Phone Gap

PhoneGap Build R.I.P.

What does that mean for hybrid mobile app development?

It’s truly the end of an era for mobile app developers – particularly those like myself who have embraced the hybrid approach. For over a decade, we used the Adobe PhoneGap build service, along with the Apache Cordova libraries that PhoneGap utilizes, as an alternative to Apple Xcode and Android Studio to build mobile apps.

With the help of the PhoneGap service, those of us coming from an HTML5 web development background could now use our JavaScript and HTML skills to build mobile apps, instead of learning platform specific languages like Java and Objective-C to develop iOS and Android apps, respectively. Our code produced mobile apps that would run on both platforms. Very empowering! In addition to being highly cost-effective and manageable.

And yes – these advantages came with drawbacks.

  • In certain cases performance could lag;
  • The UI was at times not quite spot on;
  • Updates to the specific platforms could throw curve balls;
  • Reliance on unsupported open-source third-party libraries (Cordova) to enable native device capabilities, such as connecting to the device camera or geolocation was a liability;

 

For years the debate has raged –

  • Are the benefits of using hybrid worth the drawbacks?
  • In what situations is one option better than the other?
  • What would happen if one of the main players (such as PhoneGap build) in the hybrid ecosystem disappeared?

 

Well it is has happened – Adobe will discontinue the PhoneGap build service as of October 1, 2020. So now that PhoneGap is history, what’s next in the world of app development? Thousands of apps have been developed using PhoneGap and Cordova – could this remarkable HTML5 approach to cross-platform app development really be history?

Luckily the answer is a resounding no.

 

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JavaScript frameworks to the rescue

At the end of the day, most popular hybrid mobile app frameworks use Javascript. There are several proven hybrid frameworks for non-native development still available after the demise of PhoneGap build. The most popular JavaScript based frameworks (pretty much in order of popularity) are

  • React Native
  • Ionic
  • NativeScript

 

As these platforms are JavaScript based frameworks, finding developer resources is significantly easier (and generally more affordable) than finding native developers. Companies can even draw on internal web development resources to augment the core app development team. This is especially true if the organization is already using a web framework like Angular or React.

Each hybrid app framework provides a set of pre-built components to make development easier and provide a better user experience. And each framework boasts a robust community of developers responding to online questions and building components and tools.

Ultimately, the choice of framework has a lot to do with what in-house resources are available, and exactly what the needs are. If your company has embraced React as it’s web development platform, it’s usually a no-brainer to go with React Native for the mobile app. Likewise if the chosen framework is Angular, one should seriously consider Ionic.

Over the past few years, many of the complaints associated with hybrid development have been addressed:

  • Performance is in most cases no longer distinguishable from native apps;
  • The reliance on unsupported third-party libraries is being addressed (see the Capacitor initiative by Ionic and the introduction of native plugins);
  • Components have been optimized, benefiting significantly from the universal adoption of web components;
  • Most importantly with respect to theme of this article addressing the demise of PhoneGap, companies have introduced new hybrid app build services (see the Appflow service from Ionic, AWS Amplify from Amazon, and others);

 

The PhoneGap team has worked with Ionic to provide a guide to migrating from PhoneGap Build to Ionic Appflow so that cloud builds can continue uninterrupted. The Appflow cloud service picks up where PhoneGap is leaving off, while adding a slew of extra features, such as a devops process, over-the-air updates, analytics, push notifications, and more.

In addition to all this is the game-changing rise of the PWA (Progressive Web App), for which the use of a hybrid framework is the optimal approach.

The rise of Progressive web apps

One of the principal reasons Adobe cited for discontinuing PhoneGap is the rise of the PWA. Although quite limited when first introduced by Google in 2015, web apps now have the ability to do advanced things like:

  • Caching and offline operations;
  • Launching with a splash screen, sending push notifications, asking users for payment information, and much more;
  • Native device capabilities —like access to accelerometers, cameras, geolocation, etc.;

 

In addition PWAs have some incredible benefits:

  • Use the same code for an organization’s website and the mobile app (talk about efficiency!);
  • Freedom from the app stores or lengthy downloads and updates (apps can be downloaded right from the organization website);
  • A unified in-app experience accessible across all devices (even desktop!);
  • A simplified development process that can take between 50 and 75 percent less time than a traditional native mobile development process;

 

Much like the history of the hybrid app, there are also currently some limitations to the PWA, such as a reduced set of native device capabilities. However we can realistically expect these limitations to be addressed over time, just as they were with hybrid development, especially given the enormous interest in the PWA. And in the meantime the PWA already provides a very compelling option.

I hope this quick recap has been helpful for folks who have heard the PhoneGap news but are not sure what to make of it. If your organization is curious about how hybrid app development and PWAs might figure into the creation of your next mobile app (and they should!) please feel free to reach out to me to discuss further.

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