Why JavaScript will win on mobile

JavaScript is not the world’s most elegant programming language. So much so that one of the world’s top experts on the language wrote a book about “The Good Parts”. The book carries the headline “Unearthing the Excellence in JavaScript” because that excellence is quite deeply buried. Even so, it has rapidly become one of the most popular languages in the world. That popularity is deserved, because despite the flaws in the language, JavaScript gives developers significant advantages that they can’t get with other languages. Some of those advantages were created when browser vendors agreed to standardise on JavaScript (OK, technically ECMAScript) as the language for the web. Others are inherent to the web app programming model and more yet have been created through tooling enhancements. However, despite the fact that native apps are dominating web apps on mobile devices, JavaScript’s advantages are steadily transferring to mobile. Will it eventually dominate there too?

Popularity not priority

The latest TIOBE Community Index has JavaScript in 6th place amongst all programming languages and rising. The TIOBE method of ranking tends to favour older, more established languages and is not so quick to pick up trends. By contrast, the Redmonk rankings have JavaScript in first place. The Redmonk method is somewhat biased towards languages with strong open source communities but more accurately reflects current interest and trends. Our own Developer Economics surveys have shown that HTML5/JavaScript combination is the second most popular language amongst mobile developers with 55% using it, just narrowly behind Java (at 57%). However, even if we combine those who prioritise HTML5 and JavaScript (19%), they’re still a long way behind Java (29%) on this metric. It seems likely this is going to shift significantly over the next few years.

JavaScript breaking free from the browser

This is not a standard “the web will win” argument. I don’t believe that browser or webview-based apps will eventually dominate on mobile devices. Use will grow but they won’t be the norm. If true open web standards are to dominate in the future then they need to move on from the Document Object Model (DOM). The DOM is a base for building documents, not apps. Of course you can build an app around a platform originally designed for documents but you’re starting from a position of handicap. Look at the modern frameworks that allow you to build fairly performant apps for mobile browsers/webviews: React.js, Famo.us and Ionic. All three share the common feature of touching the DOM as little as possible.

Yes, there’s WebGL (or HTML5 Canvas if you must) too but those are low level graphics APIs. You need large, probably multi-megabyte, frameworks on top to create a good platform for building most apps. That’s not a good fit for the web app programming model, where the latest application code lives on a remote server, particularly not in a mobile environment. It’s true that you could have a hybrid app with a large framework on top of WebGL stored locally and just fetch the application specific code from the server but then why use the browser at all? Why not just JavaScript on top of some other cross-platform framework built for hardware graphics acceleration (hint: Qt has a nice offering here). One with a higher level API so there’s not so much overhead bridging between languages. Perhaps also one that’s less restricted when it comes to accessing device specific functionality.

There are now a couple of really interesting new options that fit this description, React Native and NativeScript. These work in different ways but both build apps with a native UI using JavaScript. Appcelerator’s Ti.Next may also be interesting, although they’ve been talking about it for a couple of years without an actual release yet, so we’ll wait and see.

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