The Open-Source Tool That’s Making Developers Swoon

Small dev teams are falling for the speed, scalability and agility offered by React Native, Facebook’s open-source programming framework.

Cody Swann admits that it wasn’t love at first sight.

Swann, founder and CEO of custom software shop Gunner Technology, came to React Native (RN) by chance. Pitching in resources to help with a colleague’s project, his team didn't even realize at first that they were using RN instead of their framework of choice, Swift, an Apple programming language.

“Initially, I absolutely hated it,” Swann says. “It threw all my existing knowledge out the window, which was a philosophical problem for me.”

But since Swann got a handle on the framework—and got his team onboard—he’s done a complete turnaround. “We took on some early projects at a discount to help us figure it all out, and we’ve never looked back,” he says.

From Hackathon to Lovefest

Swann’s isn’t the only smaller dev team smitten with React Native. Since the open-source programming framework’s 2015 debut on GitHub, it has exploded in popularity among mobile app developers, particularly those with limited resources. And RN isn’t the first mobile app development tool that Facebook has unleashed. In 2012, the social media giant released GraphQL, a query language for APIs.

GraphQL and RN both began as homegrown efforts to address a problem confronting Facebook. A few years ago, the social media giant discovered that its mobile apps were lagging behind its web-based efforts, and something needed to change. The company launched a hackathon to see if it could improve the mobile development process. The result? React Native.

Today, RN has found a home not just at Facebook (which uses it for its Facebook and Instagram apps) but also at other big names, including Walmart’s shopping app. But even more significantly, smaller developers like Swann have adopted RN en masse as a means of better competing with the industry’s titans.

Leveling the Mobile App Playing Field

What accounts for React Native’s widespread appeal? First, it speeds up the development process by letting engineers build native mobile apps using JavaScript and React (a UI library) that are “indistinguishable from an app built using Objective-C, Java, or Swift,” says Swann.

While development speed is a major plus, adherents also cite another key benefit: the ability to develop an app for both Android and iOS simultaneously.

Hyperbole gets tossed around a lot in software development, but [React Native] is as close to a silver bullet as I’ve seen.

— Cody Swann, CEO, Gunner Technology

“Our clients are working on minuscule budgets, but they want as big an impact as possible,” Swann says. “With React Native, you don't need separate iOS and Android teams. You don’t need separate front-end and backend teams since everything is JavaScript. And you get the benefits of initial low cost and near-infinite scalability with no extra effort.”

Swann credits React Native with improving his company’s development speed by 40 to 50 percent, while reducing costs by 20 percent or more. “It’s actually quicker for us to build a React app for both iOS and Android than it was for us to build a Swift app for iOS only.”

Swifter Than Swift?

Like Swann, Rob Ungar didn't fully embrace React Native off the bat. Ungar, a partner at web developer and marketer Copa Digital Group, first learned RN at a coding boot camp, but afterwards, he continued to rely primarily on Swift. Over time, however, he gravitated toward React Native as a more natural development solution.

“Since it’s built around JavaScript, the syntax is arguably more intuitive than Swift,” Ungar says. He also praises RN’s low overhead, noting that it runs well even on his old, 12-inch MacBook.

Ungar relishes RN’s immediacy, saying, “Live reloading is built into React Native. You make a change, hit save, and the simulator refreshes immediately. You don’t have to save and recompile your app every time you make a change, which makes testing much easier. It's also an easy sell to clients, since it lets us get to market a lot faster.”

Although React Native might require a bit of a learning curve—and there are limitations and drawback—it’s hard to ignore the loyalty it has won from mobile developers.

“Hyperbole gets tossed around a lot in software development," Swann says, “but this is as close to a silver bullet as I've seen.”

Chris Null
By Chris Null | May 3, 2018

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