This article is a weighted assessment of Flutter as a framework for the future of mobile application development and for cross-platform application development. There are two points of view that are considered in this article: that of a company or an enterprise building software products and solutions, and that of an educator looking to equip students from various backgrounds and competencies with relevant skills. The reason this is stated upfront is to provide some insight into the factors that are given importance while making this assessment. With this out of the way, let’s dive right into it.
What is Flutter?
In Google’s own words, Flutter is Google’s UI (User Interface) toolkit for building beautiful, natively compiled mobile applications, web applications, desktop applications, and embedded devices from a single codebase.
It is essentially a software development kit that allows developers to create cross-platform applications (including Linux, Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and the web) from a single repository of code. In the past (and often even today this may be seen), software products would be created and maintained with up to 4 to 5 separate teams for Desktop, Mobile and Web versions of the same application. Now, this gets cumbersome rather quickly and often becomes very difficult to manage. Features and settings on different platforms can go out of sync and a user can end up with very different experiences based on which platform they use the app on. From the point of view of the creators, it requires different skills of different teams in turn increasing the time taken to reach the market and also increasing the challenges faced in regular maintenance.
In case of Flutter, coding has been done using the Dart programming language (you can download the Dart cheat sheet here: https://www.youngwonks.com/resources/dart-cheatsheet) and either Android Studio, Xcode or Visual Studio Code as the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) with relevant plugins. This makes it a better solution for businesses since they can now offer the same user experience across all devices. They can also hire fewer engineers and all will need the same skillset as opposed to dedicated teams for each platform. This means that using Flutter for cross-platform app development and maintenance provides significant benefits to businesses and startups from the point of view of recruitment, training and sharing wisdom across teams.
A Look at the Competitors
Since we are specifically looking at cross-platform options for an app development framework, we can rule out native Android with Java and iOS development with Swift or Objective C.
There are other popular options too: for instance, we rule out Xamarin due to the need for a completely new skill set in using C# and .NET. It also works only for mobile-specific applications and leaves out other platforms such as web and desktop.
Ionic looks promising at first but turns out to be a paid option with no clear price mentioned for enterprises. Native Script and PhoneGap don’t make for good choices either, since both lack support for some platforms and do not provide or even promise a complete solution.
The Journey So Far
Developers of enterprise and B2B software are constantly on the lookout for frameworks that would allow them to improve their applications and workflow by providing higher overall efficiency. As mentioned earlier, developers have traditionally had to maintain separate applications for web (sometimes browser-specific implementations), desktop (depending on the OS -macOS/ Linux/ Windows), native Android using Java and iOS using Swift. This has been challenging on multiple fronts, with different people with different skillsets working on different codebases. It is the search for a newer possibility for the next generation of our applications that leads us to evaluate every alternative.
And so we look at Flutter, especially given that anything designed by Google is at least worth trying out. It is immediately evident that it would take some time before we would be able to use it in the context of enterprise app development. In comparison, React Native is already two years into its release and also has another two years’ head start as a methodology through ReactJS for the web. But the rate at which things are changing, it is amply clear that Flutter is very likely to catch up soon; moreover, it will have derived from the experience of the other frameworks as well. Particularly, its support for desktop applications as well makes it something to reckon with.
Advantages of Flutter
Programmers have come to prefer Flutter for producing apps, since here all members involved would only need to have one skillset, thus bringing down development time and providing them ease of maintenance. And with less time spent in testing, there’s a greater focus on Integration testing.
Providing the same user experience across all platforms is also a key consideration. Native app performance of the apps and the mature Dart engine is a bonus to top it all off.
Further profiling tells us that Flutter shows high performance due to seamless integration with the operating system and the graphic rendering engine runs at a few times higher frequency than React Native.
The ease of creating custom widgets and complex UI development is another big advantage with the Flutter Software Development Kit (SDK). Being able to use a library of custom widgets also helps streamline the development process. Plus, the hot reload option is a major time saver.
Lastly, the built-in material design theme for Android app and Apple Cupertino style widgets for iOS apps facilitates ease of supporting native styles. It is also fairly easy to connect to any type of backend or application programming interface (API).
Challenges of Using Flutter
Some of the issues with Flutter are rather predictable: to begin with, creating a single codebase for so many distinct platforms means a huge amount of complexity. Indeed, we have had to make major changes to our apps a couple of times in order to keep up with a Flutter upgrade.
Certain security features of Flutter are still catching up with what is already standard in Full-Stack web applications. For instance, encrypted local storage space for web applications, which is very important for the storage of authentication keys.
Due to the rapid rate of progress of the Flutter framework itself, many libraries tend to get outdated rather quickly. One such example is managing versions when integrating with Firebase. One can get it to work but it can be a struggle each time one works on a new project. Flutter has also not been intuitive enough to implement the animations feature as yet.
And while the support for mobile app development is mature, the same can’t be said for web and desktop support as it is still limited in some ways. This means only certain types of applications can be produced.
The Road Ahead
The future of Flutter seems very promising and the rate at which the framework itself is maturing and the ecosystem is growing, it seems like we are on the right track. Building up the skillset and being ready to move to Flutter along with the next generation shift in the applications would provide a smooth transition to many developers looking for a less disruptive way of upgrading their applications.
It seems then that Flutter is here to stay and quite suitable for adoption even in enterprise and business scenarios. In some ways, it is specifically more beneficial in enterprise and business applications where the use case and functionality itself has been around for decades. The ability to provide a smoother user experience as the user switches between different devices – be it personal or business; laptops, phones or browsers – is of primary interest and open-source code, permissive licenses and stable development tools that take us in those directions are likely to find quick adoption and strong backing in the community.