Low-code mobile development tools

Review: AppStudio is like Visual Basic for mobile dev

NSB/AppStudio simplifies development of mobile Web and hybrid apps with a Visual Basic-like, drag-and-drop IDE

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At a Glance
  • NS Basic Corporation NSB/AppStudio 4.2.9

Low-code mobile development tools

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In its day, circa 1991, Microsoft Visual Basic (aka VB) disrupted Windows development by making it possible for novices to drag and drop their way to runnable Windows applications built from forms and controls (originally called gizmos). Yes, those novices had to write some code, but not much of it -- and the code was in Basic, not the syntactically more difficult C language. 

NS Basic, from the eponymous Canadian firm NS Basic Corporation, arrived in 1994 with a VB-like development environment for the Apple Newton. In 1998, the company released a Windows CE version of NS Basic, which I reviewed for Windows Magazine. Over the years, the company produced NS Basic versions for Palm, Symbian, and Windows desktops, then finally released NSB/AppStudio in 2010 for mobile Web development.

The current version of NSB/AppStudio, 4.2.9, targets both mobile Web and mobile hybrid apps. The AppStudio IDE was written in JavaScript, HTML5, and WebKit, and it runs on Windows and Mac OS X. The combination of ease of learning, ease of use, royalty-free distribution, and low prices helps AppStudio bring mobile Web and hybrid development to the masses, in the spirit of VB and the early Borland visual programming products.

You can drag and drop your way to runnable mobile applications built from forms and controls (Figure 1), as well as write code either in NS Basic -- essentially VBScript with a few extensions -- or in JavaScript. At app publication or runtime (Figure 2), whether for local development or server deployment, any Basic script is transcompiled to JavaScript. You can also display the JavaScript for any displayed form from the IDE (Figure 3). 

NSB/AppStudio

Figure 1. NSB/AppStudio is a drag-and-drop IDE for mobile Web and mobile hybrid app development, very much in the spirit of Microsoft Visual Basic. Notice the familiar form designer, toolbox, project explorer, property sheet, and help windows.

Inside the AppStudio IDE

In the AppStudio IDE (Figure 1) we have a form designer, toolbox, project explorer, property sheet, and help windows, all familiar from VB and its heirs and imitators. The IDE doesn’t do its own debugging, however -- that's handled by the browser (Figure 2), or in the case of PhoneGap apps, through weinre, a remote debugger for Web pages.

There’s much in the IDE under the nonintimidating surface. Right-clicking on a control brings up a context-sensitive action menu (Figure 4) that lets you create and navigate to event handlers, add components, and adjust the layout. The selection of components is satisfying. It includes almost 60 controls ranging from simple labels to complex widgets and interfaces to financial services and social media.

NSB/AppStudio form

Figure 2. A simple NSB/AppStudio form running in Chrome. Note that NSB/AppStudio is acting as the local Web server.

As I mentioned earlier, the current AppStudio allows you to build both mobile Web apps and mobile hybrid apps; the latter is facilitated by integration with the PhoneGap command-line interface (which you would need to install on your development computer or computers) and the Adobe PhoneGap Build service. You can build apps that are as complex as you’d like with AppStudio, although AppStudio doesn’t help much with back-end services.

AppStudio has its own PhoneGap Build token, but if you want to build apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone app stores, you’ll have to paste your personal PhoneGap Build token into AppStudio. (You can subscribe to PhoneGap Build on a monthly basis or use it as part of a Creative Cloud subscription.) You’ll also need to add an Apple signing key to PhoneGap Build before it will build iOS apps for you, and you’ll need to upload final iOS apps to the iOS App Store from a Mac.

AppStudio comes with more than 100 samples ranging from “hello, world” to demonstrations of using all the included controls, about 30 Web services, and a dozen third-party JavaScript libraries. The AppStudio Showcase gives you a good feel for what other developers have done with the product, showing off about 20 apps, some free and some commercial.

NSB/AppStudio JavaScript

Figure 3. NSB/AppStudio translates NSBasic to JavaScript on demand and before running or publishing an app.

I was somewhat impressed by a food-and-beverage ordering app that runs on iPads, sends orders by Wi-Fi to the restaurant's server (running MySQL and a listener program), and caches orders in the iPads’ SQLite database when Wi-Fi is unavailable. The developer built his first version and had it live in a restaurant in a month. That’s pretty good, given the rather basic building blocks available in AppStudio. 

AppStudio apps run on the following platforms:

  • iPhone (any model) with iOS 4.3 or later
  • iPod Touch (any model) with iOS 4.3 or later
  • iPad (any model)
  • Android 2.3 (or later) devices; limited functionality on older devices
  • Windows Phone devices (limited)

They will also run on the desktop in Chrome and Safari with essentially full functionality (assuming you turn on mobile device simulation in the browser) and in Firefox and Internet Explorer with limited functionality.

NSB/AppStudio action menu

Figure 4. Right-clicking on a control in NSB/AppStudio brings up a context-sensitive action menu.

Deploying your mobile apps

AppStudio’s run menu options include deployment to various servers and building with PhoneGap. You can deploy apps to AppStudio’s Test Server, at nsbapp.com, or to your own server. You can then download your app to your device. After a successful deployment, AppStudio displays a URL and QR code (Figure 5) to make it easy to download to your device. When you redeploy, the app is refreshed at the same location.

AppStudio offers persistent name-value pair storage as an experimental feature (based on MongoDB), but only on apps deployed to nsbapp.com. Look for that feature to mature in the future. It smells like the beginning of MBaaS capabilities.

NSB/AppStudio deployment

Figure 5. After a successful deployment, NSB/AppStudio displays the URL of the app and a QR code you can scan from your device. I have redacted my personal directory ID from the image.

The performance of AppStudio-created mobile Web and hybrid apps is surprisingly good, and it's basically identical to the performance of JavaScript from other mobile Web app builders. That’s a testament to how far JavaScript has come and a validation of NSBasic’s move away from its older .Net Framework implementation to its JavaScript translation strategy. 

AppStudio’s controls are pretty good, but they are not as good as some of the components in Alpha Anywhere, which have been finely tuned for a native look and feel and to do more of the heavy lifting (such as integrating with databases). You can customize the look of AppStudio apps using jQuery Mobile ThemeRoller, but that’s not as convenient as having a library of CSS themes to browse right on your computer (as in Alpha Anywhere) or in your Web IDE (as in Appery.io). 

If you are only beginning to play with mobile development and don’t have a programming background, NSB/AppStudio is a good place to start. Be aware, however, that it has limited functionality compared to full-featured mobile IDEs and MBaaS platforms; in particular, AppStudio lacks native mobile app support and Enterprise integrations. But for $99 a seat, what can you expect?

InfoWorld Scorecard
Capability (25%)
Integrations (25%)
Client support (20%)
IDE (20%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score
NSB/AppStudio 4.2.9 7 5 8 9 9 7.3
At a Glance
  • If you want to build mobile apps and you don't have a programming background, NSB/AppStudio is a great place to start. Just be aware it has limited functionality compared to full-featured mobile IDEs.

    Pros

    • Simple, Visual Basic-like IDE for Windows and OS X to build mobile Web and mobile hybrid apps
    • Easy to learn and use
    • Integrates with Adobe PhoneGap Builder
    • Can target iOS, Android, and Windows Phone devices
    • Automatically translates Basic script to JavaScript prior to running or publication

    Cons

    • Limited functionality compared to full-featured mobile IDEs and MBaaS platforms
    • Lacks native mobile app support
    • Lacks enterprise integrations

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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