Angular2 and Electron - The definitive guide

Angular2 and Electron - The definitive guide

Building cross platform apps for desktop operating systems became really simple compared to the past. With GitHub's Electron is a framework available that takes away the pain for abstracting all common platform APIs from us as web developers.

Electron makes it easy to host Single Page Applications (short SPAs) within a native application container which is available for OSX, Linux and Windows. When looking at Electron's architecture you will find two main counterparts.

  • The Main Process which is responsible for providing platform specific API's and taking care about the application lifecycle. We use Node.js to host custom functionalities and to provide instructions for main process.
  • The Renderer Process is responsible for serving the user interface. Electron is using Chromium to achieve this. That said, you've to realise that your SPA will always run inside off a full fledged Chrome engine. (With all it's advantages such as having rock solid Chrome Developer Tools available right inside of your desktop app)

Of course there are plenty of cool things built into Electron, but right now let's move on and get started with actually building a cross platform desktop app using Angular2 and Electron itself.

Project Setup

Technically, there are no special requirements when building your first an app. For us (web developers), it's just a regular frontend project. See the following lines of terminal code, which will create a project and initialise it with required files and some of the dependencies.

$ mkdir ng2-electron-sample
$ cd ng2-electron-sample
$ mkdir -p src/frontend/app/components
$ mkdir -p src/main
$ mkdir -p src/assets/
$ touch ./gulpfile.js ./tsconfig.json ./typings.json
$ touch src/main/index.js src/assets/package.json 
$ touch src/frontend/index.html
$ touch src/frontend/app/boot.ts src/frontend/app/components/app.ts

$ npm init --y
$ npm install typescript live-server gulp del run-sequence typings --D --no-progress

After executing those commands, your project directory should look like shown in the picture.

ng2 electron file and folder structure

Creating the SPA

Open the ng2-electron-sample folder in your favourite editor. First, we'll add all required Angular2 related dependencies and some scripts for later usage to to the package.json file.

// stripped for better readability
"scripts" : {
    "postinstall": "npm run typings install",
    "typings": "typings",
    "tsc": "tsc",
    "build": "npm run frontend && tsc && gulp electron",
    "frontend": "gulp frontend && tsc",
    "serve": "live-server dist/frontend/",
    "apps": "npm run build && gulp apps"
},
"dependencies": {
    "angular2": "2.0.0-beta.6",
    "systemjs": "0.19.20",
    "es6-promise": "^3.0.2",
    "es6-shim": "^0.33.3",
    "reflect-metadata": "0.1.2",
    "rxjs": "5.0.0-beta.0",
    "zone.js": "0.5.14"
}

Angular2 beta6 is using the typings module to pull type-definition files. Before installing all Angular2 stuff, specify the typings for es6-shim inside of typings.json

{
  "ambientDependencies": {
    "es6-shim": "github:DefinitelyTyped/DefinitelyTyped/es6-shim/es6-shim.d.ts#6697d6f7dadbf5773cb40ecda35a76027e0783b2"
  }
}

Save both package.json and typings.json. Now you can execute npm i --no-progress from the terminal which will pull all Angular2 dependencies and the typings.

Before moving to the Angular2 related things, we've to specify how Typescript has to transpile our code to JavaScript by providing all required compiler instructions using tsconfig.json

{
  "compilerOptions": {
    "target": "es5",
    "outDir": "dist/frontend/app",
    "module": "system",
    "moduleResolution": "node",
    "sourceMap": true,
    "emitDecoratorMetadata": true,
    "experimentalDecorators": true,
    "removeComments": false,
    "noImplicitAny": false
  },
  "exclude": [
    "node_modules",
    "typings/main",
    "typings/main.d.ts"
  ]
}

The SPA is really simple in our case, it will only act as technical demonstration for this post. So both, our app.ts and our boot.ts are straight forward

//app.ts
import {Component} from 'angular2/core';  
@Component({
  selector: 'ng2-electron-app',
  template: `<h3>{{caption}}</h3>`
})
export class AppComponent{  
  private caption: string = "Hello from ng2.";
}
//boot.ts
import {enableProdMode} from 'angular2/core';  
import {bootstrap} from 'angular2/platform/browser';  
import {AppComponent} from './components/app';

enableProdMode();  
bootstrap(AppComponent, []);  

Last but not least there is the index.html file which is responsible for displaying out app to the user.

<html>  
  <head>
    <title>ng2 on electron</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <ng2-electron-app>Loading Angular2 sample app...</ng2-electron-app>

    <script src="scripts/vendor/es6-shim.min.js"></script>
    <script src="scripts/vendor/system-polyfills.js"></script>
    <script src="scripts/vendor/angular2-polyfills.js"></script>
    <script src="scripts/vendor/system.src.js"></script>
    <script src="scripts/vendor/Rx.js"></script>
    <script src="scripts/vendor/angular2.dev.js"></script>
    <script>
        System.config({

            packages: {
                'app': {
                    format: 'register',
                    defaultExtension: 'js'
                }
            }
        });
        System.import('app/boot')
                .then(null, console.error.bind(console));
    </script>

  </body>
</html>  

Because we want to execute our SPA later in the context of an Electron container, it 's important to provide all script paths relative to the current document. Ensure that there is no leading slash for your script references.

Building the SPA

Okay, having all those things written down, it's time to care about the build. We'll use Gulp in order to transform our TypeScript code into JavaScript and copy all those assets required by our app. (See my series on Gulp right here for more detailed guides)

// gulpfile.js
var gulp = require('gulp'),  
    del = require('del'),
    runSeq = require('run-sequence');

gulp.task('clean', function(){  
    return del('dist/frontend/**/*', {force:true});
});

gulp.task('copy:vendor', function(){  
    return gulp.src([
            "node_modules/es6-shim/es6-shim.min.js",
            "node_modules/systemjs/dist/system-polyfills.js",
            "node_modules/angular2/bundles/angular2-polyfills.js",
            "node_modules/systemjs/dist/system.src.js",
            "node_modules/rxjs/bundles/Rx.js",
            "node_modules/angular2/bundles/angular2.dev.js"
        ])
        .pipe(gulp.dest('./dist/frontend/scripts/vendor'))
})

gulp.task('copy:index', function(){  
    return gulp.src('./src/frontend/index.html')
        .pipe(gulp.dest('./dist/frontend'));
});

gulp.task('frontend', function(done){  
    return runSeq('clean', ['copy:vendor', 'copy:index'], done);
})

Now it's time to give it a try, save all the files and move over to your terminal. By invoking the frontend script, our Angular2 app will be built and we'll use live-server by executing serve to serve it from the dist folder.

$ npm run frontend
$ npm run serve

Instructing Electron

Our SPA is done, now it is time to tell Electron how to behave when users start our App. Open src/main/index.js in your editor and use the following code.

// main/index.js

'use strict';  
const electron = require('electron'),  
  app = electron.app,
  BrowserWindow = electron.BrowserWindow;  

var mainWindow = null;

app.on('window-all-closed', function() {  
  if (process.platform != 'darwin') {
    app.quit();
  }
});

app.on('ready', function() {  
  mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({width: 800, height: 600});
  mainWindow.loadURL('file://' + __dirname + '/index.html');
  mainWindow.webContents.openDevTools();
  mainWindow.on('closed', function() {
    mainWindow = null;
  });
});

By default we enable Chrome's Developer Tools within the index.js as shown above. If you want to hide the DevTools by default, go and remove the mainWindow.webContents.openDevTools() call from our instruction script.

Besides our index.js there is another required artefact to get everything working as expected. We've to provide a package.json for out Electron app.

You can of course re-use the existing package.json from our projects root directory, to keep things simple here we've created a dedicated package.json inside src/assets with our initial script.

Let's provide the required properties to src/assets/package.json

{
  "main" : "index.js",
  "version" : "0.0.1",
  "name": "ng2-electron sample"
}

Generating the final output

Having everything implemented, it's now time to add some new tasks to our build script

// gulpfile.js
gulp.task('clean-electron', function(){  
    return del('dist/electron-package/**/*', {force: true});
});

gulp.task('copy:electron-manifest', function(){  
   return gulp.src('./src/assets/package.json')
       .pipe(gulp.dest('./dist/electron-package'))
});

gulp.task('copy:electron-scripts', function(){  
    return gulp.src('./src/main/index.js')
        .pipe(gulp.dest('./dist/electron-package'));
});

gulp.task('copy:spa-for-electron', function(){  
    return gulp.src("./dist/frontend/**/*")
        .pipe(gulp.dest('dist/electron-package'));
});

gulp.task('electron', function(done){  
    return runSeq('clean-electron', ['copy:electron-manifest', 'copy:electron-scripts', 'copy:spa-for-electron'], done);
});

Try out the gulp tasks by invoking

$ npm run build

Now all required files should be created within the dist/electron-package folder. Let's give it a try!

Execute the app

There are two different ways how you can start the cross platform app. First and simplest way is to use electron-prebuilt which is good for development time.

Install electron-prebuilt using npm

$ npm install electron-prebuilt --D --no-progress

From this point you can either execute the app manually or add another npm script for that. Let's keep it simple and start the electron app directly from the terminal by executing

$ ./node_modules/.bin/electron dist/electron-package

Your app should now start and render our sample Angular2 app as shown below.

Angular2 App running as Electron Desktop Application

Having this mechanism for dev time is good, but not good enough when thinking about the your development workflow or handing out the app in this state to the user. Users want to have an executable and we as developers want to automate the creation of those executables of course.

Automate app packaging

You can use gulp-atom-electron to automatically build the app. I've written another article on packaging Windows Apps from the mac including a custom app icon over here. But for now let's keep the default icons and get everything up and running.

Install gulp-atom-electron and it's dependency symdest using npm

$ npm i gulp-atom-electron gulp-symdest --D --no-progress

Once installed, some more gulp tasks are required to automatically build the app for all three major platforms (OSX, Linux and Windows).

// gulpfile.js
// load req plugins
// change the beginning of your gulpfile to match

var gulp = require('gulp'),  
  electron = require('gulp-atom-electron'),
  symdest = require('gulp-symdest'),
  del = require('del'),
  runSeq = require('run-sequence');


gulp.task('build-app-for-osx', function(){  
    gulp.src(['dist/electron-package/**/*'])
        .pipe(electron({
            version: '0.36.7',
            platform: 'darwin' }))
        .pipe(symdest('packages/osx'));
});
gulp.task('build-app-for-linux', function(){  
    gulp.src(['dist/electron-package/**/*'])
        .pipe(electron({
            version: '0.36.7',
            platform: 'linux' }))
        .pipe(symdest('packages/linux'));
});
gulp.task('build-app-for-win', function(){  
    gulp.src(['dist/electron-package/**/*'])
        .pipe(electron({
            version: '0.36.7',
            platform: 'win32' }))
        .pipe(symdest('packages/win'));
});

gulp.task('apps', function(done){  
    return runSeq(['build-app-for-win', 'build-app-for-linux', 'build-app-for-osx'], done);
});

When you start the build using npm run apps, you can find all executables in the packages sub directory.

Summary

Congratulations, you've just created a functional Angular2 App for all major desktop platforms. Leave a comment to share your opinion on this guide, feedback is always important to me.

There are several areas for improvements here, go and read my articles on Electron and Angular2 like 'How to set Icons for Windows Executables from a Mac', 'everything about Angular2' or 'Gulp in deep series'.

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