Building an Electron application

Intro

Back in March this year (2019), I stumbled upon a technology called Electron, which offers a new way of building cross-platform desktop apps. The first version of Electron appeared already in 2013, but somehow I had missed entirely that release (probably because at that time I was 110% occupied with Flowplayer).

I had always been interested in building desktop applications without ever doing that as my primary job. I had experimented with Mac development using Objective-C and XCode but did not advance far with those experiments.

I ended up trying Electron because I wanted to know how I could use my React.js and Node.js skills in desktop development.

I had also pumped into Notable which is a “Markdown-based note-taking app that doesn’t suck”. I studied it’s code base and became convinced that this development platform has enough going on and I should try it out.

What is Electron?

Electron allows for the development of desktop GUI applications using web technologies: It combines the Chromium rendering engine and the Node.js runtime.

- Wikipedia/Electron

React and other frameworks

I wanted to try if I could build an application like Postman. I had used Postman and also a similar Mac app called Paw in one client project. I had some thoughts on how these applications could be better and wanted to try those ideas in my app.

I had been working with React since the summer of 2018. I had built a sizable app using it and was already quite familiar with it. That’s why I wanted to use it in this new project. I started searching for React component frameworks that would be good for the desktop - the components would need to a desktop-like look and feel. After some research, I ended up using Blueprint.

I like the styled components library, which is a library that allows writing CSS as JavaScript template strings. My goal was to produce something usable quickly (like most of us want), and that’s why I wanted to utilise existing code/libraries/frameworks to get up-to-speed quickly.

## Productivity

The Electron and React combo is a killer platform when it comes to productivity. Indeed, web technologies are ahead of the tech that is currently used in traditional desktop development. To me, using a component library like Blueprint is a blessing: I can quickly look through their examples and pick the components I need to build any UI feature. The UI components are flexible, and I can change their styling and size the way I need. If something does not look the way I want out-of-the-box, I can pretty quickly resort to custom CSS to change the default look the component has.

It’s not a surprise that the code Apple’s SwiftUi looks a lot like in React’s or Flutter’s component-based systems.

Electron apps are cross-platform, and you can build your app from the same code base for Linux, Windows and Mac.

What did I learn?

I have been primarily a backend developer for most of my career. I accumulated most of my frontend web development experience in the past two years. This project was a good boost of confidence, making me realise that I can indeed work also on the frontend side. I ended up also developing a website for my app, which was another great experience.

I am now reasonably confident that I can build anything from start to finish. I could do it entirely on my own if I wanted to :-) I am convinced that I can come up with the backend, the frontend, the website, and marketing material. This realisation makes me think of the next idea for a startup I should bootstrap. Meanwhile, before the big idea emerges, I will continue working on this Dispatch project.

In our summer cottage in Lapinsaari, Savonlinna, Finland

Anssi Piirainen

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