Review: 3 PhoneGap toolkits tame mobile app development

Adobe PhoneGap, AppGyver Steroids, and Telerik Icenium simplify app development, but shine brightest at debugging and app distribution

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AppGyver Steroids

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the folks at AppGyver are clearly infatuated with PhoneGap. They've taken much of the core from the open source project but have added their own build infrastructure and one very useful feature that may prove irresistible to developers.

The interface is a bit different. Whereas the standard way to use PhoneGap is with the customary developer tools like Xcode, AppGyver runs from the command line and piggybacks on many of the tools developed for Node.js. Installing the software requires running the Node package manager and Python. While AppGyver apparently works with Windows and Cygwin, I ran for my Mac within seconds of starting. AppGyver is geared for Linux and Unix, and everything is ready to go on your Mac because it's a Unix box underneath.

When all the command-line typing is done, you're still playing with the code in your browser. Safari does a credible job of emulating and debugging the kind of HTML that runs in PhoneGap/Cordova. I've found a few inconsistencies over the years, but not many. You write your code in your favorite editor, then you deploy it. I started out debugging in Safari, then switched to the built-in simulator. Safari offers the kind of step-by-step debugging that's often necessary, while the Xcode simulator works more for double-checking.

There were some glitches -- or perhaps I should call them overly earnest suggestions. My builds would often fail because some SCSS file was missing. The code ran fine in Cordova with Xcode and in Safari -- neither batted an eye. But AppGyver wouldn't move forward without cleaning up that issue.

My favorite part of the entire AppGyver process is the way you can deploy to your smartphone. When you first deploy, AppGyver creates a QR code with the URL. AppGyver also gives away a set of free apps that can interpret these bar codes and use them to download the latest version of the HTML. All of a sudden, your iPhone will reach out and suck up the latest version of your program and run it in AppGyver's shell.

It's impossible to praise this feature too loudly. I don't know how many times I've lost a day or two of development because apps will only run on iOS devices that have permission from Apple's secret bunker. One guy wrote me saying the software wouldn't work on his phone -- it turned out he'd upgraded a week before. The old UUID in the certificate chain was worthless now, and everything had to be redone. It's not exactly right to say that nothing happens in the iOS world without a developer asking "mother may I" of Apple, but it's a close approximation. AppGyver's solution is a godsend for developers.

The AppGyver system avoids the endless clicking that gets in the way of real debugging and real quality assurance with real users. Apple's tools insist you can't have more than 100 beta testers no matter what. The AppGyver app has already been approved by the App Store, and it can download the latest version of your app when anyone points the camera at the bar code. Others can debug your code, and it's much simpler. This is real innovation.

There are other claims that I found harder to verify or appreciate. The AppGyver team calls its product Steroids in part because it offers some page transitions written in native code. You can optimize your code a bit, and Steroids is supposedly going to replace the poky HTML/JavaScript transition with its own.

I used to see the value in this several years ago. Some of my HTML apps were slow at times, especially when I filled up the RAM with baseball statistics. But this effect has been much less noticeable on the newer smartphones. The bigger memories and faster chips do a better job of swapping out the HTML pages. For that reason, I didn't see or feel much difference when using Steroids. This might be quite different with your app; I've noticed that the smartphones handle code in widely varying ways.

There are other parts to the AppGyver world. Steroids works with AppGyver's Cloud Services that handle the building and distribution of your app. When you're just debugging, the code flows through the cloud to your iPhone or Android. When you're ready to submit it to the stores, it will build the code for you -- if you upload your private key for creating the digital signature.

Prototyper, a neat tool still listed as beta, tries to make app creation as easy as uploading images, then dragging and dropping links between them. It works, but only for the simplest ideas. After a few minutes, I wanted to seize control again and write text with an editor. It may be, however, a good tool to give to the boss for sketching out a prototype. If anything, it will help the boss understand how much work the programmers really do.

AppGyver doesn't charge directly for Steroids or its Cloud Services at this time. The company funds itself through support fees and white-label development. The AppGyver folks are experts at building, and I'm sure that sharing the tools with the world will help add polish. Prototyper has a free plan and a small monthly fee that starts at $9 and goes up to the coy listing that says "ask for price."

AppGyver Steroids
With AppGyver Steroids, you build the app locally in your command-line window, and it pops up in a browser window after you deploy it. You can either fiddle with it inside an iFrame that simulates the AppGyver tool or download it to your smartphone by scanning the QR code.
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