Hybrid Apps – Productivity Nirvana

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So much code, written so many times

Android, IOs, Windows Phone, Web, Responsive Web; customers don’t really understand, they want their app in ALL the places. “Surely it’s the same functionality, just make it work on a different device, how hard can it be?!?”.

Unfortunately, plenty hard.

Different programming languages, different screen sizes, different App stores and different hardware makes multi platform development a pain for mobile developers. What we end up doing is re-writing the same functionality in different bespoke apps, using different languages, for each of the hardware devices; not ideal, but sometimes unavoidable. Writing the same code, multiple times is something that many of us unfortunately have to swallow.

Server Side API

There are some things we do to try to minimize the amount of code we need to duplicate on each device.

One of the approaches, to reduce code duplication, is to create a comprehensive set of web services. Using services, we can implement most of the data retrieval/manipulation and business logic, server-side. All the devices will now be able to access and use these services; code once, use everywhere.

However, these services only get us partially on the way to eliminating code duplication.

Hybrid Apps

One increasingly popular solution, to making apps that can be written once and run anywhere, is by using ‘hybrid’ development i.e. write the app in a non-native language that can be ran on ‘all’ devices. There are a slew of hybrid approaches available for developers to use e.g. ReactNative, Telerik, ManifoldJS and Ionic.

Pecheersrsonally, I have not used all of them. They all look promising, and they all have their pros and cons. However, recently, I started using Ionic (as it suited my situation perfectly) and am wholly impressed by what Hybrid development offers.

Ionic To The Rescue

My situation entailed a large SPA website, written mostly in Angular, requiring a mobile app to be created that mirrored some functionality of the website.

The thought of having to duplicate the website features, using multiple languages, and then having to support all these codebases, was horrific. We had moved as much logic to the server side as possible, but there was still a great deal of functionality in the website that could not be moved and needed to form part of the mobile app; cue Ionic.

ionic

Iconic is a hybrid mobile platform which basically embeds a website inside a mobile app. The website in the mobile app can be a normal responsive html/css/js website but can also utilize various native functionality (e.g. camera, GPS, senors etc) by calling a layer, that sits on top of the native system, called Cordova.

Since Ionic allows you to create functionality in Javascript, and we had lots of Javascript (Angular) to utlilize, Ionic was a perfect fit for us.

Rapid Application Development

Never before I have been so productive developing mobile apps. The productivity gains from using Ionic have been immense:

  • We have been able to share Angular components and services with our web AND mobile apps.
  • If we find a component or service that cannot be easily shared, it forces us to refactor and break down the item into more reusable parts.
  • Quite a bit of CSS can be re-used too (if refactored well enough) to make styling consistent, across not only mobile devices, but web too.
  • We are maintaining and testing a ‘largely’ single code base using a pervasive coding language (Javascript). A problem found on one of the form factors is fixed once and deployed everywhere.
  • One of the biggest productivity gains is with the workflow. Most of the development/debugging can be performed through a web browser. Using Ionic you are able to change your Html/Js/Css and automatically see live changes. No need to start an emulator or wait on the IO between desktop and device. Sometimes, you absolutely need to test something on a specific device, but I find, that for most work, the ‘webview’ suffices.

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Not Quite There Yet

There are some trade offs with using hybrid development in preference to native development, not least performance. But for most ‘line of business’ applications the performance is ‘good enough’.

Ionic itself is great and getting better, but has some limitations. Cordova has its limits and ‘idiosyncrasies’ and can be a pain to work with. However, just having to maintain one single codebase between the mobile platforms (with web thrown in for good measure), coupled with an awesome workflow, on apps which are ‘good enough’ for most business needs, and gets an app in clients hands sooner, makes Cordova’s ‘idiosyncrasies’ bearable.

 

Alternative Viewpoints?

This form of hybrid development has worked well for me but there are so many other workflows and frameworks out there. Has anyone any experience with the other frameworks?

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