Robin S

Convert website to app

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I recently worked on a project where I adapted an engineering manual (from the print-ready PDF) to a responsive online document. Over time more documents will be adapted.

It wasn't part of the original brief, but after the work was completed the client asked if there was some way the online document could be viewed offline on a mobile device, in situations where there is no internet coverage. It seems like there should be solutions to this but I'm not up to speed on what is possible in this regard. A few questions if anyone can help...

1. Has anyone used a website-to-app conversion tool or service that they recommend? Is this a good way to go or best avoided? I Googled it and found a few options but they were either fairly pricey (e.g. Mobiloud) or pretty limited (e.g. AppStrand). I don't need much in the way of features and there isn't much interactivity required - basically just static text and images.

2. Is it possible to distribute an app outside of the Apple App Store and Google Play? In my scenario this would be a non-commercial app with virtually no appeal to the wider public so I suspect that Apple and Google would not accept it into their stores. Is it possible to provide an installable app via a private website?

3. Besides an app, are there other options that would allow a website to be browsed offline on a mobile device? There is software like HTTrack that will crawl a website and save it for offline browsing on a desktop computer, but I'm pretty sure this won't be a solution for mobile devices as they don't have a proper file system. I've know vaguely of service workers but not sure if that's a good solution either. Would a service worker allow an entire website to be browsed offline or only pages the user has previously visited?

TIA for any tips or experiences.

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Hey @Robin S

I haven't used a website to app conversion tool, but I have built a few apps using hybrid technologies - most recently with Ionic. You can easily distribute Android apps with an APK file. iOS are of course more difficult. If you went with Ionic, they have an app called Ionic View which makes it easy to run an app on iOS and Android devices without submission to app/play stores.

There are also things like these tester app distribution tools (https://rollout.io/blog/testflight-alternatives-ios-beta-testing/) which might get the job done for your needs.

Hope that's a helpful start.

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Had a similar challenge, ie client needed access to PW generated documents when there was no internet access. My solution was to convert the PW pages to PDF and save them to a DropBox folder that synched with their mobile devices. There are many roads up the mountain :)

 

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2 hours ago, Sergio said:

I read about Jasonette (https://docs.jasonette.com/examples/), a way of creating an app via json files. It seems very interesting, maybe you can give it a try. 

The brief is to have something that is viewable offline. Jasonette needs to call home every time you access it.

Quote

Instead of programming an app on the device, you simply write a JSON file hosted on a server, and the Jasonette apps fetch and use it to build themselves on-demand whenever you open the app.

https://docs.jasonette.com/

Edit:

Above not true; see correction below

Edited by kongondo
Untruth!
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HELLOOO!!!!!

If its mainly text, then an offline web app with service worker would be fine as most devices allow yo to save upto 50mb without being prompted and then usually more if you give permission.

A web app would work too for offline use if you had it all as flat html, css and js files. Using Cordova you can bascially convert directly to native app if its a simple site. You can also use things like PhoneGap or Ionic (others are available), but they are all mostly layers on Cordova which actually is the library for the conversion.

Hope that helps

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Interesting project :)

throwing in another idea: could it make sense to use a raspberry pi zero as hotspot&webserver? then you could browse the manual hostet from the pi with any device that connects to the pi just as if the connected to the online manual.

at home where you have web access you could update your docs via cronjob so the pi would always have the current version of the docs.

http://www.raspberryconnect.com/network/item/331-raspberry-pi-auto-wifi-hotspot-switch-no-internet-routing

https://www.heise.de/ct/ausgabe/2017-22-Digitales-Flugblatt-Raspberry-Pi-mit-Batterie-als-anonymer-WLAN-Hotspot-und-Webserver-3851689.html (german)

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7 hours ago, adrian said:

they have an app called Ionic View which makes it easy to run an app on iOS and Android devices without submission to app/play stores.

ah, i forgot to mention that i also played with ionic some weeks ago - but i think the ionic view app needs an internet connection. at least when you want to update your app. don't know how long it keeps apps in the storage for offline use (if it does at all).

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If the main objective of this project is to view PDF files/manuals offline, then do you need to build an app for viewing PDFs? Perhaps there's some security requirement we're not aware of.

If not, can you not use off-the-shelf solutions/apps like Adobe/Fox It etc to view and use Dropbox/OneDrive/Some Cloud Storage to sync?

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9 hours ago, psy said:

Had a similar challenge, ie client needed access to PW generated documents when there was no internet access. My solution was to convert the PW pages to PDF and save them to a DropBox folder that synched with their mobile devices. There are many roads up the mountain

It would be funny to convert PDFs to responsive online documents and afterwards back to PDFs ;) Or am I missing something?

+1 for Ionic BTW. Ionic Creator (which is the Ionic framework's little brother) is even click and play.

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7 minutes ago, szabesz said:

It would be funny to convert PDFs to responsive online documents and afterwards back to PDFs ;) Or am I missing something?

:lol:@szabesz yes but stranger things happen on the web! The original PDF's are 'print-ready' so not web optimised and Robin S didn't say how they were 'adapted' to responsive web docs. Just putting an idea out there as an alternative to developing and maintaining a separate app... can all be done within PW.

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Thanks for all the replies!

14 hours ago, adrian said:

If you went with Ionic

In my scenario (which I'm investigating mostly out of curiosity as the client is not pressing me for a solution to this) there would not be a budget for an entirely new app development. The desire is to present an existing website via an app wrapper. It seems like there are a bunch of SaaS providers who offer this (the ones I found all looked kinda dodgy) but with the catches being:

1. An internet connection is required, because the app user is essentially just browsing your live website inside a wrapper. What I'm looking for is something that could crawl a website and then save the content for offline browsing. For Android there is this: Offline Browser - which looks pretty good, but it's for general-purpose browsing. I'd like something that can be packaged up and distributed for just for one website.

2. You have to pay an ongoing subscription for the provider to do basically nothing.

3. If the provider goes bust (and several I looked at did not inspire confidence) your app goes bust too.

 

8 hours ago, Sergio said:

I read about Jasonette (https://docs.jasonette.com/examples/), a way of creating an app via json files.

Thanks, will look into that. Seems like development would be faster than some other options, but I think it would still be a fairly costly addon for the client to pay my development time.

 

8 hours ago, benbyf said:

If its mainly text, then an offline web app with service worker would be fine as most devices allow yo to save upto 50mb without being prompted and then usually more if you give permission.

In this project there were a lot of images so would definitely go beyond 50mb. Also still not sure if the service worker can crawl the entire site without users actually browsing to those pages.

 

7 hours ago, bernhard said:

throwing in another idea: could it make sense to use a raspberry pi zero as hotspot&webserver? then you could browse the manual hostet from the pi with any device that connects to the pi just as if the connected to the online manual.

Cool idea, but in my example the end users are forestry roading engineers working in different locations across the country so probably not viable to give each their own Raspberry Pi. Would also need a pretty rugged housing.

 

5 hours ago, FrancisChung said:

If the main objective of this project is to view PDF files/manuals offline, then do you need to build an app for viewing PDFs?

That's not the objective - it's actually sort of the opposite of the objective. :-)
The source format is PDF but the problem is that the PDF layout is for a large-format printed book. It does not adapt well to small screens. Also I think the client is enthusiastic about the prospect of making easy document edits via the PW backend.

 

I think there is a gap in the market here (anyone looking for a startup idea?). Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen previous projects where I think the client would have liked to be able to deliver basic static website content offline to mobile devices. Worldwide there would be a big audience for this. What's needed is the same sort of native wrapper idea the SaaS providers are selling, but with the crawl-and-store features of the Offline Browser app. And sold as a one-off purchase because I think buyers know there is not a lot of ongoing service being provided that justifies a subscription, and would like the confidence that the app keeps working if the provider goes bust.

It sucks that Apple are so restricting about the delivery of iOS apps, but I suppose there are security concerns and a lot a malicious agents out there.

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@Robin S -if you have original files (InDesign or compatible) you might want to take a look at Adobe's DPS: https://digitalpublishing.acrobat.com/welcome.html

I haven't looked into it in a while, but what I wish would happen would be wide spread adoption of EPUB 3 so we could build layout style publications that reflow properly on smaller devices.

 

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2 minutes ago, adrian said:

if you have original files (InDesign or compatible) you might want to take a look at Adobe's DPS: https://digitalpublishing.acrobat.com/welcome.html

DPS looks interesting and I will check that out. Though it still seems like work will be duplicated if the client also needs to deliver the content via a website.

10 minutes ago, adrian said:

I wish would happen would be wide spread adoption of EPUB 3

That is a great suggestion! I had completely overlooked EPUB format. I don't know a lot but an EPUB is essentially HTML right? So potentially quite easy to go from static HTML files (could even grab them from ProCache?) to EPUB. I think Calibre can do it but there are perhaps more professional tools.

This also looks promising: https://epub.press/

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11 hours ago, Robin S said:

That's not the objective - it's actually sort of the opposite of the objective. :-)
The source format is PDF but the problem is that the PDF layout is for a large-format printed book. It does not adapt well to small screens. Also I think the client is enthusiastic about the prospect of making easy document edits via the PW backend.

 

So sounds like you need to convert the PDFs to some mobile friendly format and make that available for offline viewing?
The best example of this that I've seen is the Pocket App, but I assume that doesn't work because you don't want to store the files on their servers.

It seems all of the github projects for pdf -> xxx format hasn't been worked on for years.
This seems to be best of the bunch where the main project lists several other projects you could possibly investigate for your needs?

https://github.com/nvdnkpr/PHP-Digital-Format-Convert-Epub-Mobi-PDF

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1 hour ago, FrancisChung said:

So sounds like you need to convert the PDFs to some mobile friendly format and make that available for offline viewing?

The PDF thing isn't the main issue - that just happened to be the source of the website content in my example.

The crux of it is: you have a website which consists of HTML and Javascript and images. Mobile devices have all the technology built in to render and browse this content. So why should it be so difficult to bundle those files up into some distributable format and view it offline on the device? If someone brings a tool to market that does this they can make a stack o' cash.

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18 minutes ago, Robin S said:

The crux of it is: you have a website which consists of HTML and Javascript and images. Mobile devices have all the technology built in to render and browse this content. So why should it be so difficult to bundle those files up into some distributable format and view it offline on the device? If someone brings a tool to market that does this they can make a stack o' cash.

 

Perhaps no one has come up with a good way to monetising this. And with internet speeds getting faster and more people having bigger data allowances, the use case for offline viewing diminishes over time IMHO.

Also I've never seen a mobile app that had a satisfying way of managing their user files, and I'm guessing it might be due to the restrictive nature of file access in mobiles. I can only speak about my IOS experience,  so I don't know if Android handles it better.

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2 hours ago, Robin S said:

The PDF thing isn't the main issue - that just happened to be the source of the website content in my example.

The crux of it is: you have a website which consists of HTML and Javascript and images. Mobile devices have all the technology built in to render and browse this content. So why should it be so difficult to bundle those files up into some distributable format and view it offline on the device? If someone brings a tool to market that does this they can make a stack o' cash.

Literally Phonegap, Marmalade or Cordova, does this... soooooooo give it a go :)

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Another possibility is GitBook, i haven't used it much, but can generate PDF, epub, mobi etc; it also integrates with GitHub

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