When building great enterprise apps for our users many of us often first target the desktop user. Did you know that GWT lets you just as easily build great user interfaces for your mobile users?
Modern mobile phones such Android based devices and the iPhone ship will powerful web browsers which use the same Webkit rendering engine which GWT already supports and increasingly includes great capabilities like geo-location and offline storage.
Today's guest blog post is from Navin Kumar, CTO of Socialwok who has offered to share some of their experiences around building mobile apps for the enterprise.
If you have an enterprise story you'd like share please send me an email.
Google Web Toolkit (GWT) is a great set of open source tools for developing powerful Ajax-enabled web applications. Socialwok uses GWT on top of Google App Engine to provide a feed based group collaboration service for Google Apps users. GWT makes development more efficient, particularly for Java developers who work on both the front-end and the back-end. Since we use Java language support for Google App Engine, this is true for us. By using the Java programming language, GWT can make you more efficient in many other ways too. For example, after spending a couple of months developing the desktop web version of Socialwok, we developed the mobile HTML 5 web version in four days.
To see the desktop web version of Socialwok go to http://socialwok.com/ and use any existing Google Apps domain email address to login.
Once you have created your socialwok network, you can now access the mobile web version by pointing your mobile web browser to http://app.socialwok.com/. Login using your google apps domain email address.
Here are a few pointers based on our experience in creating Socialwok's desktop and mobile web versions:
1. Think about the devices you want to support.
75% of iPhone users say they browse the web more often from their iPhone now more than they ever did before. 40% of them browse the web more often from their iPhone than their own desktop. Hence, it is important to have a mobile web version of your application for different mobile web devices like iPhone and Android. Socialwok mobile web version supports mobile browsers based on the Webkit codebase like the iPhone's Safari and Android mobile web browsers. The first step was therefor to fix the user.agent in our module's .gwt.xml file to speed up compile time by having GWT only compile the Webkit permutation:
<set-property name="user.agent" value="safari">
Of course, during development we enjoy GWT's quick edit-refresh-test model thanks to Development Mode (formerly Hosted Mode) which lets us test our code in a real browser while executing and debugging in Java.
Another thing to note is that with Mobile Safari on the iPhone and the Android Web Browser, you are now allowed to use webkit-specific CSS for mobile devices. This allows you to use native accelerations that include transitions, border images, as well as natively-created gradients. Here's an example of CSS used to create a native accelerated transition.
\-webkit-transition: opacity 500ms ease-out 100ms;
Look for more info here. While the information is specific to the iPhone, the same rules do apply and work well on the Android browser as well.
2. Optimize for the screen that your users are using.
iPhone and Android devices use very powerful touch screen user interfaces. The user interface for all the iPhone applications is pretty well-defined; it involves a navigation header at the top, the content in the middle, and maybe a footer at the bottom. If you're thinking in GWT widgets, you should be thinking VerticalPanel or FlowPanel. These are the widgets of choice for the mobile web GWT developer.
Screen real estate on mobile phones is precious. You have to optimize the amount of visible content on the screen. Try to make things "expand" when you click on them. For example, in Socialwok, when someone clicks a post from the listing screen, a new screen is given to the user with only the single "opened" post that lists all the attachments, comments, and other pieces of information right there.
Unlike the desktop version, instead of one single widget for the feed item, we need one widget for the feed listing, and one "feed item" panel, that contains the single update along with the corresponding comment thread.
Finally, understand that your users are looking at the mobile as a "complement" to your desktop version.
While they might end up using the mobile version more often, they expect it to mirror the desktop interface in basic ways. This is actually great because you have already developed your widgets using Java, and porting them to the mobile is only a matter of changing CSS classes, and removing a few unnecessary UI elements.
3. Share as much code as possible between versions.
I hope the above pointers help you get started on desktop to mobile web development on GWT. For more information on Socialwok and GWT, check out Google's developer GWT profile on Socialwok on YouTube.
Finally, here are some useful classes and libraries you can use for GWT mobile web development:
ImmutableResourceBundle - A great set of tools that was started in the GWT incubator project but has now made their way in the mainline GWT trunk development (soon to be known as ClientBundle). ImmutableResourceBundle is the followup to the great ImageBundle interface. Both seek to reduce greatly the number of round-trip times used by browsers to download cacheable resources such as images, CSS, and other resources. The mobile browser is even more limited than the desktop browsers when it comes to downloading simultaneous resources, so the use of data: URLs and CssBundle are used heavily by the mobile version of Socialwok.
FlowPanel - Unlike desktop browsers which are more optimized for
tags that GWT uses for its CellPanel-based layout controls, mobile browsers like Safari and the Android browsers perform much better with
GWTQuery - Ray Cromwell's excellent port of JQuery to GWT provides most of the JQuery functionality to allow you to modify CSS, and perform other actions with ease. In the case of the mobile web interface, there are times when it is definitely necessary to modify CSS dynamically, and this library will make that process much easier on you as a developer.
GWT Google APIs (Gears) - Google Gears is a browser plugin installed in the Android Web Browser used to provide extra functionality, particularly offline support which is very import for mobile browsers which don't always have a permanent connection. Google provides a GWT library that can be used to access the Gears plugin.
-- Navin Kumar, CTO, Socialwok