Alternative Architectures for Hybrid Applications

Hybrid applications seem to be gaining traction now. In what follows, I’d like to present thoughts on an alternative to the emerging standard hybrid app architecture.

The conventional hybrid architecture

Conventional hybrid app architecture

In this model, which to the best of my knowledge is used by Electron, NW.js, and others, the user interface is rendered as HTML using whatever HTML, CSS, and front-end JS frameworks you desire. The use of Web technologies for the UI is an explicit goal of this architecture.

The UI is tightly bound in a one-to-one relationship with the app engine.1 The app engine is implemented with a Web back-end technology, typically Node.js. The app engine makes system calls through the engine’s baked-in features or through generic child_process.exec()-like calls. This means custom and platform-specific behaviors that the app may require will need to be implemented as external child_process.exec() callable units.

This architecture does a good job of leveraging Web technologies to create secure conventional desktop apps. In addition, frameworks like Electron and NW.js have matured to the point that developing hybrid apps that use many desktop app conventions is relatively easy.

An alternative hybrid architecture

In what follows, I present what I believe is a more flexible approach to developing hybrid apps—one that requires more carefully considered design but that yields greater flexibility.

Alternative hybrid app architecture

In this model, the tightly bound user↔app engine connection is replaced by a REST API. Thus the app engine becomes a REST server, possibly embellished with some needed superpowers for accessing host resources. When the app interface is API driven, any REST client technology can be used for the interface, including HTML/CSS/JS clients, native mobile clients, terminal clients, etc. In addition, the client need not be local, making remote-controlled apps almost trivial to implement. Adequate measures must be taken to assure secure and authorized communication with the REST server.

The other change in the above model is that the REST server is implemented in C++. When this is the case, interacting with the host system can be done directly using a wide range of C++ libraries written for this purpose. The choice of C++ here is somewhat arbitrary; it can be any language that supports ready-to-roll support for the system manipulations that your app requires.

The two changes outlined above are decoupled—meaning that either can be adopted in the absence of the other.

One downside to using C++ (or Java, or Python…) for the server part of this approach is that the server must be able to run on the host platform. This isn’t a significant issue with desktop deployment: only recompiling the REST server for each target platform will be required. But it does currently present a problem for mobile deployment as few mobile platforms provide native support for C++ and its oft used libraries. If you plan to target mobile apps, implementing a REST server in a more universally supported language will likely be required.

Follow updates on my wiki.


1. I’m using “app engine” generically here, not as a reference to Google’s App Engine.

Concerns about Qt’s increasing commercial focus

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It’s not just me. Phoronix is reporting on growing concerns in the Qt community about the project’s increasing commercial focus and apparent deprecation of its open source core.

I have said many times in these pages and elsewhere that I really like Qt: it’s the right tool for a lot of jobs. But increasingly I’ve been feeling that any contribution I make in educating users about Qt is benefiting a commercial enterprise and not a community tool. So much so that I am re-surveying other open source multi-platform libraries to use as an alternative to Qt.

If the community no longer has meaningful Qt ownership, a lot of users will no longer be interested.

More KiCad modules

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I’ve added a bunch of modules to my KiCad library. These have not yet been vetted, so approach with caution. Here’s what’s new or changed:

  • New library mfk-ipc-7351-diode.mod with:
    • mfk-SOD3716X135N (SOD-123 diode)
  • New library mfk-smd-not-ipc.mod with:
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT23 (Fairchild version of SOT-23)
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT23_213 (as above but with “BEC” pinout)
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT233 (Fairchild version of SOT-233)
    • mfk-fairchild-SOT23_2313 (as above but with “BCEC” pinout)
  • Changes to mfk-ipc-7351-transistor.mod:
    • Deleted mfk-IPC7351-trans-SOT65P210X110-6N_10mil
    • Changed silk width in mfk-SOT65P210X110-6N (SOT363) to 10 mil.
  • New part in mfk-vishay.mod:
    • mfk-Vishay-TSOP341xx-alt (alt version of mfk-Vishay-TSOP341xx)
  • New part in mfk-keystone.mod:
    • Added mfk-KEYSTONE-621

Arduino AsyncTimer library

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So there I was scratching an itch when I realized the scratch would make for a good Arduino library. AsyncTimer lets you create a timer that does something when you start it (or nothing if you prefer), then waits a predetermined time before doing something else. While it’s waiting, it doesn’t lock up your Arudino the way the delay() function does—it just schedules the time-out action to take place some time in the future.

If you’re not the RTFM type, you can just get what you need from the GitHub repository.

On the hidden dangers of highly integrated application frameworks

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I have been evaluating WebKit and Blink-based open-source browsers for Linux—mostly because Firefox is often noticeably laggy on an old laptop I like to use. (I still <3 you though, Moz!!) Chromium is an obvious option, but I would like to investigate solutions that don’t rely on Google. This has led me to Midori and QupZilla. Both position themselves as lightweight alternatives to the big kids. Both have their pros and cons.

A con with QupZilla that I want to take on in this post is the result of its use of Qt. I love Qt. It’s the right tool for a lot of jobs. But it harbors a hidden gotcha when it comes to rendering web pages: you are at the mercy of the Qt maintainers’ web rendering engine update policies. The latest version of QupZilla that you can build with the production version of Qt (5.5) uses QtWebEngine, which is based on the Blink-based Chromium. (So much for not relying on Google!)

The current Qt release bases QtWebEngine on Chromium 40—which is almost a year old; the next Qt release (5.6) will base QtWebEngine on Chromium 45—already three months old. The version of QupZilla provided by Debian sid (unstable, rolling release) uses the deprecated QtWebKit, which in Qt (5.5) is based on Webit 538.1.0. This version of WebKit is already a couple years old.

A similar situation exists with Midori. It uses GTK’s WebKitGTK+, which in Debian sid is as of this writing at 2.4.9-2 and also is about about two years old. Probing the user agent indicates it uses WebKit 538.1.5. But as there is in Qt, there is an additional wrinkle in the GTK+ world. There are currently two versions of WebKit for GTK: WebKitGTK+ and WebKit2GTK+ . Depending on which one your GTK+ application uses, you may get an old or a new version of WebKit. The version of WebKit2GTK+ that ships with Debian sid appears to provide WebKit 602.1 at the moment, which is the current point-release WebKit, and new releases of WebKitGTK+ flow regularly.  (Why Midori doesn’t use WebKit2GTK+ is a question for the developers and one that I hope to pursue. FYI, GNOME’s Web, née Epiphany, uses WebKit2GTK+.)

Whatever the specifics may be in this case, the takeaway is this:

When using integrated application frameworks, you need to be aware of versioning limitations with third-party tools that they bundle.

AVA adopts my audio module in new DAC and preamp designs

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Audio by Van Alstine has adopted my discrete Class A audio module into two of their products. The Vision DAC uses the module in its differential anti-imaging filter and output stage and the Vision SL Preamp uses it for line stage amplification. The pair will be premiered at the Axpona Audio Expo in Chicago this weekend. Looking forward to feedback from the show.

Motorized potentiometer for FLOSS remote control

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As part of my Open source audio remote control initiative, I’ve just published Volume-AlpsRK16814MG, an open source hardware design that integrates a high-quality Alps motorized quad potentiometer  with an H bridge. The design lets you control the motor’s direction using two logic-level signals: VOL_UP and VOL_DOWN. The fact that it’s a quad pot means you can use it to control regular stereo volume by ignoring one of the dual gangs or a differential stereo signal.

Here’s the schematic* to give you an idea what it’s doing. Gerbers and PCBs are available at OSH Park.

I’ve also modified the remote control receiver to better support motorized pots. There is now a compile-time option that lets you latch and unlatch the VOL_UP and VOL_DOWN signals rather than produce repeated VOL_UP and VOL_DOWN pulses—which makes control of motorized pots more fluid.

*Subject to change!

Open source audio remote control

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I’ve started a FLOSS remote control receiver project for DIY audio preamplifiers. I think it’s just about good enough to make public.

Remote control is one of the more challenging things for an audio DIY person to implement, so I thought having an open source hardware and software platform for doing this would be useful. It uses our good friend Arduino for brains and works with the Philips RC-5 protocol. I like RC-5 because its the closest thing I know of to a universal, well-documented, brand- and model-agnostic protocol.

The IR command decoding is done using Guy Carpenter’s excellent RC5 library. I also considered using Ken Shirriff’s multi-protocol IR library. Ken’s library works with a large number of protocols, but I thought its larger memory footprint might preclude porting this thing to tiny AVRs.

Details on the project are available in my RC5-Preamp GitHub or GitLab repository.