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Where the Web and the Desktop Meet: An Interview with Lee Barney

David Chisnall and Lee Barney, author of Developing Hybrid Applications for the iPhone: Using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to Build Dynamic Apps for the iPhone, talk about the blurring of the line between web applications and conventional applications.
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Lee Barney is the author of Developing Hybrid Applications for the iPhone. His approach to application development is heavily inspired by the web, using the same technologies found in web apps inside local applications. We talked about his vision of the iPhone as a platform for convergence between web and desktop ideas.

David Chisnall: There are lots of rumours about what will be announced at the keynote this year. Is there anything you're particularly hoping for?

Lee Barney: Hoping is too strong of a word. I would love to see some sort of oversized iPod touch or iPhone. I have thought that that would be the outcome of the research and engineering put into the MacBook Air. I do not believe that Apple would position it for competition in the netbook space since that would be a big loss per device.

It would be nice, but I'm not holding my breath. That being said, it would sure be fun to program for such a device.

DC: As I understand it, your book is about developing applications that run on the iPhone but depend on some remote server-side facilities, blurring the line between web applications and conventional applications. What do you see as the main advantage in this approach? How does it compare to writing a pure web application?

LB: The book covers how to create installed applications that are written in JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. There is no need for a web server. So far there has been nearly nothing that can be done in Objective-C that cannot be done in JavaScript using the UIWebView. The framework consists of a JavaScript facade to Objective-C objects and methods.

The main advantage to this approach is time to market. There are a huge number of developers and engineers that currently work in JavaScript. These individuals do not need to be retrained to get an application onto the app store. This buys you time to see if you actually need to rewrite the application in Objective-C. More than likely you never would need to do the rewrite.

The difference between writing a hybrid application and a web application is very small. The two biggest differences are that you don't have a web server to serve up your application, so it can run on an iPod touch when no open access points are available. The other huge difference is the access to the native behaviors of the device like GPS, vibration, on-device audio and video, database access to large databases shipped with the application, etc.

DC: Do you see Objective-C as a barrier to entry for iPhone development?

LB: Objective-C is a great language. I love writing in it, and the frameworks supplied by Apple for the iPhone and the Mac are outstanding. There are many who already know JavaScript that would love to create iPhone applications but don't have the time to learn it well enough to get their idea on the app store before they are beat to punch by someone else. Companies, especially the smaller ones, are also having a difficult time justifying the allocation of time and money to retrain engineers and development. This means that there is a large pool of potential that is being ignored if we stick strictly to Objective-C development for ether the iPhone or the Mac.

DC: Objective-C and JavaScript are both members of the Smalltalk family (JavaScript via Self), so it should be relatively easy for people who know one to learn the other; what do you see as the strengths of JavaScript over other Smalltalk-family languages?

LB: The strength of JavaScript is its accessibility. It is easy to get into since there are so many books, tutorials, and internet sites devoted to JavaScript use and development. Because of all of these resources, the learning curve is greatly reduced compared to some of the other of these languages, including Objective-C.

DC: At the moment, the iPhone has a much smaller market share than Symbian or even Windows Mobile, and is a tiny market when it comes to web applications. Why would you encourage developers to target this platform?

LB: First of all, it is just plain fun to write to the platform. Also, I have found that currently those who can write to this platform are very highly sought after and paid well. I also believe that the iPhone and its clones such as Android and Palm WebOS are the future. Why the future? Because they can easily handle complex, rich applications written in native languages or JavaScript where as the other platforms seem to struggle to support them.

DC: How do you see web applications evolving in the future? What technologies would you like to see added to the next generation of browsers to make this possible?

LB: I have been very happy with the CSS transitions and animations available on the iPhone and the Mac because of the use of WebKit. I would love to see these abilities in all browsers and in the HTML 5 specification.

DC: What makes the iPhone interesting and challenging as a target for hybrid applications?

LB: Multi-touch abilites and the high quality and small size of the screen makes us rethink what is meant by a user interface. Too long we as an industry have leaned toward writing form-based applications because it was easier for us, not easier for the customer and user. These devices force us to completely rethink how to create user interactions with our applications. Unfortunately I still see many business and other types of applications on the app store that have held on to this old vision and simply replaced pulldown menus with lists in views. As engineers and developers we must change this in ourselves to make these devices become all that they can be.

I also love pushing the boundaries of what a device can do. I was one of the original 4,000 given access to the beta of the iPhone SDK. When the release came out that included the UIWebView, I got very excited about seeing how far I could push it in the creation of rich applications. I instantly started to write the framework now known as QuickConnectiPhone to see what limitations there were. Other than complex 3D and 2D gaming I have found none.

When I first explained to my colleagues what I intended to do, they must have thought I was mad. As they saw what the iPhone and iPod touch could really do and what could be done with the framework, they became nearly as excited as I was.

DC: What projects are you currently working on?

LB: Reading books, for me, is more than a hobby. It is more like an addiction. I love to read almost anything. The knowledge and wisdom we can gain by reading is phenomenal. Not everyone is like me however.

Being a professor, one of the major concerns in my life is the disconnect between students and printed material. What I hear students asking are some very valid questions like these. Why must books and textbooks be only words and printed static images? Why is it that the current eBook readers try to do the impossible and duplicate the book experience? Why do you give me PDFs when they are hard to modify with what I want to add?

I am using QuickConnectiPhone and its port to Android, the Mac, Linux, and Windows to create books that include text, images, video, and audio. That is the type of information my students want in a textbook. These books are also editable by the owner. They can highlight existing content add their own content as text, images, video, and audio. This lets the text become what they need it to be. Not what I think it should be.

I am also working the user interface to make it dead simple for both content creators, the writer and the reader.

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