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Making mobile work

Posted 10 years ago in Platform by Xero
Posted by Xero

Close watchers of our careers webpage may have noticed our advertisements for a Senior iOS Developer and a Senior Android Developer. What does this mean for mobile at Xero?

Very early on we chose to build Xero Touch using HTML5 technologies. That choice showed that we care about the future of the open web and its continued success as an application delivery platform and we firmly believe that HTML5 is the future of development across any and all platforms. We do not regret this choice – but we’ve found that building a complicated mobile application in HTML5 has been hard. Even with frameworks as amazing as Sencha Touch, we’ve found the ability to iterate as fast as we would like has become harder as our application has become more complex.

The choice to go with HTML5 was very much a choice based on us – how do we use the skills we already have to build a mobile application? Unfortunately as the application grew we needed to hire to fill out the team, and we were never able to hire fast enough to fill those roles. Ironically those skills were equally as critical for the “desktop” version of Xero – we were cannibalizing our own team and slowing everything down.

Xero prides itself on not compromising on customer experience, and when it comes down to it, the question isn’t “How can we use our existing skills to build a mobile application?” but “What is going to enable us to deliver the best customer experience on the mobile devices that our customers use?”

Our view is that HTML5 technologies can deliver as-good-as-native experiences – and that will continue to be the focus for our core application, where we’ll continue to improve our performance on all devices. And we were all extremely impressed by Sencha’s Fastbook which is a testament to the ability to deliver great experiences using web technology. But the lesson from Fastbook is that it’s hard work – you don’t get those experiences out-of-the-box. And the lesson we’ve learnt over the last 12 months has been that the cost in time, effort and testing to bring an HTML5 application to a native level of performance seems to be far greater than if the application was built with native technologies from the get-go.

There’s a lot we want to pack into Xero Touch and there’s a lot that our interaction designers want to do to push the capabilities of our mobile accounting platform to its limits so we need to remove all the impediments to delivering on that. Maintaining and iterating a web app was becoming a big impediment – so the next release of Xero Touch will be built with native technologies and we’ve already made a lot of progress. It does feel better.

We’re still hiring for a Senior Android developer to lead the development of our Android applications, so if you’ve got the skills or know someone who does please get in touch.

UPDATE: Hear from our new iOS developer 


Ben Kepes
March 18, 2013 at 2.41 pm

So does that mean that in the future you’ll be moving away from Sencha and going purely native? Interesting decision and I’d be keen to hear the decision process – you don’t think that HTML5 is developing fast enough to reach parity with a native approach in the short to mid term? Oh and welcome on board Layton 😉

Matt Vickers
March 18, 2013 at 3.03 pm

Hi @Ben, yes that’s right, the next version of Xero Touch will be fully native. We do think HTML5 can have parity with native, it’s just that our experience has been that you need to put a lot more work in to get an app to that level.

Glen Barnes
March 18, 2013 at 3.22 pm

12 months…Try over 24 months – http://blog.xero.com/2011/04/try-xero-touch-our-new-mobile-app/. That was one expensive mistake – Glad to hear the switch has finally been made.

@benkepes: Maybe HTML 5 in ‘n’ years but you need to build with what works now and the cross platform promise of HTML just doesn’t deliver as you will see by how long it took between the Xero releases of iOS and Android versions.

March 18, 2013 at 3.24 pm

I have seen this time and time again. Though I really do like html for the layout of article based content (fast to style and layout), the navigation, lists, transitions and raw power of native components leave html for dead.

The best mix I have found is build Navigation and core application etc in cross-compilerable (is that a word?) technologies such as Titanium and have web-views for some of the article based content.

If you can separate the views properly and use eventing, you can get the best of both worlds across many device OS’s

March 19, 2013 at 1.58 am

Have you looked at Xamarin’s toolset. 70% code sharing between platforms.

Matt Vickers
March 19, 2013 at 8.49 am

Hi @Rams – very aware of Xamarin’s toolset. Use of any framework or toolkit will come down to who we are able to hire and what they’re comfortable using.

March 19, 2013 at 10.10 am

Hi guys, I am new to Xero. I am trying to work out wether it is compatible with a mobile phone or tablet. The tech talk is over my head so just need to know does it work or not ??? Also is there any one mobile device it works best with ??? Thanks in advance.

Matt Vickers
March 19, 2013 at 10.18 am

Hi @Antonio – we have mobile applications available for iPhones and Android phones. They’re available in the iTunes App Store and the Google Play App Store. You can also use the main Xero web application on your iPad, Google or Windows tablet by visiting xero.com in your tablet’s browser.

The mobile applications should work well on an iPhone or a reasonably modern (4.x) Android device.

Karen Thompson
March 19, 2013 at 10.42 am

Looking forward to future with Xero…thank you 🙂

March 19, 2013 at 11.53 am

I can appreciate the irony that Xero Accounting, which was built to run in the browser using HTML/Javascript/CSS technology, and signalled the end of native code accounting apps on the desktop, now has turned to native code on mobile devices.

As someone who has worked in both HTML5/Javascript and Objective-C programming on iOS, I really hope that your iOS specialist has deep chops in the platform, as the API is *far* more in-depth than Sencha Touch ever was.

Good luck with the transformation. I’ll keep an eye on my mailbox for the CD of the installable Win32 and OSX versions of Xero… 🙂

Matt Vickers
March 19, 2013 at 12.29 pm

Hi @Devan – you can expect an update on our first iOS developer shortly. I don’t think you’ll see downloadable desktop versions of Xero from us any time soon. Software distribution has changed a lot since desktop days and app stores are very important for reaching customers, so it makes sense for us to have the best product we can in those stores for download, and to compete with native products it’s arguably easier to just build with native SDKs. Mobile app stores are a bit of a special case. The web is our primary software distribution channel and will continue to be.

James Kennedy
March 19, 2013 at 1.33 pm

Interesting move. I find HTML5 mobile frameworks great for quickly releasing simple apps across multiple mobile platforms, but in a lot of cases, at some stage performance becomes an issue, as the app grows and the app gets ported to native. The downside of course is having to maintain multiple source repositories.

Ben Kepes
March 19, 2013 at 3.54 pm

Goodbye HTML5, you promised so much and (maybe one day) will deliver it too… Ah well, if nothing else it meant New Zealand could keep hold of the awesome Polar Bear!

Cady Haren
March 19, 2013 at 11.36 pm

Sometimes great ideas fail because they were way ahead of their time. As a business you have been brave to take the step but sometimes you need to step back, access the situation and then decide on the best approach.

i am sure in time, technologies will improve and building mobile websites in HTML 5 won’t be as cumbersome as it is now.

Anthony Wardley
March 21, 2013 at 3.49 pm

This is great news, and so glad you are able to put your hand up and say it wasn’t working as well as it could. I often start using the iPhone app then revert to the full website. Whilst the app works fine, it just feels a bit off compared to the usual apps.

March 25, 2013 at 7.44 am

I see very often compares of the native and HTML development. All of them are connected to cost reduces , but I don’t think people who discuss this are aware that this two app types have nothing to do with one another . It’s the same to compare desktop application with a web site, viewed by a browser. In the first you have full access to the resources of the operating system, access to threads, memory management, performance optimization, graphics optimization and so on, but in the site, you are speaking only of GUI -which looks like the other. An application is much more than just GUI 🙂

Suneth Mendis
March 25, 2013 at 12.47 pm

Hi Matt, “Use of any framework or toolkit will come down to who we are able to hire and what they’re comfortable using.” – You are in for a lot of pain down the road if thats the basis of technology decisions made in your company. That’s like someone saying, we hired a “pastry chef” because that was what we could find and they were happy making pastries, but what we really wanted was a “roast chef”.
You should never pick your technology stack based on what is available, but rather what make sense for the project itself.

Nicky Maaka - TP
March 25, 2013 at 1.12 pm

Hi @Matt,

I think it’s a great move for Xero to move into more the native scene. I’ve been working with many small to medium size Digital Creatives and HTML5 works like a gem for them. I think there is certainly a lot to offer, and the discussions I have with clients (from a recruitment consulting perspective) is encouraging in the HTML5, phonegap, responsive space.

But, having said that, I have also seen the need for more robust programming for smartphone applications, in particular iOS Development, to address functionality issues, or limitations that other cross platform applications can’t address. In my experience in developing a few iOS prototype apps myself, I think you can only get better at identifying some of these core functions that cross platforms can’t deliver on.

Finding the right solution for whatever the need is is always changing as newer technologies come out, so it’s important to have a dynamic approach and to budget for the changing technology climate. I work with some incredible and talented Mobile App Developers but they are certainly in short supply across iOS and Android here in Wellington. Today’s recruitment for Mobile App Developers is like knowing your Technologist from your Developers; those that are passionate about technology seem to be more dedicated to up skilling themselves and work harder towards their career in the mobile space.

Great work Xero!

Matt Vickers
March 25, 2013 at 1.17 pm

HI @Suneth – in the case of using Xamarin or not, it’s more like we’re after a lasagne and we’re hiring someone to make a lasagne. Either they’ll make the pasta from scratch or they’ll buy some fresh lasagne sheets which can be used in other recipes. Either way we still get a lasagne.

Andrew Ip
March 26, 2013 at 5.25 am

I had the same experience at my last company. We used PhoneGap with the aim of creating a quality performant app that targeted as many platforms as possible; however, we quickly found that the cost of development was soon spent writing shims to compensate for the varying levels of browser support and performance rather than the actual business logic.

April 19, 2013 at 10.56 am

I’m not judging here, as I have no idea what goes into your product, but of all types of applications that seem like they could be “pulled off” with HTML5 / Javascript, it seems like a largely data centric application like accounting would work well.

Was it specifically the “feel” and transitions that drove you to mobile or was there something else?

April 19, 2013 at 10.57 am

I said “drove you to mobile”, I meant “drove you to native”

Matt Vickers
May 1, 2013 at 12.42 pm

@Matt – We’ve set our sights pretty high for mobile and on balance we think native is the faster way to get there. It’s no more complicated than that.

iPhone App Development
August 12, 2014 at 4.44 am

This is great news, and so glad you are able to put your hand up and say it wasn’t working as well as it could. I often start using the iPhone app then revert to the full website. Whilst the app works fine, it just feels a bit off compared to the usual apps. Thanks for sharing all that great information…

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