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We’ve discussed in other posts how ArcGIS Online makes accessing and working with geo-data easier. Companies such as ours, focused on ArcGIS Online, are now building applications for a range of different devices.

Non-Mobile Web ArcGIS Online

Development of ArcGIS Online Web based non-mobile apps is dominated by HTML5/Javascript. Now we can write apps which run on all popular browsers across platforms. Esri have introduced the idea of ArcGIS Online solution templates, which allow developers to build applications which are not only integrated into ArcGIS Online, but configurable by users. We have discussed these Javascript solutions in a separate post.

Mobile Web ArcGIS Online

For mobile browsers, the same HTML5/Javascript approach works well. We can build cross platform apps ie. those which run on Android, iOS, Windows etc with one code base (more on this in a moment). Most of Esri’s initial work with solution templates is focused on the non-mobile Web, but mobile versions are currently under development.

Styling and performance will be areas which need particular attention. Using responsive Web design, it is possible to build a single application which will return web pages styled for a specific device. So when accessing an app from your tablet, smartphone or PC; in each case the application will look good and work well with the given screen size.

Now performance needs careful consideration. ArcGIS Online layers are much centred on Feature Layers. So publish your shapefile or CSV, for example, and these will be converted to Feature Layers. These types of layers are very powerful. They are interactive, can be queried (without calling ArcGIS) and can be edited. But they demand more work to render than other layers. What does that mean? Well your mobile has to draw the features in this layer (no pre-rendered tiles here). That can slow things down. So pan and zoom may be delayed. Let’s show an extreme example:

There are many ways to optimise HTML5/Javascript custom Web apps to improve performance. But application developers need to carefully consider performance when building ArcGIS Online mobile apps.

Mobile ArcGIS Online

In the video above we compare a mobile Web application with an installed native application. The latter are mobile apps you download from the Apple or Android stores. They are written in the native language of the device; Objective-C for iOS and Java for Android. Esri provide tools (API’s) for each. A key advantage of native installed is performance, as we have seen, but to have any cross platform app ie. an app which runs on both iOS and Android, two separate applications would need to be built. That effectively doubles the cost. Add Windows and other mobile platforms into the mix….

Now there is another type of mobile installed application called a hybrid app. These are apps built for the Web which are converted (wrapped) so they are installable. This allows you to take your HTML5/Javascript ArcGIS Online Web app and make it available in the mobile app stores. Does that make performance better than in a Web browser? The same optimisation steps taken for the Web should be applied for hybrid HTML5/Javascript apps.

A big question then is why take a Web application written in HTML5/Javascript and convert it to installable? There are commercial reasons potentially; sell your cross platform app in the various mobile stores. From our work a bigger reason is poor wi-fi connectivity and offline. Installed apps have less restrictions in terms of mobile device (inner) access. Using an application in offline mode at present requires an installed app. We have and will talk more about this area. Here is some work we are doing investigating building an iOS and Android version of Esri’s Water Utility Mobile Map app:

Mobile Flex and PhoneGap

Let’s add a twist. Adobe Flash and Flex are technologies which have been marginalised. The reasons are beyond this post. But Mobile Flex remains a solid technology. Advances here continue. We still actively work with Mobile Flex. One key disadvantage of HTML5/Javascript conversion to hybrid are the challenges of the process. Phonegap is the most common technology used to do this conversion. It is new and has many steps. Mobile Flex is seamless. Development has all the advantages of the Flex environment, plus with a ‘flip of the switch’, a hybrid app for Android and iOS is generated. Our work with Esri’s Water Utility Mobile Map app shown in the above video is built in Mobile Flex.

Final Thoughts on ArcGIS Online Development

Our approach to mobile ArcGIS Online development we can summarise:

1) For cross platform PC and mobile ArcGIS Online Web development we are building HTML5/Javascript solution templates.

2) For installed mobile ArcGIS Online apps where performance and deeper access to the mobile device is required, we are building native apps.

3) For installed cross platform mobile ArcGIS Online apps, we are building hybrid apps in Mobile Flex.

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