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Frustrations in Developing Mobile Applications

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Introduction

Recently I’ve been talking to many people about various techniques to develop portable mobile applications. In the good old days of the 90s with the Wintel monopoly usually you could just develop for Windows and you would reach 99% of the market. The main challenge was just adapting to new versions of Windows where you would get things like UAC thrown at you.

Now suddenly we are developing for various Windows devices, various Apple devices and various Android/Linux devices. Plus we have some other contenders like Blackberry clamoring for our attention. The market is now highly fragmented and all of these have considerable market share.

I develop business applications and the functionality I’m most interested in has to do with ERP and CRM workflows. This means I’m not writing games, although it would be fun to produce a game like “Angry Accountants” or “ERPville”.

I know I’ve blogged about mobile development a few times like here and here; but my thinking on this keeps changing and I’m still not happy with the whole situation. There are many mobile frameworks and I’m only touching on a couple of representative ones here. I’ve got to think there will be a better solution, but until then I feel like ranting.

mobile device frustration

Going Native

There is an appeal to going native. The native development environments are really excellent. I’ve been playing with Apple’s XCode development tools for OS/X and iOS development and they are really amazing. They’ve progressed a lot since I last saw them over 20 years ago when I worked for a company that did NeXTStep development for the NeXT cube. Similarly Visual Studio 2012 for Windows 8 development is really quite good and so are all the Android tools.

If I only needed to development for one of these, I would be happy with any one of them. But keeping several in my brain at once really hurts.

You get the best results for the given platform with any one of these, but you don’t really get anything reusable except the basic design. All the platforms use a different object oriented extension of C (namely Objective C, Java and C#). All the platforms have different operating system functions and different separations between what you do in the application versus have as a service.

C Reborn

One surprising thing I found from talking to people was that the idea of writing as much as you could in C. All the main platforms use extensions of C and all support compiling and running C code. This reminds me of the old days where you tried to write a portable application for Mac, Windows and Linux by isolating the operating system dependent parts and then writing as much code as possible in good old portable C. Funny how what was old can be new again. But then it was a good idea back then, why wouldn’t it be a good idea now?

Air

Much maligned Adobe always seems to have a proprietary solution in the game. With Flash being booted from most platforms, Air seems to have followers in some areas. Some people really like Adobe development tools, I’ve always found them strange. Like with Flash, uses ActionScript which is a nice object oriented extension to JavaScript, but then that makes it all non-standard. Then strangely you have to structure Flash projects as a movie which I’ve never liked. Air seems to claim to follow standards but then keeps dragging in Flash technologies. My own bias is that if you go down this route, you may as well stick with using JavaScript which is then more standard and more cross platform.

The other problem with Adobe is that they are the leading vendor in producing software with giant security flaws. This means they are more likely to be blocked or dropped from platforms. It is also a big risk for app development since your app could be tarred by Adobe’s problems.

Xamarin

Xamarin takes the Mono project and ports it to mobile devices like iOS and Android. The goal then is that you can develop a C# Windows application that will also run on iOS and Android. We tried Mono as a way to move some .Net projects to Linux, but just ran into too many problems and had to give up. As a result Mono has left a bad taste in my mouth so I’m inclined to avoid this. I also wonder how much code you will have putting the .Net runtime on top of the native iOS or Android operating systems. Is this just going to have too many layers and is it just going to be too fat and bloated?

If they can pull it off with high quality and compatibility there is potential here, but I suspect, like Air, you will just get a big non-standard mess.

JavaScript/HTML5/CSS

Ever since the first Netscape browser we’ve been promised that the web will standardize all programming. Then came a proliferation of web standards and incompatible browsers. Now things are coming back together in the web world. We have good standardization on HTML5, JavaScript and CSS. We have a number of browsers with good support for these and they run on pretty much all PCs, laptops, tablets and phones. So you would think you can just develop once as a web application and run happily everywhere.

Unfortunately all the vendors have a vested interest in their app stores (like iTunes). Vendors like Apple, Google and Microsoft make 30% off all software sold through their stores. They make nothing on people running web applications from browsers. As a consequence quite a few native platform functionalities are held back deliberately from the web. Then they market hard that for the best experience you must use a native app form their store or you are getting a second rate experience. Strangely the reverse is often the case where the app is just providing a subset of some web site and you lose abilities like being able to zoom.

In the current market/environment it’s very hard to compete against native apps with web apps which is really too bad. I think at some point the app store monopoly will fall apart, but that is today’s reality.

Phonegap

Phonegap is an open source library to try to bridge the gap between HTML/JavaScript apps and native apps. It adds a hardware API for JavaScript apps and allows them to be packaged for distribution via app stores. Phonegap was recently purchased by Adobe which really worried me. So far Adobe hasn’t done anything bad (that I’ve seen) and hopefully it will survive as a good open source solutions.

The main risks with Phonegap is that it usually lags the native apps in adoption of new operating system features, Apple may at some point start rejecting apps made with Phonegap and Adobe may start adding proprietary Flash like technology.

Beside these drawbacks the other problem is that your app is still made out of Browser controls and not the UI widgets that are part of the underlying operating system. You can style away a lot of differences but discerning users will be able to tell the difference.

Phonegap is a great technology which does really help JavaScript/HTML apps be more native and is really worth considering if you go down this road.

Summary

I’m still frustrated. I’m not really happy with the quality of apps produced by the cross platform technologies and I don’t like developing the same thing multiple times using the native SDKs.

I also find it a bit monotonous to develop the same program over and over again for iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows.

Written by smist08

February 23, 2013 at 11:34 pm