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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Telerik Icenium

In the midst of all this talk about building smartphone apps with HTML, one company started eating the dog food and building the actual development tool out of HTML. Telerik, the creator of Icenium, is nurturing an entire ecosystem for turning ideas into apps for sale in the App Store or Google Play. At the center is an IDE, it's worth noting, that runs in the browser. You write HTML and JavaScript with a tool built in HTML and JavaScript.

Telerik is offering a complete collection of tools to turn your ideas into an app. You can write your code in your browser, host it in Telerik's cloud, then let the cloud build it into a completed app. All of this is centered around Apache Cordova at the core.

The most significant parts of the offering are the IDEs called Mist (browser) and Graphite (Windows), along with a new extension for Visual Studio I didn't try. Mist and Graphite seem functionally equivalent to me, and I wasn't surprised to find that the projects I created in Mist started appearing in Graphite. Both offer a screen split between a file navigator and an editor. The editor can toggle between a text-based HTML editor and a visual tool for dragging and dropping widgets.

There were some glitches. The editor wouldn't work with several views, claiming they weren't proper HTML5. The complaints kept coming even when I deleted all the various DIVs inside. Sometimes it was simpler to work with the HTML instead of the designer.

I also found myself defaulting to the built-in debugger in the browser. Firebug and Safari's debugger are incredible, and it will be some time before anything will be as good as them.

The main difference between the Icenium tools is access to the hardware. The Windows IDE (Graphite) can access the hardware through the USB port, whereas the browser-based IDE (Mist) can't. The tools seem to be evolving. They make it easy to drag widgets into place, but you still need to read the HTML and think about the structure. I found I had to remember what was going on in the HTML layer to understand how to put together all the widgets correctly.

This limitation isn't as important as it might be, because there's a third part of the equation: Ion, a tool that works to deploy and update your app just like AppGyver does. You download Ion for free from the App Store, and it sucks up the HTML/JavaScript/CSS that comprises your app. Debugging and deploying is as simple as it is with AppGyver.

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.

Telerik Icenium
Telerik Icenium's Windows-based IDE called Graphite and browser-based IDE called Mist let you build complete applications with Telerik's Kendo UI framework by dragging and dropping widgets into place.
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