For more details on the history of Cordova and more details on how it works, please see here.
The open source space is filled with new projects that build on top of the ideas of older projects, making tangible improvements that can’t be done without radically changing the original product. The Ionic team didn’t want to try to force these radical changes into Cordova for technical and political reasons.
One benefit of the Capacitor project is that the Ionic team has more control over the stack. When you build an app with Ionic Framework and Capacitor, the Ionic team are the maintainers of the native runtime layer, the UI components, and the toolchain that created the components (Stencil). This is significant because the Ionic team can make fixes much quicker and offer a much more cohesive stack.
In spirit, Capacitor and Cordova are very similar. Both manage a Web View and provide a structured way of exposing native functionality to your web code. However, Capacitor has a few key differences that require web developers, previously used to Cordova’s approach, to change app development workflows.
Capacitor considers each platform project a source asset instead of a build time asset. That means you’ll check your Xcode and Android Studio projects into source control, as well as use those IDEs when necessary for platform-specific configuration and building/testing.
This change in approach has a few implications. First, Capacitor does not use
config.xml or a similar custom configuration for platform settings. Instead, configuration changes are made by editing the appropriate platform-specific configuration files directly, such as
AndroidManifest.xml for Android and
Info.plist for iOS. Capacitor does have some
high level configuration options. These generally don’t modify native functionality, but control Capacitor’s tooling.
Additionally, Capacitor does not offer a way to build native apps on the command line. Platform-specific tooling (or in the IDE) should be used instead, which provides a faster, more typical experience that follows the standards of app development for that platform.
While these differences may be concerning to long-time Cordova users, there are worthwhile benefits:
config.xmlis error prone and a constant moving target. Becoming more comfortable with platform-specific tooling makes troubleshooting issues that much easier.
Capacitor manages plugins in a different way than Cordova. First, Capacitor does not copy plugin source code to your app before building. Instead, all plugins are built as “frameworks” (on iOS) and “libraries” (on Android) and installed using the leading dependency management tool for each platform (CocoaPods and Gradle, respectively). Additionally, Capacitor does not modify native source code, so any necessary native project settings must be added manually (for example, permissions in
AndroidManifest.xml). We think this approach is less error-prone and makes it easier for developers to find help in the community for each specific platform.
deviceready event. As soon as your app code loads, you can start calling plugin methods.
Finally, Capacitor has implications for plugin authors. On iOS, Swift 5 is officially supported and even
preferred for building plugins (Objective-C is also supported). Plugins no longer export a
Plugin.xml file; Capacitor provides a few simple macros on iOS and annotations on Android for adding metadata to your plugin source code that Capacitor reads at runtime.
Capacitor, unlike Cordova, does not use a global CLI. Instead, the Capacitor CLI is installed locally into each project as an npm script. This makes it easier to manage versions of Capacitor across many different apps.
Thus, instead of running directly from the command line, Capacitor is invoked by calling
npx cap in the directory of your app.