As a recipient of the Spring 2010 GIS inc Research and Development award, I had the privilege to work on a solo project incorporating cutting edge technologies. During my brain storming process, I settled on probably the coolest segment of the development market at the moment: Mobile Applications.
My first goal setting out was to develop a cross-platform and location aware application for mobile devices. The mobile market is so small at the moment; I felt it would be wise to broaden the application to more than solely iPhone users or solely Android users. This was the greatest challenge. The iPhone and Android SDKs are in very different languages and do not lend themselves to interpolarity. The owner of a MacBook at home, a Linux server and a Windows workstation I fully understand the constraints of programming for multiple platforms. With the rise of Web 2.0, these constraints are starting to slip away. It is now possible to write a single web application that will operate on a handful of platforms with very little change to the code base. With this in mind, I decided that the only viable solution for cross-platform mobile development was with a web application. Unfortunately, like web applications on the desktop world, web applications in the mobile world suffer some severe limitations. Namely, web applications cannot easily access local hardware. In addition, web applications are excruciatingly slow on shoddy mobile internet connections. To alleviate these issues I also set out to find an easy method of porting my web application as native packages for select mobile devices.
With my first two goals in place, I decided to push the envelope a little further and develop the entire application with the technologies forming the next generation web development. The proposed CSS 3 and HTML 5 specifications incorporate functionality specifically for mobile devices not available in the current specifications. These new specifications introduce a shift away from plug-in dependent design towards beautiful.
In order to finish my research and development project within the allotted time, I stuck with a subject matter with which I was familiar. I was a Park Ranger for Rocks State Park in Northern Harford County, Maryland before I started my employment with GISi. While hiking the trail system one day, I realized how few visitors adventured outside of the picnic areas. After speaking with a few visitors, I realized they did not leave the picnic areas due to a lack of knowledge of the trail system and a fear of getting lost.
I knew the best way to assuage these issues was with a web mapping application for mobile devices. To increase knowledge of the park, the application would display the trail system, points of interest and informational dialog boxes. To ease the visitors’ anxiety of ending up lost in the park, the web application would utilize the mobile devices GPS unit to display the visitors’ position in relation to the trail system.
To see the application in action, navigate here on your smart phone or download and install the package for Android.
Writing the Code
I spent the remainder of my time on the project porting my web application to both the iPhone and the Android platforms. You are probably asking, “How does one port their web application to the iPhone or Android?”
Building an application with PhoneGap still requires you to install the platform’s SDK. This means that the directions for each platform are totally different. Whereas the iPhone requires xCode, the iPhone SDK and a Mac, the Android requires Eclipse, Java and the Android SDK. Your best bet is to read over these tutorials on the PhoneGap FAQ:
This method of development for mobile development still has a few caveats. First, HTML 5 is still a draft. Safari, Chrome, and Mozilla partially incorporated the HTML 5 specification into their production browsers. Internet Explorer is currently the laggard and only supports a finite segment of the specification. Fortunately, the iPhone and the Android use the webkit rendering engine and have incredibly advanced HTML5 support.
PhoneGap, introduced at the Web 2.0 Expo in April 2009, is a very new piece of software. It is undergoing intense development and is currently running a four month release cycle. With all of this change they are still working through some glitches and bugs in the code. In addition, as an open source project, the lesser used platforms often lack in depth documentation. Finally, some users of PhoneGap have experienced issues with the Apple’s App Store, but to be honest who has not?
Finally, the Apple App Store review process will not necessarily inhibit your application’s success. After a month long wait, the App Store never responded with an approval for my developer license request. If I were developing a traditional native application, this would be time and money down the drain. With this method, I could easily advertise the product with a web-hosted application until the approval came through.
If you do not need to develop a cross-platform application, native is your best option for developing mobile applications. First, the native API for the iOS and Android platforms are much more mature. Also, for the time being, native applications are quite a bit faster than their web application counterparts are. Finally, the mobile web is the wild wild west. Applications written with draft HTML5 specifications today may not work in six months.
In conclusion, Web development for the mobile web is an excellent market to enter in to. Learning how to design and build mobile web applications embraces our core value of intellectual relentlessness. It gives us the opportunity to break through walls and try something new. Also, with such a new field, we can really make an innovative impact on the market. Most importantly, the knowledge learned developing cutting edge web applications for mobile devices now will give us a leg up for developing next generation web applications in the desktop environment in the future.