Saturday, October 4, 2014

HTML5 mobile framework: part 3, Bootstrap & Ratchet

Sorry to keep splitting up threads here. A few weeks back, I posted that we're using jQuery Mobile to make our mobile apps, and that while it's good it's not awesome. So the R&D continued for a new HTML5 framework to build our mobile apps using Cordova/Phonegap.

Again, it's opinions and impressions as I try things out to see how they fit our needs. If your opinion varies please share it in the comments! I'd love your input on HTML5 and hybrid mobile apps.

Here's the next one I tried out (this was a good 3 weeks ago): Ratchet.


Bootstrap / Ratchet


Bootstrap is a rich set of CSS classes and mobile-friendly behaviors. It looks a little bit cartoonish for my tastes, and it really stands out where it's in use, but it is the current vogue and it is quite flexible as far as modifying the theme. You start with a rich set of utility classes but you're not constrained to use only what you're given. That counts for a lot!

However, Bootstrap is not a mobile development framework. There is no page swapping, no interception of # hyperlinks to swap which panel/page is currently showing, and so on. And while it is mobile-friendly and responsive, it is not designed to "look native".

Ratchet attempts to fill this gap by adding more CSS classes for listviews, thumbnail icons, badges and mini icons that float to the right-hand side, and so on. Ratchet was created for quickly prototyping mobile apps using HTML web pages: "visit this URL; after we create the app, here's what it would look like."


I was quite excited to find this, since my own idea had been to write some jQuery wrappers over Bootstrap to roll our own framework. But as they say, why reinvent the wheel? (obviously a phrase from before we had Github, where literally thousands of projects are out there reinventing wheels)

What I saw, got me excited quickly:
  • It's pretty, it's pure CSS. It's tiny. It's a superset of Bootstrap.
  • We're not tied down to a specific development technique. It's just CSS.
  • The documentation is quite well organized, and there's not much of it.
  • Separate CSS for iOS and Android, trying for a more-native look. Using Cordova's merge capability, this could turn out well.
  • A nice set of glyphicons.
  • Again, it's just a bunch of CSS, so could work with any programming and eventing toolkit, e.g. jQuery. (I repeat this cuz it's really core to the uber-flexible "style first then redesign repeatedly" approach we need)
  • There's virtually no overhead, so rendering and response is quite swift.
But then things took a turn as I tried to use it to develop a real app:
  • No events. We'd need to add jQuery to add click and tap handlers, which is fine. Then again, this could be addressed with TouchSwipe, adding swipe and pinch handlers to jQuery. Not a problem, but does illustrate that Ratchet is intended for prototyping apps, not for building real apps.
  • The prefab behaviors do not include popup dialogs. Again, not killer but if we want to show a Please Wait there's no supplied way to do that.
But then the show-stopper!
  • All that page-changing behavior is done with Push.js, which loads HTML pages from the server. It does not (as far as I could tell from the source and the docs) in any way support switching pages within the document. You're loading up HTML pages, not switching visibility to show and hide a specific panel.
  • This means that you can't just switch over to the results page; you load results.html from the server (or from the in-app device storage)... but without any of your DOM changes. A typical use case, is a search function which populates a results list on another page, then switches over to that page. Even if you got the page-change timing right so the results content were visible at the right time... switching away from the results and then back again would effectively lose the results.
So ultimately, we had to say no here and shelve it. Push.js is cute for what it is, but isn't suitable for even a moderately simple use case of showing/hiding/adding DOM elements in another panel. (again, Ratchet doesn't claim to be this)

But it's not over...


Still, I'm reluctant to let it go entirely. My current line of thinking, is to make a fork of Ratchet minus Push.js, then replace Push.js with something that simply switches which <div class="page"> is currently visible. Given this, we would have a nice set of CSS utility classes and a homegrown page-management framework. All that's missing is support for dialogs, which doesn't sound difficult on the surface.

So this one was shelved, but remains on the radar. It's the closest thing I've found so far, to the ideally-minimal CSS toolkit we need. I'm gonna try out a few more such as Ionic and Sencha,before I go for reinventing a framework.

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