Adobe just announced that they are shuttering PhoneGap, PhoneGap Build, and their (long non-existent) investment in Apache Cordova.
As the pioneer of hybrid app development, aka web developers building mobile apps, this is truly the end of an era.
But it's hardly the end of the hybrid app development story. Companies like Ionic have been the leader in this space for a while, so this sunset feels predictable and, frankly, a long time coming.
I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the hybrid app development market, thank the PhoneGap team for pioneering it, and wonder where it goes from here.
The brilliant realization that the PhoneGap team had in the beginning was that Web Developers would want to use their existing skills, browser development workflows, and web dev teams to build mobile apps.
Convincing the rest of the mobile market wasn't easy, however. PhoneGap faced intense backlash from the existing native app developer world. These developers went out of their way to trash PhoneGap and the apps that developers were creating on the platform, essentially classifying web developers building mobile apps as second-class. In some cases it felt like a full on war.
Over time, PhoneGap would be proven right: web developers want to use their skills everywhere, and few platforms are as large and as exciting as mobile. Web Developers never stopped honing their mobile skills and the hybrid app development ecosystem evolved to cater to them.
Ionic Framework was launched in 2013 right as the first era of hybrid app development was coming to an end. The iPhone 5 just came out, dramatically pushing the capabilities of the web platform and mobile web performance forward. Android 2.3 was quickly dying and modern Android was just making inroads.
Ionic Framework had a simple pitch: web developers have proven they want to build mobile apps, but there was no official UI library for these apps, so developers struggled to get their UI experience on par with native. Ionic Framework was that library.
Additionally, getting high performance from a web-based UI library was hard, so Ionic took the best practices for web performance and baked them into the UI library so web developers didn't have to worry about it.
And it took off. Over the last 7 years Ionic apps built on Cordova grew to a significant portion of the app stores with millions of apps created.
Along the way, Adobe started taking a back seat and essentially passed the torch to Ionic years ago. Adobe hasn't been active in this space for many years now and Ionic has become the leader in cross-platform mobile app dev for web developers. Thus, the news of PhoneGap shuttering was hardly a surprise.
Over the years, the mobile market has changed quite a bit. New projects like React Native, Flutter, and NativeScript have challenged hybrid app development and have brought developers more options for building apps.
But one thing that hasn't changed: web developers want to build web apps and run them everywhere. They want to use their existing skills, browser-based development process, web libraries, and code to build mobile apps. This explained the rise of Cordova/PhoneGap in the first place, and the rise of Electron for desktop.
Cordova (and the modern alternative Capacitor) is still the only game in town for web developers that want to bring their web apps to mobile, and Ionic Framework is still the most popular UI library for them to do it. "Electron for Mobile," if you will.
The "build once run anywhere" dream is alive and well in Capacitor and Cordova land, and the many thousands of apps being built on this platform each month as well as significant enterprise traction prove web devs still want to web dev.
This space has seen enormous change over the last decade, and it's likely we'll see a lot more in the next. Progressive Web Apps are still nascent but there is growing frustration from developers all over the world about onerous app store requirements that limit a company's ability to reach and serve their users. Many teams are experimenting with Progressive Web App First Development.
Web Developers have honed their ability to build complex apps in the browser and are getting better and better at building high-performance experiences. Thus, the domination of React indicates not that React Native will be the winner for those devs building for mobile, but that React devs building React web apps for mobile is one of the most promising spaces to watch.
Finally, cross-platform is clearly here to stay, and tools like Flutter prove a lot more developers outside of the web dev world want to build for multiple platforms at once. Will it become strange one day to build native apps for single platforms? I don't know, but we're going to find out.
With this news, memories are flooding back of our time working with the PhoneGap team, many of whom have become friends and advisors to us at Ionic. I still find myself dreaming of riding bikes around Amsterdam after PhoneGap Day and the good times we had.
With that, thank you PhoneGap (and, by extension, Adobe) for pioneering this space and helping us at Ionic. Without you, we never would have been able to start this company and we never would have made such great friends.
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