Preview: Google's tantalizing Mobile Chrome App SDK

Google's new Cordova-based toolchain lets you develop hybrid mobile apps from the same HTML, JavaScript, and CSS code as Chrome apps

Mobile app development is a huge pain point for most enterprises. The debate still rages about the best strategy. Should you develop native apps for the major smartphone and tablet platforms? That's expensive and time-consuming, and it means hiring hard-to-find specialists for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and any other platform you want to support. Should you develop mobile Web apps? That is faster and cheaper, but sacrifices both performance and features. Should you develop hybrid mobile apps, combining native app shells with Web views? That still sacrifices performance in some cases, but recovers the most important features.

The Mobile Chrome Apps development kit, recently released as a developer preview, takes the hybrid app strategy. It adds some value to the PhoneGap/Cordova technology on which it is built by combining that technology with many of the core Chrome APIs, giving developers access to a larger palette of capabilities and the ability to target Chrome apps, as well as iOS and Android hybrid mobile apps. On the flip side, this new tool chain is incompatible with some of the niceties available to PhoneGap developers, such as Adobe PhoneGap Build, and it targets only the top two mobile platforms, not the half-dozen or so supported by PhoneGap/Cordova.

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As I discussed in my recent review of Google Chrome, Chrome apps are coded in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and they use Chrome APIs to access push messaging, drag and drop, and several different kinds of storage, including Google Drive. The user downloads the app from the Chrome Web Store, and it installs on the local computer. The app locally launches in an app container, not in a browser tab, and loads its first page -- not from a remote URL.

Some of the most impressive Chrome desktop apps rely on Flash (or Flex, which also uses the Flash runtime), called from JavaScript. Unfortunately, that won't work on current mobile devices. Apple never allowed Flash on iOS, and Adobe stopped supporting its Flash Player for Android in 2012.

Google's Mobile Chrome Apps tool chain at a glance

  • Combines Apache Cordova-based app shells for Android and iOS with Chrome and Google APIs
  • Easier and less time-consuming than writing separate Android, iOS, and Chrome apps
  • Adds some value beyond what is included in plain Apache Cordova by giving you Chrome apps as well
  • Requires a Mac for the iOS development (unlike PhoneGap Build)
  • Doesn’t support Windows Phone, BlackBerry, or other less important PhoneGap targets
  • Not exactly the most streamlined, integrated development environment
PlatformsTargets iOS 6 or later and Android 4.x or later. Requires Node.js for all targets. Requires Java JDK 7, Android SDK 4.4.2 or later, and Apache Ant for targeting Android. Requires Xcode 5, ios-deploy, and ios-sim for targeting iOS.
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