When creating an app, you need to pick the best programming language for your project.
Although they can be used for similar functions, not all programming languages are good fits for your project. For instance, if you want to create an iOS native mobile app, you need to write your app in a programming language that's natively supported by iOS, such as Swift and Objective-C. On the other hand, if you want to create an Android app, you need to write your app in Android-supported programming languages, such as Java, Kotlin, C#, C++, and Python.
If you choose a programming language that doesn't fit your project, your devs will probably have to spend more time developing workarounds and debugging the code, leading to increased overhead and slower time-to-market.
Read this comprehensive guide to learn more about app programming languages. We'll cover what app programming languages are, types of programming languages, the best programming language for mobile apps, and more.
What Is an App Programming Language?
An app programming language is used to create apps for computers and mobile devices.
Unlike humans, computers think in binary — strings of 1s and 0s. Because we can't understand binary code, we need to use an app programming language to translate binary code into human language. An app programming language consists of a series of symbols and words that allow us to translate our ideas into instructions that computers can understand and execute.
Types of Programming Languages
There are many types of programming languages, including:
Object-oriented programming (OOP) languages are organized around "objects" or data rather than logic and functions. An object is a data field that has unique behavior and attributes.
When using OOP languages, developers focus on the objects they want to manipulate rather than the logic used to manipulate them. This approach is best for apps that are complex, large, and actively maintained or updated, such as:
- Mobile applications
- Manufacturing and design apps
- Manufacturing system simulation apps
Many common programming languages, such as Java, C++, and Python, are multi-paradigm, which means they support OOP to some degree. Significant OOP languages include:
- Visual Basic.NET
There are four main principles that make a language OOP:
- Abstraction: In OOP languages, classes don't have to know the inner details of other classes to use them. They just need to know the interfaces.
- Encapsulation: This refers to the mechanism of hiding data by limiting access to public methods. OOP languages keep instance variables private and accessor methods public to accomplish this.
- Polymorphism: Polymorphism describes a pattern where classes have different functions while sharing the same interface. Since they're using the same interface, the code doesn't need to know what class it's using since all of them are used in the same way.
- Inheritance: Inheritance expresses a "has-a" or "is-a" relationship between two objects. OOP languages use inheritance in derived classes to reuse super classes' existing code. A good example of inheritance is Java's concept of "is-a," which is based on interface implementation (using implements) or class inheritance (using extends).
- Modular classes are typically reusable: Once devs create modular classes, they can usually reuse them in other projects or apps. Sometimes, they don't even have to edit the modules before reusing them.
- Allows parallel development: If you have multiple programming teams, each team can work independently once they've figured out the modular classes.
- Easier to maintain: OOP has a centralized coding base that makes it easy to create maintainable procedure code. This means devs will have an easier time keeping data accessible in case of an upgrade.
- Too scalable: If your devs let OOP languages run on their own, they can create a lot of unnecessary code, leading to rising costs.
- Inefficient: OOP languages typically use more CPU than other languages. As such, they may not be the best choice if you have technical limitations.
- Can cause duplication: OOP languages can create a lot of duplicate code due to polymorphism. This can decrease the maintainability of your code and make your codebase extremely difficult to manage.
Functional app programming languages are specifically created to handle list processing and symbolic computation applications. Based on mathematical functions rather than objects, functional programming languages come in two flavors:
- Pure functional languages, which only support functional paradigms — for instance, Haskell.
- Impure functional languages, which support imperative style programming and functional paradigms. A good example is the LISP language family.
Functional programming languages are used for apps that perform numerous operations using the same dataset. For example, the LISP language family is used to create artificial intelligence (AI) apps that involve machine learning, modeling vision and speech, and language processing.
Common functional programming languages include:
- LISP languages like Arc, BBN LISP, and Dylan
Like OOP languages, functional languages support principles like polymorphism, abstraction, inheritance, and encapsulation.
- Bug-free code: Functional languages don't support state, which means they can't store properties and variables in your code. Since functional languages are stateless, they don't read global variables. Instead, each function or method only knows what has been passed to them.
As such, developers find it much easier to test and produce bug-free functional code. In contrast, languages that support state are less testable and have more side effects, since developers have to handle a lot of outside factors.
- Efficiency: Functional programming consists of independent parts that can run simultaneously. As such, the programming process is much more efficient.
- Efficient parallel programming: Functional languages don't have mutable states, which means there are no state-change issues. As such, developers can program "functions" to work in parallel to "instructions," boosting testability and reusability.
- Supports nested functions: These languages also support nested functions, which are functions defined within other functions. Nested functions are typically used as recursive or helper functions inside another function to:
- Organize the code
- Allow functions to share state easily
- Avoid scope pollution. Scope pollution is when developers create too many global variables or reuse variables from varying scopes. It makes it difficult for devs to keep track of variables and increases the likelihood of bugs and accidents.
- Requires large memory space: Since functional languages don't have state, developers need to create new objects every time they want to perform actions.
- Difficult to use and learn: Functional languages can be intimidating since they use advanced math terminology. They also require developers to combine pure functions into complete applications, which can be extremely difficult.
- Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) and functional languages aren't a good fit: Finally, functional languages aren't the best pick for app development. Most GUI frameworks like JavaFX and Swing are OOP.
Procedural programming languages feature a top-down approach and rely on subroutines and procedures to perform actions. Also known as imperative programming, procedural programming consists of data and procedures that operate based on the data. The code treats the two as separate entities.
Some of the earliest programming languages, like ALGOL and BASIC, were procedural programming languages. Other procedural programming languages include:
Principles of Procedural Languages
Unlike OOP and functional languages, procedural languages don't support:
- Polymorphism: Procedural languages don't have polymorphism because each function only exists once. As such, devs can't swap one implementation with another.
- Encapsulation: Procedural programming sees methods and data as two separate entities, so there's no encapsulation. OOP, on the other hand, has encapsulation because it ties methods and data together.
- Inheritance: Lastly, procedural languages don't have inheritance. There's no way to merge code from one function with additional code to create another function. These languages allow devs to call other functions, but they can't modify or share their contents.
- Great for general-purpose programming: Procedural languages are user-friendly and easy to learn, making them a great choice for new devs.
- Easy to track: Unlike OOP, which requires developers to keep track of multiple objects and classes, procedural languages are incredibly linear. As such, it's easy to keep track of what's happening.
- Not reusable: Developers can't reuse procedural programming code. They need to replicate the code implementation across different files and programs.
- Not secure: In procedural programming, data is exposed to the whole program. This means threat actors and hackers can easily look at the structure of the code. In contrast, OOP languages like Java, Obj-C, and C++ deny access to private object properties.
Scripting languages are languages that run tasks in special run-time environments through interpreters rather than compilers. Examples of these environments include web pages, software applications, and embedded systems within games and system shells. Scripting languages are also typically fast, short, and directly interpreted from source code.
There are two types of server-scripting languages:
- Server-side: These scripting languages run off a web server. Because they work on the back-end, they're not visible to the visitors. As such, they're more secure than client-side scripts.
Server-side scripting languages are typically used to create dynamic platforms and websites, generate data, and address user queries. Well-known examples include Python, PHP, Perl, Node.js, and Ruby.
- Client-side: In contrast, client-side scripting languages operate on the front-end — specifically, on the user's browser. Since they're visible to visitors, they're more likely to be attacked by threat actors. As such, they're best used for lighter functionalities such as building user interfaces.
Note that not every scripting language is a programming language. Some, like CSS and HTML, are markup languages designed to make programming simpler and faster.
- Simple to use: Scripting languages can be run without downloading special software because they don't require compilers.
- Free and open-source: Scripting languages are also free and open-source, which means anyone can use them without restrictions — they just have to learn them.
- Lighter memory: Because these languages use interpreters instead of compilers, they use much less memory.
- Slow: Most scripting languages are slower because they use interpreters instead of compilers.
- Challenging organization: Since these languages are easy to use and implement, devs may easily reach a point where your website or application is filled with them. As a result, devs will have to pay extra attention to keep track of which scripts they're using.
- Frequent updates: For scripting programming languages to continue to function properly, they need to be regularly updated. Updates are necessary whenever your site or browsers receive significant updates.
Programming Languages for Mobile App Development
Now that we've covered the main types of programming languages, let's take a look at the top programming languages for mobile app development.
Although you can technically use any programming language to create iOS apps, that's probably not a good idea. Using a non-iOS-native language to create iOS apps is like using a pair of scissors instead of a drill to drive screws — tedious, exhausting, and simply not worth your effort.
That's why you need to code iOS apps with the two languages Apple has supported from inception:
An OOP language for iOS and macOS apps, Objective-C was first licensed by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in the 1980s.
As its name suggests, Objective-C is based on the language C. Since its underlying syntax and structure is similar to C, many programmers who already know C will find it easy to learn Objective-C.
Although Objective-C is still used to create iOS apps, it's been overtaken in recent years by Apple's newest native language, Swift. Marketed as "Objective-C without the C," Swift is more user-friendly and easier to learn than its predecessor. It's also open-source, while Objective-C has never been open-source.
Unlike its predecessor, Swift is expressive, clean, and has simple grammar and syntax. As such, it's easy to read and write, making it the preferred programming language for iPhone apps.
Swift is also incredibly concise, which means developers don't have to write as much code to perform the same task. Additionally, Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) tracks and manages the app's memory usage, giving more time for developers to focus on other tasks.
Case in point: when Lyft re-wrote its iOS app in Swift, it managed to whittle down its codebase from around 75,000 lines to less than a third of that. The new app also had a new onboarding process that was completed within a week with only one developer. In contrast, the old app took over a month and required multiple developers to deploy.
Unlike iOS apps, Android apps can be created using a broad range of languages. These include:
Before 2019, Java was Android's official language. As such, many well-known Android apps — such as Twitter and Spotify — are built with Java. Java also has ample documentation and a large online community to fall back on.
However, Java is also extremely challenging for beginners to use. Unlike simpler languages, it has complex topics like null pointer exceptions, constructors, checked exceptions, and concurrency.
Android's official language since 2019, Kotlin is a cross-platform programming language that can be used as an alternative to Java.
Capable of interoperating with Java and running on the Java Virtual Machine, Kotlin, in many ways, is a lighter, more concise version of Java. It's especially cleaner and less verbose when it comes to writing data classes, callbacks, and getters.
C++ can also be used for Android app development. However, an app can't be entirely created through C++ — devs must use the Android Native Development Kit (NDK) to write parts of the application in C++ native code.
What's more, using C++ may lead to more bugs because it's much more difficult to set up, more complex, and far less flexible. As such, devs should use Kotlin and Java to create Android apps.
Python is another popular choice for creating Android apps. Although Android doesn't support native Python development, devs can use tools to convert Python apps into Android apps.
Coding Languages for Desktop Application Development
Some programming languages are better suited for creating desktop application development. These include:
Like Android apps, Windows desktop apps can be created using a variety of languages, including:
C# gives developers many frameworks to create apps from, including the Uno Platform, .NET WPF, WinForms, Xamarian, Avalonia, and Blazor. These frameworks support myriads of development features, including application model, data binding, controls, layout, security, and resources.
C++ is a procedural, general-purpose language that was created as an extension of the C language. Developers can use this language to create desktop applications as well as games, systems, and browsers. To debug and edit C++, developers can use Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) like Qt Creator, XCode, Eclipse, and Netbeans.
Many well-established desktop applications like Google Chrome, MS Office, and Adobe Creative Suite are coded in C++.
Like iOS, macOS only has two native languages: Objective-C and Swift.
As previously discussed, Objective-C is on its way out, so if you want to create macOS desktop applications, use Swift. It's much faster, easier to code, and comes with an Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) mechanism that tracks the application's memory usage.
Programming Languages for Web App Development
In the same vein, some languages are a better choice for web app development. These are:
Java is one of the most popular languages for app development. According to Statista, Java was the fifth most popular language among developers worldwide in 2021, with 35.4% of developers using Java.
Highly scalable and intuitive, Java comes with excellent frameworks for web app development, including Play, JSF, Spring, and Hibernate.
Java also comes packed with robust security features, making it a great fit for financial and banking web apps.
PHP is another preferred language for web application development. A dynamic, server-side scripting language, PHP is a smart pick for creating fully-functional web apps.
Many developers use PHP to create web apps because it has many tools and modules to create dynamic and static websites. PHP also has automation tools and several framework libraries to make development easier and faster.
Another popular web app development language is Python. One of the simplest programming languages to learn, Python can save developers considerable effort and time, making it ideal for projects with short deadlines.
Like Java and PHP, Python boasts numerous free frameworks, libraries, and tools. This includes Django, a high-level Python web framework that encourages pragmatic design and rapid development.
What Programming Language Is the Best and Most Commonly Used To Build Apps in 2022?
We now know the best coding languages for mobile, desktop, and web app development. But what is the best and most commonly used programming language to build apps in 2022?
The answer is, "It depends." Here are several critical factors you should consider when determining the best programming language for your project:
- Application type: Is your app a mobile, web, or desktop application? The type of application you're creating will heavily influence what languages you should choose from. General languages like Python, Java, and C# can create different types of applications depending on the platform.
In some cases, certain languages work better. For instance, if you create a native iOS app, you need developers who are well-versed in Swift or Objective-C. However, if you want to create a native Android app, you should hire developers with proven ability and knowledge of Java. In the same vein, if you want to create an AI Android app, you should hire developers who know functional languages like Haskell.
- Application complexity: The complexity and size of your app will also influence which programming language you should choose. Smaller projects such as marketing sites or browser apps to collect data can be done with scripting languages like PHP. Medium and large-sized projects like Internet-of-Things (IoT) solutions, finance apps, and eCommerce apps may require knowledge of OOP languages like Java, C#, Perl, and Python.
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