Exploring the HTML/CSS Mobile Toolkit Landscape

I’m in the process of developing a mobile interface to Xataface so I’ve been experimenting with different toolkits to help with the UI. I have worked with jqTouch in the past (to create the Web Lite TV iPhone/iPad interface) and found it mostly good, but a little bit heavy, and also buggy when you get into the fine details. (It may have improved since then).

Apple’s Dashcode is also quite impressive for developing UIs in a more WYSIWYG fashion, but I felt a little trapped inside their box and unable to customize things in the way I wanted to, especially when developing apps that needs to generate the UI dynamically – not just populating data to a static layout.

So, going into this, I wasn’t entirely happy with my toolkit. Let the exploration begin for better mobile HTML/CSS toolkits:


First stop: iScroll. iScroll, in my opinion, is a major breakthrough in HTML/CSS application development on mobile touch devices. It is the first library to allow good scrolling of the content of any HTML tag. Outside of iScroll, you couldn’t just scroll the contents of a div whose CSS declares that it should be scrollable… even iframes wouldn’t scroll.

Major step forward… but not a complete toolkit. It doesn’t provide any of the familiar nav bars and buttons that users expect in a native app… that is simply beyond the scope of the iScroll project. So we’ll use this as a tie-down point in our expedition, and we’ll proceed to explore toolkits that incorporate iScroll.

Stop 1: appML

appML uses its own custom markup language for web applications, called appML. It is built on jqTouch and iScroll and serves as a framework for building native looking mobile apps (native to iPhone at least). The demos are quite stunning so I decided to give it a go.

First of all, I have to say that the developers are doing a fantastic job on this framework. The UI is very appealing and the markup they have developed is quite intuitive. However this project is still in alpha phase and it has the feel of a project that is still taking shape and forming direction. I like the fact that it is built on jQuery, but it is still a little bulky, and the API is still a little rough around the edges. The show stopper for me was that it isn’t currently possible to load pages using AJAX. This severely limits the types of applications that can be produced. I’m sure that this will be addressed in future versions, but for now I’m forced to move on.

Stop 2: ChocolateChip-UI

ChocolateChip-UI (CHUI) is a real gem of a toolkit. The project has a small, well-defined scope that makes for a clean and polished API. It is well documented, slim, and easy to extend. It defines its own markup language (WAML) similar to the way that appML does, but it is much better documented, and cleanly implemented. It seems to closely mirror the official iOS cocoa API, providing simple tags for all of the major views, containers, and buttons. It is self contained (doesn’t use jQuery or any other bulky libraries) which is nice (I generally still use jQuery in my apps anyways, but it’s nice to have the option of leaving it out).

It is hard to express just how good this toolkit is in relation to all others that I have tried so far. If we were to give any of the other toolkits a 10 out of 10, then Chocolate Chip UI deserves a 50 out of 10.

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