Breaking the monolith: Scalable Native Apps II (iOS implementation)

In this post, I will continue where I left off on part one “Breaking the monolith: scalable native apps,” by giving examples of how large projects can be decomposed to allow faster iterations. I will try my best to keep the technical jargon to manageable levels so that the concept is not lost (if you are not a developer familiar with some of the tools mentioned here).

Before we get started, here are a list of things that are recommended (but not required) to make the best of this piece:

  1. Basic knowledge of CocoaPods
  2. Xcode for iOS and Android Studio for Android
    1. For android, you will also need to setup a maven/Artifactory server
  3. A source code management system, such as GitHub or BitBucket

iOS sources can be downloaded here:

  1. Main application
  2. Order processing module

To simplest approach to modularizing an iOS application is to create a Podfile and integrate CocoaPods. From that podfile, a list of frameworks or libraries can then be listed as a dependency. CocoaPod will handle the dirty work of downloading these dependencies and making them available for the build. In our CookR.io example our podfile is pretty simple (integrating only the order processing module) but can be used to integrate any number of open source projects available on the web.

Create and version the module

In the attached sources, the first step was to create the module (private specs repo in CocoaPod parlance) with pod lib create Cookr.io.OrderProcessing. This starts a wizard that creates a new Xcode workspace with your module and optionally tests and an example project that may be used to functionally test your code. At the end a .podspec file is generated, this file is then tweaked to specify the version we are creating as well as any source files or resources that must be bundled into our framework.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 10.58.30 AM

To keep things short and spicy, the order processing module merely defines one storyboard and a two view controllers. The first controller allows a user to choose the global flavour to apply to their meal. The second controller simply shows an image and the allows the user to end the flow (Done navigation button) and send the selected flavour back to the flow initiator.  This seems awfully simple, but it is a powerful feature of this architectural pattern.  In this example the initiator is the main application. However, this flow could be invoked from *anywhere* including another module!

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 11.01.33 AM

With a module defined, and published as per instructions in the CocoaPods guide for creating private specs repos, our main application can then consume this module without knowing the intricate details of how it is actually implemented. To do this, we create a Podfile in the application project (pod init) and list our module as a pod. Then run pod update to install the module and make it available to the project.

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 11.07.49 AM

Use the module APIs & Initiate the flow

With the above step complete, we can now get to the fun parts – using APIs exposed by the module. In our CookR.io example, this means invoking our OrderFlowIntitator factory:

import CookROrderProcessing
// ...
// Create a flow controller and present it - this hands control over to the
// the module
if let flowController = OrderFlowInitiator.flowController(with:nil) {
    self.present(flowController, animated:true)
}

This block of code hands the presentation and business logic/flow over to the module. Easy right? Now, there are some caveats that must be handled when building in the manner. The first one, is that module authors should keep the external interfaces very simple so that the consumer does not have to deal with messy details such as how to correctly load the storyboard(s) and controllers that the module defines. Afterall, we are striving for better decoupling! The second is that an application can have many frameworks and resource bundles. If the module uses resource bundles and storyboards, then care must be taken to load from the correct locations:

open class OrderFlowInitiator: FlowInitiator {
   // factory method for instantiating a flow controller
   public class func flowController(with parameters: Dictionary<String, Any>?) -> UIViewController? {
     return OrderFlowInitiator().create(with:parameters)
   }
 
  // internal implementation that conforms to the flow initiator protocol
  // ideally FlowInitiator would be a public protocol that can be shared across multiple modules.
  // for the purpose of this example, declaring it inside this module is sufficient
  func create(with data: Dictionary<String, Any>? = nil) -> UIViewController? {
     print("OrderFlowInitiator: start flow")
 
     // get the framework bundle that this class belongs to
     let frameworkBundle = Bundle(for: OrderFlowInitiator.self)
 
     // use framework bundle to lookup the resource bundle that our module's resources will be 
     // packaged in (see the s.resource_bundles mapping in podspec)
     let bundlePath = frameworkBundle.path(forResource: "CookROrderProcessing", ofType: "bundle")
     let resourceBundle = Bundle(path: bundlePath!)

     // with the correct bundle, create a storyboard and return the initial controller
     return UIStoryboard(name: "OrderProcessing", bundle: resourceBundle).instantiateInitialViewController()
   }
}

This code specifically always returns the initial view controller of the storyboard. If the module defined multiple storyboards with different flows, then the appropriate logic would also have to be added to OrderFlowInitiator.flowController(with:) method to determine which board/controller to setup and return to the caller.

(Optional) Return data to the flow initiator

When the module has completed its flow, depending on requirements, data can be returned to the caller. There are a number of ways to do this – in CookR.io example, we simply post a notification that can be handled by the application:

@IBAction func completeOrderFlow(_ sender: Any) {
  print("Order flow complete!")
  self.navigationController?.dismiss(animated: true, completion: nil)
 
  // deliver the outcome of the flow back to whichever module (or main app) that initiated the flow
  var flowResult = Notification(name: Notification.Name(rawValue: "flow.result"))
  flowResult.object = self.selectedFlavour
  NotificationCenter.default.post(flowResult)
 }

 

DEMO

The next post in the series will explore how to accomplish the same pattern in android.

#TillNextTime

– Martello Jones

Hybrid Application Development – Part II

Let’s continue to de-mystify hybrid application development by tackling some common misconceptions. I will also explain two common strategies and break them down into pros and cons.  If you are new to the concept of hybrid apps, Part 1 sets the foundation and explains the key concepts that we will be working off from here onwards. Before proceeding, I recommend taking a look at Apache Cordova if you are unfamiliar with it. It is not a requirement, but since Cordova is out of scope for this series and it is used within the project sources, it may be valuable to play around with it.

Sources for Part 2:  v1.1.0.zip

App Strategies

There are two approaches employed when creating hybrid apps. The first method involves a native wrapper consuming remote content and data (lets reference this as N->RD). The other approach is using a native wrapper using local content and remote data (lets reference this as NR->D). The following sections will visualize and explain the difference between the approaches.

N : Native Wrapper (Java / Objective C WebView implementation)

R : Resources (HTML/JavaScript/Images/Audio/Video etc)

D : Data (REST or other API layer)

-> : Separator to clarify where resources originate. Items on the left signify local resources, whereas those on the right are remote (require network download). 

N->RD

Hybrid App Strategies.001In the N->RD strategy, a native application wrapper is used to load content and data from a remote server. In the illustration above the application flow would be:

  1. WebView inside the native wrapper loads resources from https://app.somewebserver.com/index.html
    1. All resources (JavaScript, CSS, Images) referenced by the html files are then downloaded into the WebView on the client device. A single page application (SPA) will do this once, but note that a traditional multi page web app will repeat this process each time the user navigates to a new page if the resource is not cacheable.
  2. The WebView may then issue subsequent API calls via ajax or sockets to get data. For example performing login or retrieving customer profile data.

 

Slow Hybrid Apps

Whenever I hear this sentiment, I am almost always inclined to think that the application was created using the N->RD model. Within reasonable context, however, the statement is not incorrect. The reason for this is quite simple: It takes time to download resources over a network! The more resources, the more data that must leave some server in the cloud and travel over (sometimes spotty) wireless networks onto the mobile device. This leaves the end user with one of two problems each time they launch the app:

  1. Unreasonably long wait times staring at blank white screen (VERY BAD design) or
  2. Unreasonably long wait times staring at a loading screen (Less, but still BAD design)

Let’s take a look at what this means with an application that we can relate to: tudA. In the video below, I have taken the www/ folder of the tudA project and served it from a http server running on my development machine (instructions to run this can be found in the README.md file).  In order to illustrate what the user experience would be for someone using this app on a mobile device over a wireless network, I throttled the network bandwidth to regular 3G (750kb/s).

As you can see, the application took approximately 45 seconds to be fully loaded. It was not even useable before the 12 second mark. Mobile users have very short attention spans. They expect to get what they want out of a mobile app in short order otherwise, they simply close it and move on to another app. If the app is crucial to their life, then it results in app-hate, which will be strongly reflected in application ratings and comments. I would “guess-timate” that this scenario accounts for about 80% of all the “Hybrid Apps Are Slow” statements that you will encounter.

Why use this strategy?

Well, it usually boils down to cost or time to market. With the N->RD strategy the development effort required to deploy a mobile application for an organization or business unit is usually relatively low.  This is particularly true, if there is already a website representing the business. If the website is responsive, an even greater reduction in effort as far as getting it ready for hybrid deployment is concerned. Creating apps in this manner also allows a smaller package download from the app store- this is a very important consideration because some stores may not allow the download if the user is not on WiFi. Another reason this strategy gets used, is that most developers and organizations believe that this mode is the only way to have the ability for hot-fix deployments without facing the long delays associated with app stores. *We will briefly touch on this later when I present a way to get this feature.

How can it be improved?

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on the content and size of those resources on the server side. It is also subjective to what the organization believes is an acceptable user experience. That being said, there are a few steps that can be taken to improve the situation with a N->RD app.

  1. Never give the user a blank screen while content is being downloaded, the entry point to your application should (as its first priority) establish a splash screen with some sort of indicator that lets the user know the app is not ready. This does not fix the problem, but it reduces frustration and removes the unprofessional “just a website in box” feeling that comes with a blank screen.
  2. Use mobile first design for your websites! Make them responsive, because you should assume that more traffic will eventually be coming from smartphones and tablets. It also makes porting to mobile much easier if you are in a pinch to deliver a timely solution.
  3. Remember that your app is NOT your website, and your (existing) website is not your app. You may want to re-use the website as a starting point, but design in a manner such that if YOU, the developer, will be paying for your user’s bandwidth consumption, you will be paying the smallest possible download fee.
  4. Use profiling tools to scale back bandwidth to real life speeds (on the lower end). Chrome/Safari/Firefox have excellent bandwidth management capability.
  5. If you decide to deploy an application in this manner, consider using the AppCache HTML5 feature (until its replacement spec arrives). This will make the biggest difference in user experience, when done right. The app users will experience the long download only once (the initial download), after which the resources will be referenced in a manner similar to NR->D strategy. However, please be aware of some gotchas associated with AppCache.

NR->D

 

Hybrid App Strategies.002In the NR->D strategy, a native application wrapper is used to load resources from the local file system of the client device – only dynamic data is fetched from the server. In the illustration above the application flow would be:

  1. WebView in the native wrapper loads index.html from the file system (e.g file:///assets/www/index.html )
  2. The WebView may then issue subsequent API calls via ajax or sockets to get data. For example performing login or retrieving customer profile data.

Apache Cordova provides an excellent framework to deploy hybrid applications in this manner. It has been such a great resource to the hybrid application landscape, that frameworks like IonicMeteorIntel XDK and Telerik have included it in the standard workflow to enable an easy path to deploying to multiple platforms. In the first few years of Cordova, this method of deploying a hybrid app was thought to hinder organizations that rely on being able to quickly deploy hot-fixes or updates. This was because app updates required a resubmission to the various app stores. To some, it seemed pointless since in their circumstances going to hybrid was a way to bypass the ghastly wait times involved in store submissions. Personally, using this as an excuse puzzled me because the solution was as clear as daylight, implement a native module that could fetch your app update and patch them in when it was ready…  Thankfully, there is an excellent plugin called ContentSync that makes deploying updates to your packaged app a simple affair.

Which approach should you use?

At a very high level both approaches do the same thing – get some resources to display, and then make API calls to send or receive data. However, the origin of those resources dramatically change the (perceived) behaviour of the application if care is not administered in its design. It calls for a subjective answer – one that I will not be able to provide. In business, it always boils down to cost. So, where organization A might be willing to spend the extra money and time to take one approach, another organization may see it as cost prohibitive. That being said, I believe that each approach has its own merits and can be used effectively, if no shortcuts are taken. The development team charged with delivering the solution MUST understand what the objective is as well as any drawbacks associated with a particular approach. There should be strong engagement with any UX experts assigned to the project and there should be open, bi-directional dialog between those designers and the implementors.  This is often the root cause associated of the “Hybrid Apps are Slow” statements. It is not necessarily a problem of the strategy employed, but a gross misunderstanding of those strategies and their limitations, which result in poorly executed application flows.Hybrid App Strategies.003

Closing bits

Those are the two main approaches to developing and deploying a hybrid application. The approach you take should weigh all the pros and cons and perform due diligence in managing any deficiencies that a particular approach might have. The final blog on this topic, will be a little bit more technical. I will show how we can dissect the typical concerns of a hybrid application and offer a few ways to tackle them.

– Martello Jones

 

Hybrid Application Development

This post will be the first in a three part article on mobile application development using what is referred to as a hybrid approach. I’ll try my best to explain and illustrate some of the common pitfalls, known limitations and design considerations that should not be overlooked when using a hybrid approach.
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