React Native's Second Act: A Major Revamp to Stay Relevant

Amid high-profile defections, Facebook is learning that even the world's second-most popular app development platform has room for improvement.

Only a few months ago, the Facebook-developed React Native platform—a one-size-fits-all, open-source framework for building mobile apps—was heralded as the future of mobile development as we knew it.

Everything looked like sunshine and roses, until a major proponent of the platform—Airbnb—announced that it was sunsetting its use of React Native and stepping back to native app development. The reason? Airbnb cited “a number of technical and organizational challenges." Around the same time, Udacity also dropped React Native, blaming high maintenance costs and its Android team's reluctance to keep using it.

Following the news, developers rushed to declare that React Native was dead—or asked if it was, at the very least, the beginning of the end.

Not so fast, says Dion Hinchcliffe, VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research. The defection of a couple of users is simply “not going to impact the millions of people using React Native," he says. “Obviously, React has a lot of street credibility with web developers. It's tough to see how this will impact the popularity of the tool."

Sometimes One Size Doesn't Fit All

Hinchcliffe points to the latest statistics as proof that React Native isn't in its death throes: Currently, React is the No. 2 web framework in the world, with a 38 percent share of the market. Only jQuery, with 70 percent, has more.

Of course, that doesn't mean that React Native is a panacea for every development challenge. In the case of Airbnb and Udacity, React Native simply might not have been a perfect fit.

“Especially in the case of Udacity," says Cody Swann, CEO of custom software shop Gunner Technology and a React Native enthusiast, “you had Java developers who just flat out refused to learn JavaScript."

React Gets a Modern Makeover

When asked for comment, Sophie Alpert, engineering manager for React at Facebook, pointed to her extensive online post, “State of React Native 2018." In it, she acknowledges that Facebook is “working on a large-scale re-architecture of React Native to make the framework more flexible and integrate better with native infrastructure in hybrid JavaScript/native apps."

According to the post, Facebook's goal is to make React Native more lightweight through three major technical changes:

  • Updates to the threading model
  • Async rendering capabilities
  • Native-JavaScript bridging methodology

“I see this as a really good thing," says Hinchcliffe, noting that Facebook's continued investment in React Native means that it's dedicated to keeping the framework active and aligned with modern development methodologies and strategies. “It's going to impact people a lot in the short term if Facebook makes big changes, but in the long term, they're making the right decision."

As the re-architecture process progresses, Alpert says that additional details will be revealed later this year. And Hinchcliffe says that a more lightweight code base with improved performance is worth the wait: “It will ensure that React stays relevant and modern and will move in the direction of the market."

Christopher Null
By Christopher Null | September 12, 2018

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