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Microsoft enlists Apache to help Windows devs build hybrid mobile apps

Cordova tools for Visual Studio can target Android, iOS

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TechEd 2014 At its annual TechEd North America conference in Houston, Texas on Monday, Microsoft doubled down on its promise to help developers build cross-platform mobile apps by announcing preliminary support for creating HTML-based hybrid apps within Visual Studio.

The preview tools have been given the lofty-sounding name "Multi-Device Hybrid Apps for Visual Studio 2013 CTP," but Redmond is making no secret that they're actually based on Apache Cordova, the open source development toolkit that's also distributed by Adobe under the name PhoneGap.

The plugins turn Visual Studio 2013 into a complete IDE for Cordova development, including the usual special sauce you expect from Microsoft, such as IntelliSense and syntax highlighting for the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that make up your apps.

An added wrinkle is that Redmond's tools optionally let you code in TypeScript, the Microsoft-developed superset of JavaScript that adds optional static typing and class-based object orientation (as opposed to JavaScript's less common prototype-based model) to make programs easier to maintain. TypeScript graduated to a first-class language in Microsoft's IDE with the final release of VS2013 Update 2, which also shipped on Monday.

The current toolkit provides blank Cordova app projects for both languages, and you can take your pick of third-party JavaScript frameworks with which to build your UIs.

For testing apps, Microsoft has integrated VS2013 with Apache Ripple, which lets you simulate mobile apps in a web browser without installing them on a device. You can even connect Ripple to the Visual Studio debugger to manage breakpoints.

There is also preliminary support for debugging apps running on devices or in emulators, but so far only for Android 4.4 "KitKat" and Windows Store apps. You can see console messages for apps running on earlier Android versions in the Output window, but currently there's no in-IDE support for debugging apps on iOS or (perplexingly) Windows Phone. Microsoft has provided another tool, however, that allows for limited iOS debugging capabilities in Safari on OS X.

This release marks the second time Redmond has turned to open source to help Windows devs create cross-platform mobile apps. The first was when it announced a broad partnership with Xamarin, makers of tools that take advantage of the open source Mono project to allow developers to write native apps for iOS and Android in C#.

While Xamarin's tools are pricey commercial products, however – the "Business Edition" that includes Visual Studio support retails for $999 – Microsoft's tools for hybrid apps are a free download, at least for now.

Unfortunately, to an extent you get what you pay for. As a pre-beta release, this Community Technology Preview release comes with a long list of known issues and limitations. Expect a bumpy ride without much direct support from Microsoft; Redmond advises users with questions about the tools to post them to the public developer Q&A forum StackOverflow. ®

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