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PhoneGap toolkits tame mobile app development

Peter Wayner | Jan. 16, 2014
The very first road to the various app stores from Apple and Google was paved with native code. If you wanted to write for iOS, you learned Objective-C. If you wanted to tackle Android, Java was the only way. Similar issues popped up with all the other smaller players in the smartphone market.

A new part of the equation is Icenium's cloud-based back end, known as Everlive. The service, currently called a "preview," mixes in a big collection of data storage services meant to simplify development. Telerik is pairing data storage and "user management" with the distribution of your app. It only takes a few lines of code to let each of your users log into the cloud and store information there. That's a nice set of features.

Telerik has selected two main frameworks to support: Kendo UI and jQuery Mobile. You don't need to choose these libraries to distribute your code, but extra features — such as drag-and-drop functionality in Mist — work with the Kendo UI framework only.

Pricing starts at $20 per month for a basic account and rises to $120 a month for the "ultimate" tier. There are substantial discounts for a prepaid annual plan, as well as a nice free trial that lasts for 30 days.

Filling the phone gap
These three collections of tools make it simpler to create an app, especially a cross-platform app that runs on iOS, Android, Windows, and BlackBerry. They glue standard HTML, JavaScript, and CSS into the native code in a way that makes it possible to port your app quickly and relatively painlessly. They also open up more of the underlying platform to your JavaScript code by creating a pathway for data and images to flow from the native layer to your JavaScript.

I think these apps can deliver on the promise of simplicity if you're going to build a three- or four-page tabbed app that does little more than display information. You can toss this info into one page of HTML filled with nested DIVs, and the libraries will do the rest.

But once you start creating more complicated apps, you run into the limits of the libraries. One of my applications created a relatively long list of items, and the code slowed to a crawl. After I added another layer of nesting to the lists, it went much faster. You'll discover hundreds of little limitations like this. The HTML stacks and the PhoneGap/Cordova frameworks are growing more polished, but they still require plenty of thinking like a programmer.

This technical promise, however, is far from perfect. While I've been able to quickly move apps from iOS to Android and beyond in a relatively short amount of time, the frameworks are far from being as simple as snapping your fingers when you start using all of the features, especially the more extreme features (like access to the camera) supplied by plug-ins. Sure, it's nice to be working in HTML and CSS to lay out the application, especially if you're familiar with them, but that's only the beginning. Many tiny details still need to be right. When I moved my project from iOS to Android, it took me about a day. That's not much, but it's not as short as measuring it in minutes.


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