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Desktop Apps in JavaScript+HTML

Part of the reason I did Eventless (apart from it being fun and explanatory) was so I’d have something almost as convenient as Knockout available to me the next time I had to write a desktop app with a UI. It has now been many years since we could regard web UI development as a hairshirt chore, where we have to make do without the comforts of familiar mature environments and tools. Quite the opposite: whenever I have to write and support a desktop app I curse the fact that I can’t hit F12 and “inspect the DOM” of my UI while it’s running, or immediately debug the code on the tester’s machine when they find a problem.

In the decade-before-last, Microsoft quietly released an IE feature called HTA, or “HTML application”. It’s the neat (but trivially obvious) idea of switching off the usual browser security checks and allowing you to create any ActiveX scriptable objects, so you could write applications with HTML UIs. Neat, but horrible in practise because… well, you had to be there to appreciate the overall shoddiness. And so that’s why they of course had to rush down to the patent office.

But fast forward to the last few years. We can develop complex server or command-line applications in JavaScript using the Node platform and its ecosystem of libraries. We can use a variety of front end languages to fill in the deficiencies of raw JavaScript. The debugging experience inside modern browsers is the best debugging experience anywhere. And so on. It’s well beyond the time for HTAs done right.

It being such an obvious idea, there are a few implementations floating around, but the best I’ve seen is node-webkit. Which is a fine technical name (because it tells you honestly that it’s just node mashed together with webkit), but I think they should pick some cool and memorable “marketing” name for it, because it’s just too brilliant a combination to go without a name of its own. I suggest calling it 长裤. Or failing that, 内裤.

The easiest way to get started with it is to install node, then the nodewebkit package with the -g flag (it’s not a module that extends node; rather, it’s a separate runtime that has its own copy of node embedded). Then you create a package.json with an HTML file as its main:

"main": "index.html"

From that HTML file you can pull in scripts using the script tag in the usual way. But inside those scripts you can use node’s require. Yup.

The sweet combination for me is the beautiful TypeScript, plus the phenomenal Knockout, plus whatever node modules I want to call (along with TypeScript declarations from DefinitelyTyped). This gives me the best of everything: static typing, Chrome-like debugging, the smoothest most scalable/flexible form of two-way binding, the whole works. So I’ll probably never use Eventless in a real project.

I actually started writing a UI for conveniently driving Selenium (which I hopefully will have time to describe soon) in C#/Windows Forms. After getting it all working, I trashed it and switched to node-webkit and it was ridiculous how quickly I was able to get back to the same spot, plus a huge momentum boost from the fun I was having.

(Though admittedly quite a lot of that fun was probably the first flush of joy from using TypeScript.)

(I’m a nerd, did I mention that?)

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,
  1. November 29, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I am very interested in this topic, thank you.
    Did you make progresses? In particular my dream stack would be using node -> .NET (with edge.js ?) so to use C#.
    And of course there should be a way to call native platform APIs sometimes, any hint on this?

  2. July 12, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Specifically for HTAs, I’ve found the following: 1) Calling “debugger;” within a script lets me choose Visual Studio as the debugger. 2) There is now a folder for ActiveX libraries on DefinitelyTyped (https://github.com/DefinitelyTyped/DefinitelyTyped/tree/master/ts-activex) and I’ve written a tool to generate them (https://github.com/zspitz/ts-activex-gen).

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