12 Best Frameworks and Toolkits for Building Desktop Applications in 2023

Desktop applications remain unmatched for delivering sophisticated interfaces, high performance number crunching and complex workflow customizations. Although the bulk of app development momentum has shifted to mobile, desktop apps generate over $150 billion in annual revenues according to Statista. Gaming, data science and creative apps will continue demanding desktop-first development.

But building desktop apps without using a framework poses steep challenges even for experienced developers. You must account for diverse OS environments, UI libraries, dependencies and distribution platforms. This complexity is precisely what application frameworks address – they provide prebuilt components that handle much of the mundane plumbing work. Developers can use these robust toolkits to dramatically reduce coding effort and focus on building app-specific logic and UX.

Benefits of using an application framework include:

  • 60-90% less code to write by reusing framework components
  • Up to 5X faster development cycles improving productivity
  • At least 30% fewer bugs/crashes thanks to mature frameworks
  • High reliability and security being battle-tested platforms
  • Significantly easier maintenance with loose coupling

In this comprehensive guide, we dive deep on the top 12 application development frameworks for crafting cross-platform desktop apps in 2023.

What Are Desktop App Frameworks and Why Use Them?

A desktop framework is a collection of pre-coded software libraries and tools that handle common app tasks like windowing, events, 2D/3D rendering, notifications etc. Most frameworks have cross-platform support allowing the same codebase to run on Windows, macOS and Linux. Some even work across mobile operating systems.

Popularity of leading desktop frameworks over past 5 years:

Desktop framework adoption stats

Now let‘s look at 12 leading app development frameworks available today across capabilities, learning curves and use cases. We have categorized them into web languages, Multi-OS native, Windows native and macOS/Apple native buckets.

Web Languages

1. Electron

Electron is an open-source framework sponsored by GitHub for building cross-platform desktop apps using JavaScript, HTML and CSS web languages. As one of the most popular frameworks today, Electron powers thousands of apps including Microsoft Teams chat app, Visual Studio Code editor, Figma design tool and more running on Windows, macOS and Linux.

Some major features that make Electron a top choice:

  • Build GUI with web languages: UI components use standard HTML, CSS and JS popular among web developers. No specialized skills needed.
  • Leverage Node.js: Tap into rich Node.js ecosystem of modules for backend capabilities. Node.js 16 is now LTS.
  • Native OS integration: Access native features like filesystem, menus, notifications via simple APIs exposed by Electron.
  • Auto-updates, crash reporting: Enable handsfree app maintenance capabilities.
  • Huge ecosystem: Vibrant community with over 9000 plugins, abundant tutorials and integration guidance.

The use of web standards substantially lowers the learning curve for Electron compared to lower-level native toolkits. So you can build desktop apps even if starting from just web dev skills. Although simple UIs are easy to build, very advanced graphics capabilities would need integration with specialized libraries.

The Electron community has also focused on security vulnerabilities by adopting techniques like context isolation and preload scripts to create sandboxed environments mimicking browsers. New features like Hardware Isolation Layers further restrict sensitive OS access from apps.

Over 1 million developers use Electron today in industries ranging from productivity to gaming. Some example apps built on Electron apart from those above are Discord, Slack, Stream, Twitch, Skype, WordPress, GitHub Desktop, Hyper terminal and more.

2. Neutralinojs

Neutralinojs is a lightweight cross-platform application development framework for building desktop and web apps using HTML, CSS and JavaScript. What makes Neutralinojs unique is its small SDK footprint that allows creating self-contained apps that do not require users to install Node.js or browsers.

Here are its key advantages:

  • Minimalist library for building responsive UIs
  • JavaScript/web dev skills reuse without complex native bindings
  • Neutralino server runs the backend right inside app executable
  • Port apps easily across electron and web with Neutralino model
  • Open source under Apache 2.0 license

For developers wanting to reuse their web dev skills for simple, portable desktop apps that do not demand heavy OS integrations seen in Electron, Neutralinojs hits a nice cross-platform sweet spot.

Multi-OS Native Frameworks

3. Qt

Qt is a mature C++ framework for building native desktop, mobile and embedded apps. Originally created in the 1990s for Unix and embedded systems, Qt today supports all major operating systems with seamless integration thanks to Qt‘s custom platform plugins model.

Qt ties closely to the operating system and hardware using native compilers toolchains for unmatched performance across devices. For example, Apple promotes Qt for native macOS development leveraging Metal graphics framework.

Some major features making Qt a versatile app development platform:

  • C++ codebase: Ideal for high performance processing and advanced visualizations
  • Complete toolchain: GUI editor, IDE, cross-platform build tools and more out of the box
  • Extensive capabilities: Components for 3D graphics, multimedia, databases, networking protocols and more
  • High flexibility: Can combine and extend using C++ but also bind to other languages like Python
  • Strong industry adoption across devices: Used by BMW, Lucas Films, Panasonic, Dropbox and more

Qt does require strong C++ skills compared to web tech frameworks. But for building snappy, robust applications offering rich realtime customizations – especially demanding 3D, CAD, visualization, digital twin and graphics workloads – Qt leads the market with battle-tested robustness needed in industries like manufacturing, medical and transportation.

Qt usage across industries

Qt is also expanding tools for rapidly iterating application interfaces through Qt Design Studio which allows developers to mockup and test UI/UX without coding using a WYSIWYG editor. The tool then auto-generates C++ view and controller code.

Combined with its traditional strengths of high performance native compilation, deterministic behavior for realtime application responsiveness, small executable sizes and multi-language bindings, Qt delivers capabilities unrivaled tools like Electron lack while smoothing over complexities of fully native SDKs.

4. wxWidgets

wxWidgets is another veteran, open-source C++ toolkit suitable for a wide variety of desktop app needs. It adopts a native look across platforms while abstracting subtle differences between them to provide unified interface classes.

Key highlights of wxWidgets include:

  • Lightweight UI library with responsive controls
  • Wrappers for using other languages: Python, Perl, Ruby bindings
  • Standards compliant C++: Highly portable codebase
  • Over 200 plugins: Add advanced graphics, reporting, editors etc.
  • Minimal dependencies: Results in small and fast executable apps

These advantages have made wxWidgets one of the most popular cross-platform GUI toolkits powering apps like Audacity, TortoiseSVN, Transmission Bittorrent client etc.

wxWidgets fills a gap between Electron‘s web technologies and Qt‘s extensive but specialized toolkit for enabling native apps with advanced UI capabilities without forcing an entire platform layer. It strikes a nice balance between capability and specificity.

5. Java Swing/JavaFX

For Java shops, Swing and JavaFX are two mature, popular UI libraries for building cross-platform desktop apps across Windows, macOS and Linux.

Here are some common benefits:

  • Mature native UI components for fast render speeds
  • Bind natively to host OS look and feel
  • Rich 2D/3D graphics, media and web view capabilities
  • Lightweight additions to existing Java codebases
  • Clean separation of UI markup, styling and app logic

Swing offers simplicity for basic apps with input controls while JavaFX modernizes interfaces closer to fluid web experiences supporting CSS styling, rich animations and embedded browser content thanks to its WebView component.

Together they cover a wide spectrum of desktop application needs from forms-based business apps to multimedia experiences. Developer skills transfer between the two.

6. Flutter

Although Flutter is popular for building mobile apps with Google endorsement, Flutter desktop support is maturing as well. Flutter takes a unique approach by using its own high performance rendering engine rather than relying on native OS controls. The result is excellent visual fidelity and fast 60+ fps performance across operating systems combined with flexible UI customizations.

What makes Flutter compelling for desktop development:

  • Portable UI framework from mobiles to desktops to web
  • Skia-based graphics engine for blazing fast rendering speed
  • Modern declarative Dart language with reactive extensions
  • Abundant customizable widgets for building elaborate UIs
  • Desktop support for macOS, Windows and Linux distros

Flutter does require learning its Dart language with an opinionated UI framework rather than traditional OS-based approaches. But its incredible fast hot reload measured in milliseconds along with pixel-perfect control across desktop and mobile from a single codebase make Flutter an appealing emerging option.

Flutter creates desktop experiences using native app runtimes like NSWindow and HWND to properly embed into host OS while bypassing view rendering using Skia which is also hardware accelerated. This allows Flutter desktop apps to feel snappy and well integrated while retaining portable UI code.

Windows Native

7. WinForms

The decades-old Windows Forms framework as part of .NET enables building user interactive Windows 10 and 11 desktop apps using C# or Visual Basic languages.

Although the more modern Windows Presentation Foundation covered next offers richer customization, WinForms continues to be simple and fast for developing line-of-business data entry apps.

WinForms strengths today include:

  • Lightweight framework for Office-style interfaces
  • Rapidly build enterprise data management apps
  • Tight VS 2022 integration for .NET developers
  • Extensive UI controls and samples available
  • Huge legacy ecosystem with over 20 years maturity

For productivity focused apps involving forms, grids and data connectivity, or when migrating legacy interfaces to .NET platform, WinForms continues to be a relevant, easy to use Windows-exclusive native framework.

8. WPF

Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) is the more modern UI framework compared to WinForms offered by Microsoft under .NET 6 for building next-gen Windows 11 desktop apps with rich fluid interfaces supporting advanced graphics, data binding and custom controls.

WPF key advantages are:

  • Hardware accelerated vector graphics via DirectX
  • Resolution independence supporting ultra HDPI monitors
  • Declarative XAML markup language for UI
  • Robust data binding to separate UI from logic
  • Design tooling integrated into Visual Studio

For building modern Windows experiences with animations, styling and custom templates – akin to blending web apps with native platforms – WPF unlocks far richer customization than old Win32 apps along with tight VS integration. The learning curve is higher than WinForms but pays dividends in finer app control.

Over 15% of .NET devs use WPF for line-of-business desktop applications on Windows.

Apple Native

9. AppKit

Apple‘s rich set of native frameworks powering macOS includes mature AppKit for crafting performant desktop app UIs leveraging native controls and Cocoa for building robust non-visual capabilities like networking, concurrency management etc.

Used together, AppKit and Cocoa form reliable building blocks for macOS, iOS and related Apple platforms by tapping into same native runtimes used by Apple engineers for apps like Final Cut Pro.

AppKit/Cocoa Strengths:

  • Direct access to full macOS Big Sur capabilities
  • Tight Xcode tooling integration with GUI visual designer
  • Interface Builder for interactive UI design without code
  • Swift/Objective-C languages fully supported
  • Maximize hardware utilization of Apple SoCs

For deeply customized experiences fine-tuned for Mac hardware with pixel-perfect adherence to Apple Human Interface Guidelines, AppKit/Cocoa frameworks paired with Xcode unlock the full potential of Apple silicon unmatched by cross-platform options. But they do limit developers to Apple ecosystems only.

Framework Capability Comparison

Electron Qt WinForms Flutter
Languages JavaScript, HTML/CSS C++, Python C#, Visual Basic Dart
GUI Styling CSS Custom Themes Limited Flutter Widgets
Graphics Capability canvas 2D only Advanced 2D/3D Fixed Controls Custom Skia Rendering
Interface Builder Qt Designer Visual Studio Flutter Studio
App Distribution Generic installers All major stores Microsoft Store Generic installers
Mobile App Support React Native binding Full mobile support Xamarin extension Core focus area

So in summary:

  • Electron – best for reusing web dev skills. Apps tend to be resource intensive
  • Qt – unparalleled versatility spanning industries and devices
  • WinForms – simple .NET apps with data forms
  • Flutter – excellent unified UX across desktop and mobile

Choose frameworks closest matching your team‘s skills, application workflow needs and target OS platforms.


Desktop application frameworks solve key complexities around delivering fluid experiences across Windows, macOS and Linux by abstracting large swaths of OS capabilities under consistent, high level APIs. Modern web-leveraging options like Electron have also opened desktop app development to millions more developers. By providing prebuilt platform plumbing, they substantially accelerate development lifecycles.

Veteran toolkits like Qt cater to specialized workloads involving advanced mathematics, physics simulations and visualization needing bare metal performance. Domain experts can build best in class digital twins and scientific applications without OS distraction thanks to Qt while also tapping into contemporary languages like Python instead of just C++.

Newer platforms like Flutter now offer a unified approach to crafting desktop and mobile apps with portable code and excellent tooling support. Microsoft is also innovating by bringing web technologies like React Native to Windows native UI conventions.

Hopefully this guide offered a structured approach for evaluating over a dozen mature and emerging frameworks across technical capabilities, target user workflows and developer backgrounds to build your next desktop app far more efficiently leveraging proven platforms.

What has your experience been working with desktop app frameworks? Which standout capabilities or limitations have you found? Let me know in comments!