Develop and publish a mobile app in 30 minutes

Software Development

This is the handout for the presentation I gave at an International Developer Tech Talk in London.

You have an idea. You want build a piece of software around your idea. You start from the end seeing yourself somewhere in California in a big villa organizing meeting and parties with your new friends.

Let’s rewind this film from the start and imagine reducing the idea to something that you can build in 30 minutes. Like in Ground Hog Day when Bill Murray was able to create an ice sculpture in 24 hours I want to create a mobile app in 30 minutes. The basic idea is log your weight.
Let’s begin from the start

5 minutes: Decide the infrastructure
Currently there are three main mobile platforms owned by the following companies: Apple – Ios, Google – Android and Microsoft – Windows Phone. Each of them creates a proprietary store where you can publish your app. Each store works in a similar way from a user point of view but behind the scenes is different from a developer point of view.

Each store use a different versioning system, a different set of icons, different metadata and so on. Be able to cover all different requirements from these stores is a time consuming step.

The easier option to start with is Microsoft. After some practice, the most developer friendly appears to be Google Android. Apple and Google are similar but for some unclear reason, Apple is a waste of time. Every time you publish your app all these platforms take some time. After the first step, Microsoft and Google are quick and straightforward and you can publish updates easily and fast. Apple takes the same long amount of time – at the moment it is seven to ten days! Even if you are just changing the rating or a small feature.

So you want to develop your idea and publish the app on all these platforms. Do you want your app be native or do you want to develop it using a single code base? I don’t have all different required languages and techniques and I don’t have enough money to pay other developers. So my first step is develop a single code base that allows me to learn one language and technology stack. Now it is time to decide what framework use to develop.

There are several frameworks available.
One of the most popular is called Xamarin. It allows the use of  C# + Xamarin/Xaml UI. I’m not a Xaml developer. I think that the learning curve to become a Xaml/Xamarin is long. This framework is not cheap and requires a special licence for each platform. It requires you to have and configure an Apple Mac device in order to develop, debug and publish for IPhone. I tried this framework for 90 days and I remember wasting most of the time configuring and studying and never focusing on my idea and implementing some features for 90 days.

Another option is Phonegap/Cordova. This is an open source and free thin layer of javascript on top of native features. Using this solution you can use javascript to implement your application logic and Html + Css to define the User Interface. I started using this solution but again it requires a combination of tools and components to be configured and this task takes quite a long time. Also it requires an Apple Mac to develop and debug for Ios.
Finally I found Telerik Appbuilder + Everlive services. Telerik is a well known company that develops tools and Kendo UI framework for developers to build responsive apps. They created an integrated stack of tools on top of Apache Cordova. This is a commercial product as Xamarin but it doesn’t require you to learn Xaml/Xamarin, you can use your Javascript / Html / Css skills. It doesn’t require you to have an Apple Mac to develop debug and publish a mobile app for IPhone. One of the tools is called AppBuilder and it can be used as an extension for Visual Studio, as a stand alone development environment or on line as a web application inside the Telerik Platform. One of the many benefit of it is that it simplify the set up of your mobile app for each different App Store allowing you to easily define icons, permissions, versions and other metadata and publish the package in a friendly way. Telerik provide also Kendo UI that is a framework to build the User Interface. AppBuilder is not related to Kendo Ui so you can use Ionic and Angular to build the app as an example.

If you choose an hybrid app, one of the most common concern about that is the lack of performance compared to native. This is due to the following two problems in order of importance:

  1. An hybrid app is hosted inside a webview. For some mysterius reasons, there is a 300ms delays every time the user of your app tap on the screen
  2. Using a WebView combined with html and Javascript your performance will be dragged down by the inefficient Dom traversing problem that affect normal website

Both these two problems are real and they have a negative impact on the user experience.
Both these two problems can be solved.

To solve the problem number one, you can use a special Javascript library like fastclick.js or any other tap library. Another way is use one of the most promising UI framework available for mobile called Ionic . This framework take care about the delay and remove it silently without need any other configuration.
To solve the second problem, bear in mind that it depend mostly on how you code your UI logic and it can be relevant if you are squeezing the performance to create graphic apps. Also in that case, you can stop designing your UI using html and javascript and start using a special library like that is an engine that render the UI using only javascript and can be used in conjunction with Angular js.

15 minutes: Develop the code

Open Visual Studio and be sure to have installed the Telerik AppBuilder extension.
Create a new empty project using the Blank Javascript template from the Telerik Appbuilder category.
Edit the index.html file under the project root and replace all the existing code copying the content of index.html from the following git repository

Remember to change the Telerik Everlive service key with your real key. You can find the key from the Telerik Platform selecting your project->BackendServices and the option Api Keys

5 minutes: Test

AppBuilder allows you to use several development tools. My favourite is Visual Studio. In order to quickly test your mobile app on a real device, you can:

  • Select AppBuilder menu
  • Select Build and publish to the cloud
  • Select one of the device mobile platform and press “Build”

On the device

  • Install Telerik Appbuilder companion app
  • Optional: If you use IPhone or Windows Phone, install a QR reader app. If you use Android, you can select the integrated QR reader option
  • Only the first time: Use a QR reader to scan the QR code on the screen
  • After the first time: Hold three fingers on the screen – Yoda gesture  – and this will trigger a LiveSync feature that automatically will download the latest package from the cloud

You don’t need a Mac to test on a real device. When you install Telerik Companion App, you can then use this app as a host for your package. On an IPhone, the companion app is certified and comes from the app store but your package comes from Telerik cloud and it doesn’t need to pass through the long and tedious certification provisioning and painful Apple way to deploy apps.
This plays a major role allowing you to start coding your app feature and test on an IPhone in few clicks.

5 minutes: Publish

The develop and test phase is nearly finished. You are quite happy with the first version of your app. My suggestion is to start with the publishing process as soon as possible. If this is your first app submission, you can’t imagine how this final task can be tricky, long and full of many little details.

First you start, first you’ll figure out this complexity. Each of the three current major platforms is different.

The easier option is the Microsoft Store . It appear similar to a wizard. They are currently using Silverlight as a plugin so you have to activate this old fashion “thing”. Pay attention to the section where you upload your xap file. It contains also some of the related metadata and if you decide to delete a Xap file, you will delete also the metadata! Another UI problem is the Save button. It is at the bottom of the page and it doesn’t appear to allow you to save your form partially. So you have to fill in almost everything before click on Save. The Microsoft team behind the submission take less than one week to review your app and they provide you with useful suggestions on how to improve your app like how to manage the back button or how to show the user with some settings suggestions or the privacy document. After your first submission is accepted, any other update passes through the same procedure (replace the Xap package instead of delete) but it requires a few hours to be accepted. 

My favourite is Google Play Store . It is a tailor made web application designed around developer needs. When you publish for the first time it requires a few days but I don’t think that they care about the app. I submitted the wrong APK package with problems with the back button and they published it without any concerns. Once your app is published and when you submit an update, it requires only few hours. They also provide a payable service to translate your app content in any language. You have to provide your localizable strings using an xml format.

The Apple App Store is similar to Google Play. In order to publish the app you have to pass through their painful provisioning certificate process
If you use Telerik Appbuilder, it simplifies this process but you still need to take some steps to get a certificate, sign your package and be able to publish. Here is a link where Telerik try to simplify this process
Once you have published your .ipa package, the review process takes a long time compared to the other stores. I did a first attempt that was rejected after 10 days. The reason was a wrong rating. So I fixed the rating and submitted the package again and it was then accepted after a further 9 days.

In this article I talked about my experience developing a mobile app from the idea to the app store. As you can read, I selected the solution that allow me to transform the idea in something usable in a short amount of time.

You can find the example app on GitHub in the following repository