinct application development frameworks:

  • Xamarin.Forms – an open-source mobile UI framework for building iOS, Android and Windows apps from a single shared codebase.
  • Xamarin Native – a collection of discrete UI frameworks that fully expose native SDKs for iOS, Android and MacOS.

Xamarin.Forms provides write-once, run anywhere simplicity. Xamarin Native requires platform-specific knowledge and some platform-specific code development, but provides more granular control and a greater degree of customization.

Xamarin is a Microsoft company.  Xamarin customers are confined to the Microsoft ecosystem and are dependent upon Microsoft products and services like .NET and Azure for certain capabilities.

A Brief Overview of Ionic

Ionic provides a common framework for developing apps that run on mobile devices and desktops, as well as on the web (either in a traditional desktop browser or in a mobile browser as a Progressive Web App).  Ionic offers true write-once, run anywhere portability, while ensuring apps maintain a native look and feel.

Ionic is an independent company.  Our solutions are vendor-agnostic and powered by the Open Web community. The Ionic platform is based on open standards and supports all JavaScript frameworks and flavors, including Angular, React, Vue and even vanilla JavaScript.  Ionic customers can avoid lock-in, enjoy greater choice, and take advantage of a vast developer ecosystem; over 30 million developers use Angular, React and Vue. A massive, open ecosystem means more collaboration and more innovation.  It also means you’ll have an easier time recruiting talent, finding training resources, getting support, etc.

Developer Skills

Xamarin requires Windows developers who understand .NET and C#.  These specialized developers are relatively harder to find and more expensive to hire and retain. Ionic customers can take advantage of general web developers—including in-house talent—who are easier to find and less expensive to employ. Anyone familiar with HTML, CSS and JavaScript can use Ionic.

Of course, if you’re a .NET developer interested in learning web development, you’ll find plenty of resources to help you make the switch. In fact, I am actually a former .NET developer who moved to the web world and eventually fell in love with mobile app development with Ionic.

Deployment Options

You can use Xamarin to build native Android and iOS apps for mobile devices, and to build native Windows and Mac apps for desktops. Xamarin does not offer any web-based deployment options. Xamarin customers can write web apps using ASP.NET (Microsoft’s web application development framework) but you can’t share much code across Xamarin and ASP.NET applications, and you have to manage and maintain projects separately.

Ionic apps run natively on mobile iOS and Android using our open-source Capacitor native runtime or the open-source Cordova native runtime environment, and on Mac and Windows desktop environments using Electron. In addition, because Ionic apps are based on web technologies, they will run directly in any desktop or mobile browser—all from the same codebase across mobile, desktop and web. They also offer excellent web performance, features and navigation for mobile-optimized Progressive Web Apps.

UI Elements

Xamarin and Ionic apps both have a native look and feel to them.  Unlike Xamarin Native, Ionic features a built-in Adaptive Styling capability that lets developers deliver a native experience without writing any platform-specific code. Every Ionic component adapts its look to the platform on which the app is running. For example, Apple devices, such as the iPhone and iPad, use Apple's iOS design guidelines, while Android devices use Google's Material Design language.

Backend Integration

You can integrate Xamarin or Ionic with any standards-based backend service. Xamarin encourages customers to use validated Azure backend services (user authentication, storage, push notifications, etc.) to streamline app development and integration testing.

Performance

Xamarin.Forms and Ionic offer comparable performance. Both platforms introduce an abstraction layer that injects some latency. In most cases, the delays are imperceptible to the user. The effects might be more pronounced with graphic-intensive applications like AR or gaming apps.

Xamarin Native boasts slightly better performance because it accesses native APIs directly.  (Of course the performance benefits come with a cost; Xamarin Native requires platform-specific knowledge and a fair amount of platform-specific development work.) Also, keep in mind that performance often has more to do with how your code is written, as opposed to the tool you’re using.

All that said, the majority of developers using Xamarin or Ionic are building line-of-business apps. While a baseline level of performance is certainly important, what really matters for these types of apps is delivery speed and execution. Since business needs evolve constantly, your developers need a technology platform that enables them to ship updates faster than ever across a variety of platforms. Fortunately, coupled with today’s powerful mobile device hardware, Ionic apps are highly performant.

Comparison Chart

The table below compares the features and attributes of the Xamarin and Ionic solutions in more detail.

Xamarin.Forms Xamarin for iOS, Android, MacOS Ionic
Ecosystem Microsoft Microsoft Open Web
Developer skills Windows Windows Web
Languages C# C# HTML, CSS, JavaScript
Frameworks .NET .NET Angular, React, Vue or Vanilla JavaScript
Deployment options Android, iOS, Windows Android, iOS, Mac Android, iOS, Windows, Mac (via Electron), web and PWAs
Code sharing 100% 60-75% 100%
Mobile knowledge required Minimal Extensive Minimal
UI elements Native controls Native controls Web components
Backend integration Any backend technology Any backend technology Any backend technology
Native API access Yes, via plugins Yes, via native SDK Yes, via plugins
Offline access Yes Yes Yes
Mobile performance Moderate Excellent Moderate
Web performance N/A N/A Excellent

You’re in good company. Ionic powers millions of apps at some of the smartest companies in the world.

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