Desktop development: is Electron the answer, or a tragedy?

A few weeks ago InfoQ posted a session by Paul Betts on Desktop Applications in Electron. Betts worked on Slack Desktop, which he says was one of the first Electron apps after the Atom editor. There is a transcript as well as a video (which is great for text-oriented people like myself).

Electron, in case you missed it, is a framework for building desktop applications with Chromium, Google’s open source browser on which Chrome is based, and Node.js. In that it uses web technology for desktop applications, it is a similar concept to older frameworks like Apache Cordova/PhoneGap, though Electron only targets Windows, macOS and Linux, not mobile platforms, and is specific to a particular browser engine and JavaScript runtime.

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Electron is popular as a quick route to cross-platform desktop applications. It is particularly attractive if you come from a web development background since you can use many of the same libraries and skills.

Betts says:

Electron is a way to build desktop applications that run on Mac and Linux and Windows PCs using web technologies. So we don’t have to use things like Cocoa or WPF or Windows Forms; these things from the 90s. We can use web technology and reuse a lot of the pieces we’ve used to build our websites, to build desktop applications. And that’s really cool because it means that we can do interesting desktop-y things like, open users’ files and documents and stuff like that, and show notifications and kind of do things that desktop apps can do. But we can do them in less than the bazillion years it will take you to write WPF and Coco apps. So that’s cool.

There are many helpful tips in this session, but the comment posted above gave me pause for thought. You can get excellent results from Electron: look no further than Visual Studio Code which in just a few years (first release was April 2015) has become one of the most popular development tools of all time.

At the same time, I am reluctant to dismiss native code desktop development as yesterday’s thing. John Gruber articulates the problem in his piece about Electron and the decline of native apps.

As un-Mac-like as Word 6 was, it was far more Mac-like then than Google Docs running inside a Chrome tab is today. Google Docs on Chrome is an un-Mac-like word processor running inside an ever-more-un-Mac-like web browser. What the Mac market flatly rejected as un-Mac-like in 1996 was better than what the Mac market tolerates, seemingly happily, today. Software no longer needs to be Mac-like to succeed on the Mac today. That’s a tragedy.

Unlike Gruber I am not a Mac person but even on Windows I love the performance and integration of native applications that look right, feel right, and take full advantage of the platform.

As a developer I also prefer C# to JavaScript but that is perhaps more incidental – though it shows how far-sighted C# inventor Anders Hejlsberg was when he shifted to work on TypeScript, another super popular open source project from Microsoft.

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