Modern web technology provides a powerful foundation for cross-platform application development. By using responsive design techniques a browser based application can already cover desktop and mobile platforms. Using the right set of tools, such an application can be developed further into a real mobile app and/or an embedded touch interface.
The building blocks of a modern “cross-platform web application” are the web runtime environment, the single-page application and the back-end system. Let’s have a look at the definition of these three terms and their relation to each other.
Web runtime environment
A single-page application (SPA) is a web application that is contained in a single web page. The web page is loaded and the single-page application is executed by a web runtime. The objective of this approach is to achieve a user experience similar to a desktop application or native mobile app. In order to achieve this the application code and data is loaded as part of the initial page load or dynamically during runtime. Subsequent user actions trigger the update of the page structure. Navigation in the application does not cause a page reload but rather a change to the location hash of the current page URL.
The role of the back-end system is typically assumed by a web server which provides access to core business logic operations through some kind of web service. The single-page application communicates with a web service in an asynchronous way in order to store and retrieve data and trigger business logic operations. The implementation of the business logic is usually split between the back-end (server) and the single-page application (client). Only sensitive parts of the business logic and the central data persistence layer (e.g. access to a database) reside on the server while all other concerns can be offloaded to the client.
Web technology is very diverse
Exemplary mobile web app technology stack
The technology stack we are going to present here is used in a cross-platform app development project at basysKom. At present the app has been released to the Google Play store and the iOS Appstore. Within this project the Cordova cross-platform framework is used to facilitate the creation of builds for Android and iOS.
The app was designed exclusively as a cross-platform mobile app, because it required access to certain system functions and hardware like the photo gallery or camera. Apache Cordova does not support these functions out of the box, but support for them was added by using additional Cordova plugins.
Watch out for unsuitably licensed dependencies
The released version of the app depends on about two dozen different libraries directly. Including indirect dependencies (i.e. dependencies of dependencies) the app depends on about 100 different libraries. This might appear as a very big amount but can be attributed to the fact that most of these libraries are actually quite small, usually in the range of 25 to 250 lines of code. Keep in mind that the direct and indirect dependencies need to be compatible with the intended licensing scheme of your application.
About Cordova plugin quality
The quality of the Cordova plugins can differ. This did not only affect “third party” plugins, which are not officially part of the Cordova framework distribution, but also official Cordova plugins. We advise to test out the needed functionality and to check the bug tracker of the project before relying on a specific plugin. When push comes to shove it is always an option to get your hands dirty and fix the cause of the problem with the respective plugin yourself. In order to minimize the effect of bad plugin quality, you should always continuously test your application during development on all targeted platforms and form factors.
Always freeze dependencies
By default, NPM does resolve the project’s dependencies every time you run “npm install”. That means, it is very likely that you will not get the exact same version configuration of dependent libraries. Most of the time this just works, but from time to time this mode of operation might introduce a “bad version” of a dependency that somehow breaks your application in a non-obvious way.
In order to prevent this from happening, you should at least define explicit versions of your direct dependencies (good) or freeze the current version configuration with the NPM command “shrinkwrap” (even better). The latter is the recommended method, because it also freezes the indirect dependencies. With this approach, you will not be caught off guard with inexplicable bugs popping up suddenly in your application.
Web technology is a good choice for developing cross-platform applications. Whether it is the right choice is highly dependent on the specific project. Some factors are the existing knowledge of the involved developers, the larger technological environment and of course the requirements of the application itself. A web-based approach can be especially interesting, if one starts out small, with just a browser based application. If done correctly, this application can be developed into a mobile app or an embedded HMI at a later point, while reusing the existing code base.