Native Mobile App Development with HTML5

Building an app with PhoneGap for Android

A while ago I was having a play with CSS 3D transforms and I made a spinning triangle symbol as seen on the TV show Torchwood. Last night, someone tweeted me about it saying he wanted a version for his phone. I’d done some mobile web app development before (my HTML5 Game of Life) but had never made a native app. Learning native app development was not my top priority but I knew it was possible to make native apps using HTML and Javascript so thought I would try it.

Mobile Web Apps and Native Apps

Native apps are written to a device specific API and use a device specific runtime and packaging system. This means they must be rewritten for every platform which is required. They are not a part of the web. This means that their resources cannot be linked to, for example.

Mobile web apps use standard web technologies. They can run on many different platforms and interoperate with the rest of the web. They are created in much the same way as a normal web app but they can be designed to also work offline. The key technology to enable this is the HTML5 offline application cache. Further enhancements can be made to make mobile web apps look like native apps, for example providing an icon to use when installing the app in a home screen.

I believe that whenever possible mobile web apps should be used in preference to native apps. This is because:

  • They are mostly cross platform.
  • You don’t need to learn a totally different development ecosystem and, in the case of iOS, Objective-C.
  • They interoperate with the web. Does not need to silo data, can be linked to.
  • Morally better: they reduce wasted time redoing work for other platforms. This is time developers could be using to be creating something new to benefit the world.

Mobile web apps have some disadvantages though:

  • Users are less familiar with them: this may reduce installs and they may not understand they can be used offline.
  • Not all device features are available through the DOM, e.g. a phone camera.
  • Payment infrastructure: The Apple App Store, for example, makes it easy to sell apps.

Thankfully, there is a way to develop using web standards as far as possible and then bundle the functionality in a native app. This preserves some of the benefits of web apps, such as reduced development time for many platforms, allows the apps to be included in app stores, and permits access to device features.

There are many frameworks designed to do just this - here is wikipedia’s list: Mobile web based application frameworks.

Using PhoneGap

I decided to use PhoneGap for the Torchwood triangle project. This is something that could be done as a web app, in fact I did that too, but I wanted to learn about the technology.

If I had needed to use features not available to web apps, I could have done so with PhoneGap. It adds javascript objects to the DOM to provide additional features, for example, here is how to access a camera.

First, I had to install the Android SDK. I also installed the eclipse plugins as the documentation suggested this would probably be the quickest way to get started. I usually prefer to work with emacs and the command line but this dealt with generating the boilerplate. I then downloaded and copied the necessary parts of PhoneGap to the project. This was all straightforward, following the PhoneGap getting started guide.

I then copied my html, css and image to the project and ran it in the simulator. It was very slow to start, and failed with an error the first time but it did eventually work.

Packaging

I now had an Android application which worked in the simulator. I now had to work out how to package it and get it onto real devices. The android developers guide publishing section was helpful at this stage.

Some points to note:

  • Signing applications is mandatory but is typically done with a self signed key you create yourself.
  • Set versions correctly.
  • Remove unneeded permissions from AndroidManifest.xml.
  • Optimise performance by using zipalign.

Distribution

I now had a .apk file but I wasn’t sure how these could be distributed. I tested in the emulator and found that they can simply be downloaded with a web browser and the device offers to install the app. The usual way to do it is probably to upload to the Android Marketplace but unlike the Apple equivalent this is not required.

The only problem I had now was that I don’t actually have an Android device! I’ll try and get someone to test it out for me tomorrow but here is the possibly working app for you to try just now: Torchwood Triangle for Android.

Update: I’m afraid the Android app doesn’t show the triangle. See further comments on this post.


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