Big in Japan: Cordova

Huge popularity of Cordova in Japan provides lessons for global developers

Masa Tanaka
Tokyo image via Shutterstock

The mobile development framework PhoneGap was almost entirely ignored by Japan’s mobile programming scene. And then it wasn’t. Tech founder Masa Tanaka explains why Apache Cordova was the key.

If you take a quick look at the PhoneGap Developer Directory with region set to Japan, the paltry 18 entries might make you conclude that PhoneGap is not popular in the Land of the Rising Sun.

You’d be wrong. Would you have guessed that over 100 million mobile devices have shipped with apps that were developed using PhoneGap/Cordova? But how did it get to this level of penetration? I introduced PhoneGap to the Japanese market back in 2009. My first move was to start off translating all of the PhoneGap documentation into Japanese. My team and I have since written over two-dozen books and articles on PhoneGap/Cordova and closely related technology topics and been involved with numerous articles, events, webinars, plus on-going community involvement and support.

Originally, there were many cross-platform solutions, and I and my team evaluated many different solutions like Titanium from Appcelerator and RhoMobile … all technologies that used web views and JavaScript to create native apps. We settled on PhoneGap. PhoneGap felt more natural to me compared to other cross-platform approaches. We first used it as an internal development tool and then got so dependent on it, we ended up wanting to improve some things within PhoneGap. That led us to build Monaca and Onsen, to add a UI framework, a cloud-based IDE and a debugger on steroids, and remote build process, and much more.

app development

HTML5 hybrid app development in the Cloud

Early success, early challenges

In 2009, we built an Android/iPhone news app for distribution by KDDI, the second largest mobile carrier in Japan, called EZ News EX (now known as “AU News headline”). It was pre-installed in all KDDI devices and pulled in content from TV Asahi.

EZ News became the largest news application for KDDI. At least ¼ of all KDDI subscribers use it today. We needed to support more than 100 different smartphone devices for this one project, including Japan’s “Future Phones” with television and “Cell Phone Wallet” (unifying all payment options) functionality. It’s a lot of work but it fully shows the capabilities of hybrid apps.

How is PhoneGap in Japan different from in the US?

PhoneGap has gained popularity and lost it and gained it again in Japan. After we first introduced it in 2009, it was clear that it was a useful tool. But by 2011, there was sort of a collective decision that hybrid apps were not good enough. Performance was the issue.

It’s a similar assessment to the famous case of Facebook looking at hybrid apps for building their mobile app and concluding hybrid didn’t have native-like performance. In Japan, the user experience is always the highest priority. You can’t look past it. Developers were afraid to use PhoneGap because they couldn’t guarantee the performance.

quote2But nowadays devices have more power than four years ago, so it’s becoming a non-issue. The time for Cordova has arrived. And there’s incredible demand for mobile development. System Integrators and development shops of all sizes are looking into Cordova because demand is so high for mobile. Even those who were reluctant to utilize hybrid development technologies are forced to enter the mobile market.

Up front costs of developing for mobile devices are high, but in many cases it doesn’t produce more revenue. The high demand is simply because of customer expectations. So companies are looking for cheaper entry point. Back-end developers make server side apps that bring in revenue. But even front-end developers with special skills – Objective-C and Java – often don’t bring in revenue. What’s the best way then to get into front-end mobile development? Cordova.

One more indicator of the rise in Cordova popularity: The first Cordova User Group Japan was a half year ago. Before that, there was only a PhoneGap workshop group by Adobe System. Since we founded the Cordova User Group, it’s quickly grown to 500+ members with about 80–100 showing up for each meeting.

Windows Phone in Japan

In Japan, the mix of technology is somewhat different from what you find in the US. There are a higher percentage of larger corporations involved in software development, especially major System Integrators. Technology is more business- or enterprise-focused. In other words, you see a lot more developers wearing black suits and ties.

Here in Japan, when I visit major System Integrators, their standard development environment is Visual Studio. They are totally on the side of Microsoft technology. This makes me optimistic about Windows, and, by extension, Cordova. The upcoming Windows 10 Windows Phone is the only true cross-screen OS. Both Apple and Google use different OSes for different devices. Microsoft should have an easier time providing access to Windows Phone to its army of developers. Especially in Japan.

And, for that very reason, we provide a special extension called Monaca for Visual Studio. It’s currently shipped with Visual Studio and Windows applications work with Monaca right now. We developed it in close cooperation with Microsoft. You might be surprised how supportive they are these days of hybrid app development in general, and tools like Monaca and Onsen in particular.


Masa Tanaka

Masa Tanaka is CEO and founder of Monaca, a leading mobile hydrid app development platform provider. He has worked in the Japanese mobile development space over the past fifteen years including development of one of the first iMode apps.

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