Quick Introduction

Over the past month or so, I have been using JQuery Mobile to build a HTML5 mobile/tablet front-end for a strength training website I've developed. While I have built native Android and iOS applications before (in Java and Objective-C, respectively) the promise of a single codebase which would work on most major platforms, as well as the ability to iterate quickly in HTML and JavaScript, was very appealing.

JQuery Mobile & HTML5

To build a mobile app using HTML5 and JavaSript, you will need to write quite a bit of JavaScript. However, the UI controls and handling for a touch device are quite different from a standard web application. You will therefore want to take advantage of some kind of existing mobile HTML5/JavaScript framework (unless you have a lot of time and want to write everything from scratch yourself). There are a number of choices out there: jQTouch, Sencha Touch etc.

I have been a fan of JQuery for many years, enjoying its minimalist philosophy and the excellent core and community-contributed features and plugins. JQuery made JavaScript development tolerable to me. So, having heard good things about JQuery Mobile from Chris McDonough (Author of the Pyramid Python Web Framework), I figured I'd give it a try.

JQuery Mobile & HTML5: 3 Advantages

  1. Easy to learn and Quick to Iterate:

    After reading the JQuery Mobile docs and also reading the JQuery Mobile book from O'Reilly, I was able to build a working, rough version of my app over a weekend. That is with no prior HTML5 / JQuery Mobile experience. Compared to Android and iOS, it is far faster to build out your UI and logic using JQuery Mobile and HTML5 than either platform natively.

    I found the learning curve for Apple's Interface Builder quite steep, and it also takes time to learn the quirks of the Android layout system. Furthermore, it is quite complicated to hook up a list view (ListView on Android, UITableView on iOS) to a remote datasource, and have it looking pretty, with native code. Using JQuery Mobile, I was able to leverage all my existing JavaScript and HTML/CSS knowledge to do this very quickly. I didn't have to learn a whole new abstraction with adapters, delegates etc. I just wrote JQuery code.

  2. Avoid App Store Approval Madness & Debug Build Hell:

    One of the most painful things in developing for mobile, which by definition means being on iOS, is dealing with the Apple App Store approval process. In order to get a native app to your iOS users, you must go through a lengthy process (days, possibly weeks). Not only must you jump through this hoop on initial release, but for each upgrade, also. This adds greatly to the complexity of the QA and release cycle, in addition to simply adding time. Since JQuery Mobile apps are merely a special type of web app, they inherit all the wonderful qualities of that environment: As soon as the user reloads your site, they are "upgraded" to the latest version. Pushing bugfixes and new features is instantaneous. Even on Android - which with much less stringent Market requirements is the Wild West compared to the Apple environment - it is still nice to simply have the users upgraded without even being aware it is happening.

    An extension to this is how easy it is to distribute beta/test builds to users. Simply tell them to point their browser at a URL and they have it! No DRM madness for iOS nor even APK distribution with Android to think about.

  3. Cross-platform & cross-device:

    The fact that my app worked immediately on both Android and iOS - along with many other platforms - is a massive advantage. As an individual developer, it is a huge effort to maintain a separate code base for each platform. Writing a quality mobile application for a single platform is a full-time job, having to re-do that for each platform takes a lot of resources. The fact that my app will work on both my Android and iOS devices equally well is a huge bonus.

    Furthermore, especially with the massive proliferation of Android devices in all shapes and sizes, making your app look presentable on a huge variety of screen resolutions is a real challenge. For serious Android developers, device fragmentation in terms of screen size (scaling from the downright tiny to quite large) actually represents a considerable development cost. With the browser rendering your application in a way that looks reasonable on every device, you don't have to worry about this to anywhere near the same extent.

JQuery Mobile & HTML5: 3 Disadvantages

  1. Slower Than Native:

    The biggest drawback in my opinion is that even on the latest Android and iOS hardware (dual core Tegra 2 Android phone, dual core iPad2 tablet), JQuery Mobile applications feel noticeably slower than native. Especially on Android, where the browser is surprisingly (since Google is a web-focused company) far slower and buggier than on iOS. I haven't yet tested my app on older Android devices but it may be downright unusable there (e.g. G1 Android phone).

    I believe that in the next 12-24 months hardware will catch up sufficiently (e.g. quad-core devices coming in 2011) that this will be less of an issue. But today, it is a definite drawback. Also, if you are solely targetting iOS, you can count on the performance of the browser being at least reasonable (unlike Android, BlackBerry, etc).

  2. Quirky:

    JQuery Mobile is still beta software, and as such I have encountered bugs. That being said, the team is extremely responsive in addressing issues on GitHub. I think one of the big problems is simply quirks across various browsers on different platforms. I am certain that this will be ironed out over time. The applications also can look quirky in a visual sense - while I think the JQuery Mobile team have done a great job with their widgets and themes, it is still fairly distinct from native. How much this really matters to users is not clear, but it is something to be aware of.

  3. Limited Capabilities vs Native:

    Obviously, JavaScript running in a browser does not have full access to many features of the device. A common example being the camera. However, tools like PhoneGap help greatly with many common issues. Indeed, I have started working on deploying versions of my app for iOS and Android with PhoneGap - using native Facebook bindings - and am quite impressed. I will be writing about my experiences with PhoneGap and native bindings in future posts.


To sum it up, I believe that JQuery Mobile and HTML5 is a viable platform for mobile application development. However, it does not (yet) suit all classes of applications. For simple content display and data entry-type apps (as opposed to very rich multimedia/gaming applications) it can be a great force multiplier compared with native. I certainly am happy with how it has turned out for my app - I simply do not have the time to maintain a port of my strength tracker app for both Android and iOS.

Over the course of the next 1-2 years, as hardware gets faster and devices proliferate, I believe HTML5 (and JQuery Mobile, PhoneGap, etc) will be even more important technologies in the mobile app space.

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at FrozenRidge.co.

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