Book reviews for Web app development

This is a set of tiny book reviews covering the topic of Web app development for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three or four years, then you know the increasing popularity of personal mobile computing devices. This has manifested itself through “smart phones” like the iPhone and “tablet computers” like the iPad and to some extent the iPod Touch. These devices, as well as other smart phones and tablet computers, get their network connections from the ether, their screens are smaller than the monitors of desktop computers, and they employ touch screens for input instead of keyboards and mice. All of these things significantly change the user’s experience and thus their expectations.

As a librarian I am interested in providing information services to my clientele. In this increasingly competitive environment where the provision of information services includes players like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, it behooves me to adapt to the wider environment of my clientele as opposed to the other way around. This means I need to learn how to provide information services through mobile computing devices. Google does it. I have to do it too.

Applications for mobile computing devices fall into two categories: 1) native applications, and 2) “Web apps”. The former are binary programs written in compiled languages like Objective-C (or quite possibly Java). These types of applications are operating system-specific, but they are also able to take full advantage of the underlying hardware. This means applications for things like iPhone or iPad can interoperate with the devices’ microphone, camera, speakers, geo-location functions, network connection, local storage, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know any compiled languages to any great degree, and actually I have little desire to do so. After all, I’m a lazy Perl programmer, and I’ve been that way for almost twenty years.

The second class of applications are Web apps. In reality, these things are simply sets of HTML pages specifically designed for mobiles. These “applications” have the advantage of being operating system independent but are dead in the water without the existence of a robust network connection. These applications, in order to be interactive and meet user expectations, also need to take full advantage of CSS and Javascript, and when it comes to Javascript it becomes imperative to learn and understand how to do AJAX and AJAX-like data acquisition. If I want to provide information services through mobile devices, then the creation of Web apps seems much more feasible. I know how to create well-formed and valid HTML. I can employ the classic LAMP stack to do any hard-core computing. There are a growing number of CSS frameworks making it easy to implement the mobile interface. All I have to do is learn Javascript, and this is not nearly as difficult as it used to be with the emergence of Javascript debuggers and numerous Javascript libraries. For me, Web apps seem to be the way to go.

Over the past couple of years I went out and purchased the following books to help me learn how to create Web apps. Each of them are briefly described below, but first, here’s a word about WebKit. There are at least three HTML frameworks driving the majority of Web browsers these days. Gecko which is the heart of Firefox, WebKit which is the heart of Safari and Chrome, and whatever Microsoft uses as the heart of Internet Explorer. Since I do not own any devices that run the Android or the Windows operating systems, all of my development is limited to Gecko or WebKit based browsers. Luckily, WebKit seems to be increasing in popularity, and this makes it easier for me to rationalize my development in iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The books reviewed below also lean in this direction.

  • Beginning iPhone And iPad Web Apps (2010, 488 pgs.) by Chris Apers and Daniel Paterson – This is one my more recent purchases and I think I like this book the best. First and foremost, it is the most agnostic of all the books, even though some of the examples use WebKit. True to its title, it describes the use of HTML5, CSS, and Javascript to implement mobile interfaces. This includes whole chapters to the use of vector graphics and fonts, audio and video content, special effects with (WebKit-specific) CSS, touch and gesture events with Javascript, location-aware programming, and client-side data storage. Moreover, this book is the best of the bunch when it comes to describing how mobile interfaces are different from browser-based interfaces. Mobile interfaces are not just smaller versions of their older siblings! If you are going to buy one book, then buy this one. I think it will serve you for the longest period of time.
  • Building iPhone Apps With HTML, CSS, and Javascript (2010, 166 pgs.) by Jonathan Stark – Being shorter than the previous book, this one is not as thorough but still covers all the bases. On the other hand, unlike the previous title, it does describe how to use a Javascript library for mobile (JQTouch), and how to use PhoneGap to convert a Web app into a native application with many of the native application benefits. This book is a quick read and a good introduction.
  • Dashcode For Dummies (2011, 436 pgs.) by Jesse Feiler – Dashcode is a development environment originally designed to facilitate the creation of Macintosh OS X dashboard widgets. As you may or may not know, these widgets are self-contained HTML/Javascript/CSS files intended to support simple utility functions. Tell the time. Display the weather. Convert currencies. Render XML files. Etc. Dashcode evolved and now enables the developer to create Web apps for the Macintosh family of i-devices. I bought this book because I own these devices, and I thought the book might help me exploit their particular characteristics. It does not. Dashcode includes no internal links to the underlying hardware. This book describes how to use Dashcode very well, but Dashcode applications are not really the kind I want to create. I suppose I could use Dashcode to create the skin of my application but the overhead may be excessive and the result may be too device dependent.
  • Developing Hybrid Applications For The iPhone (2009, 195 pgs.) by Lee S. Barney – By introducing the idea of a “hybrid” application, this book picks up where the Dashcode book left off. It does this by describing two Javascript packages (QuickConnectiPhone and PhoneGap) allowing the developer to interact with the underlying hardware. I’ve read this book a couple of times, I’ve looked over it a few more, and in the end I am still challanged. I’m excited about accessing things like hardware’s camera, GPS funcationality, and file system, but after reading this book I’m still confused on actually how to do it. The content of this book is an advanced topic to be tackled after the basics have been mastered.
  • Safari And WebKit Development For iPhone OS 3.0 (2010, 383 pgs.) by Richard Wagner – This book is practical, and the one I relied upon the most, but only before I bought Beginning iPhone And iPad Web Apps. It gives an overview of WebKit, Javascript, and CSS. It advocates Web app frameworks like iUI, iWebKit, and UIUIKit. It describes how to design interfaces for the small screen of iPhone and iPod Touch. It has a chapter the specific Javascript events supported by iPhone and iPod Touch. Like a couple of the other books, it describes how to use the HTML5 canvas to render graphics. I was excited to learn how to interact with the phone, maps, and SMS functions of the devices, but learned that this is done simply through specialized URLs. When the book talks about “offline applications” it is really talking about local database storage — another feature of HTML5. A couple things I should have explored but haven’t yet include bookmarklets and data URLs. The book describes how to take advantage of these concepts. This book is really a second edition of similar book with a different title but written by the same author in 2008. Its content is not as current as it could be, but the fundamentals are there.

Based on the things I’ve learned from these books, I’ve created several mobile interfaces. Each of them deserve their own blog posting so I will only outline them here:

  1. iMobile – A rough mobile interface to much of the Infomotions domain. Written a little more than a year ago, it combines backend Perl scripts with the iUI Javascript framework to render content. Now that I look back on it, the hacks there are pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. Of particular interest is the image gallery which gets its content from OAI-PMH data stored on the server, and my water collection which reads an XML file of my own design and plots where the water was collected on a Google map. iMobile was created from the knowledge I gained from Safari And WebKit Development For iPhone OS 3.0.
  2. DH@ND – The home page for a fledgling initiative called Digital Humanities at the University of Notre Dame. The purpose of the site is to support sets of tools enabling students and scholars to simultaneously do “close reading” and “distant reading”. It was built using the principles gleaned from the books above combined with a newer Javascript framework called JQueryMobile. There are only two things presently of note there. The first is Alex Lite for Mobile, a mobile interface to a tiny catalogue of classic novels. Browse the collection by author or title. Download and read selected books in ePub, PDF, or HTML formats. The second is Geo-location. After doing named-entity extraction against a limited number of classic novels, this interface displays a word cloud of place names. The user can then click on place names and have them plotted on a Google Map.

Remember, the sites listed above are designed for mobile, primarly driven by the WebKit engine. If you don’t use a mobile device to view the sites, then your milage will vary.

Image Gallery
Image Gallery
Water Collection
Water Collection
Alex Lite
Alex Lite
Geo-location
Geo-Location

Web app development is beyond a trend. It has all but become an expectation. Web app implementation requires an evolution in thinking about Web design as well as an additional skill set which includes advanced HTML, CSS, and Javascript. These are not your father’s websites. There are a number of books out there that can help you learn about these topics. Listed above are just a few of them.