Building PSLab Desktop Apps using JavaScript, Python  and Electron

So before we get started let me quickly show you what we accomplished over a period of 2 and a half months building the Pocket Science Lab desktop app using the very technology I am going to talk about.

The PSLab desktop app was originally written using pyQt. The UI of the python stack looked really outdated and maintaining it was becoming a problem due to poor developer support. So, after a lot of discussion and experimentation, we finally decided to re-implement the whole app in electronJS. There are three major benefits of writing an app with Electron:

  • You can re-use your HTML, CSS knowledge to write the UI part in no time.
  • You can re-use your JavaScript knowledge to write the business logic of the app.
  • It works…

Why?

Before we even dive down to why use X and why use Y, let us try to answer a very basic question, The reason I had to invest a massive amount of time trying to experiment with different combinations and config parameters is because most of the blogs on the internet just wrote about “How to get started”, nobody talked about how to complete the build. And that is what I am going to cover. Anyone can figure out how to start out but  the real grind only begins when you get to the details of the app. But I hope to hit the escape velocity with my take on the subject.

The Tech Stack — Why we chose Electron for PSLab Desktop app

Now let’s talk about why we need React or Python in an Electron App.

1. React

It is perfectly fine to use everything minimal, plain old HTML, CSS and JS will do just fine for your UI, but for how long? React opens up so many possibilities and makes the code logic flow naturally through a very well designed UI language. The state management system is also brilliant and the most crucial thing that will definitely make your life easier is the life cycle methods offered by React class components. Making use of react also lets you take advantage of well known React oriented libraries like Material UI React, and Styled-Components. These things are game changers and can transform your UI to an absolute gem that your users will enjoy.

Oh, by the way, React UI is blazing fast…

But that is not the best part, we will not configure React on our own, but rather let the crowd favorite CRA do it for us. CRA (Create-React-App) will not only abstract out all the webpack config files, but will also make sure your react dependencies stay updated. This will help in keeping your code up to date in the long run.

2. Python

The task that is being performed by Python in our case was inevitable and could not be performed by JavaScript because PSLab only had Python libraries. We did not have the time to write everything again for JS so we figured a way to make use of Python in the electron app. If you can do everything with JS and have the necessary libraries to do so, then you don’t need this. For example, if you need to predict some value using a model you trained via TensorFlow, then this would be one such use case.

Bear in mind that this could be extended to any language as long as you get your hands on a library that can deal with the communication.

3. Electron

In short, it gives you the platform to make use of the above two. It becomes more interesting when we go into the details of how electron works. But for now, let us just say, it will provide you the space on which react will render the UI, it will provide the means for your UI to talk to the Python code, it will also provide APIs to talk to native system features like filesystem, notifications etc.

Resources:How to build an Electron app using create-react-app. No webpack configuration or “ejecting” necessary. Christian Sepulveda Christian Sepulveda: https://medium.com/free-code-camp/building-an-electron-application-with-create-react-app-97945861647c

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