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Frontend Development / Low Code / No Code / Software Development

Beta Solution Helps Frontend Developers Make Native Mobile Apps

A new beta solution from Retool lets frontend developers create native mobile apps for iOS and Android using JavaScript and SQL.
Mar 7th, 2023 10:15am by
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Retool, which helps enterprises build internal apps, is offering a beta of a new low-code solution that helps developers create custom native mobile apps using only SQL and JavaScript.

The solution, Retool Mobile, targets frontend and web developers who want to leverage native mobile capabilities but do not want to learn a new language to do so, explained Sean Ren, a product manager at Retool. Often, frontend developers can deploy as single web page apps, but that approach does not allow access to native phone functionalities — such as the camera, for instance.

“We provide a very unique angle where we are tapping into the native apps, as well as the low-code, which gives you a ton of flexibility, as well as all the native features on your app,” Ren said. “There [are] similar products in the wild, but most of them are either no-code — so they don’t really give you a code access or connection to your own database — or they’re a web app.”

Despite being low-code, the tool is for professional developers and not citizen developers, emphasized Retool spokesperson Michael Selvidge. Retool was recently listed in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for low code as a niche solution for professional developers.

Generally, mobile apps are deployed in either Apple languages, such as Objective C or Swift, or Android languages such as Java or Kotlin. That means it’s often necessary to hire a mobile developer who’s very familiar with both platforms, if possible, or two developers if not. By supporting the more commonly known languages of JavaScript and SQL, more developers will be able to build mobile apps, Ren said.

“What we are really enabling is [for the] majority of developers who can write a little bit of JavaScript and SQL, which are pretty fundamental to most developers,” he said.

Why Low Code for Developers?

Alternatives like Flutter, which can be used to deploy to mobile, require developers to learn Dart, which is growing in popularity but still isn’t as widely known as JavaScript. Retool’s low-code approach makes it easier for developers by giving them a drag-and-drop starting point, that can then be tweaked with code, Ren said. This leads to greater programmer productivity, he added.

Instead of doing all the code in an IDE, Retool Mobile provides a visual editor where components can be assembled via drag-and-drop, and then connected to the database with some event handlers.

“We provide UI Builder, a drag-and-drop builder, where you can quickly assemble a bunch of prebuilt components on your screen. So that further reduces the time for you to build the app,” Ren said. “It’s a higher level of abstraction. It packages the UI, the components, all together. All you have to do is assemble the UIs and make data connections to a visual interface.”

Pre-Built Integrations

Retool Mobile has built-in support for dozens of native mobile components, as well as pre-built layouts. It also connects to most databases, including PostgreSQL, MySQL, MS SQL, and MongoDB.

“You can connect to any of the existing databases that you already have on your production, so you don’t have to maintain the sync between your own database and this data on your app,” he said. “If you don’t have a database to start, you can always create a brand new database using the Retool dB, which behind the scenes is a Postgres database, with the UI where you can edit the database directly — similar to Airtable or Google Sheets.”

Retool Mobile also supports third-party API integrations like Firebase or Twilio. It also includes a few JavaScript utility libraries, such as Lodash, Moment and numbro, and it supports native JavaScript APIs, he added. The solution allows developers to deploy to the web, Android and iOS.

The company is also working on a white-label feature that will allow developers to launch their own app under a company name, complete with the company’s logo. That white-label offering will allow developers to add additional libraries if needed.

Retool-designed apps can also support mobile hardware features, such as geolocation, camera, NFC and QR code/barcode scanners. Retool Mobile offers pre-built Zebra integrations, a beta feature, which lets workforces install apps on Zebra devices and use the built-in Zebra scanners and sensors.

Support for Remote Offline Apps

Another important supported feature is the ability to be offline, Ren said.

“Offline is a very commonly requested feature in these remote working environments, where somewhere, sometimes the internet is very spotty when they’re out in the field,” Ren said. “It allows you to cache information, that you fetch while you have internet, so that when you’re going to remote, you can still read the same permission. We also allow you to cache your edits in your device locally when it’s offline. The information that you have edited will be synced back to the server so that you can work on read and write while you’re remote; and when you go back to the internet, that information will be able to go back to the server and sync up to date.”

Some use cases that it supports are inventory management, site inspections and file sales updates — thanks in part to a built-in Salesforce integration and filtering. Retool said its beta mobile solution has been used to deploy more than 10,000 apps so far, with companies such as Amazon, DoorDash, NBC and Stripe using it to deploy apps that solve internal workflows. The beta is free to use for teams of up to five.

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