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Andy Wingo: structure and interpretation of nativescript

Greetings, hackers tall and hackers small!

We're only a few articles in to this series on mobile application development frameworks, but I feel like we are already well into our journey. We started our trip through the design space with a look at
Ionic /
which defines its user interface in terms of the web platform, and only
calls out to iOS or Android native features as needed. We proceeded
on to React
which moves closer to native by rendering to platform-provided UI
widgets, layering a cross-platform development interface on top.

Today's article takes an in-depth look at NativeScript, whose point in the design space is further on the road towards
the platform, unabashedly embracing the specificities of the API
available on iOS and Android, exposing these interfaces directly to the
application programmer.

In practice what this looks like is that a NativeScript app is a native
app which simply happens to call JavaScript on the main UI thread. That
JavaScript has access to all native APIs, directly, without the
mediation of serialization or message-passing over a bridge or message

The first time I heard this I thought that it couldn't actually be all
native APIs. After all, new versions of iOS and Android come out quite
frequently, and surely it would take some effort on the part of
NativeScript developers to expose the new APIs to JavaScript. But no,
it really includes all of the various native APIs: the NativeScript
developers wrote a build-time inspector that uses the platform's native
reflection capabilities to grovel through all available APIs and to
automatically generate JavaScript bindings, with associated TypeScript
type definitions so that the developer knows what is available.

Some of these generated files are checked into source, so you can get an
idea of the range of interfaces that are accessible to programmers; for
example, see the iOS type definitions for
There are bindings for, like, everything.

Given access to all the native APIs, how do you go about making an app?
You could write the same kind of programs that you would in Swift or
Kotlin, but in JavaScript. But this would require more than just the
ability to access native capabilities when needed: it needs a thorough
knowledge of the platform interfaces, plus NativeScript itself on top.
Most people don't have this knowledge, and those that do are probably
programming directly in Swift or Kotlin already.

On one level, NativeScript's approach is to take refuge in that most
ecumenical of adjectives, "unopinionated". Whereas Ionic / Capacitor
encourages use of web platform interfaces, and React Native only really
supports React as a programming paradigm, NativeScript provides a
low-level platform onto which you can layer a number of different
high-level frameworks.

Now, most high-level JavaScript application development frameworks are
oriented to targetting the web: they take descriptions of user
interfaces and translate them to the DOM. When targetting NativeScript,
you could make it so that they target native UI widgets instead.
However given the baked-in assumptions of how widgets should be laid out
(notably via CSS), there is some impedance-matching to do between
DOM-like APIs and native toolkits.

NativeScript's answer to this problem is a middle layer: a
cross-platform UI

that provides DOM-like abstractions and CSS layout in a way that bridges
the gap between web-like and native. You can even define parts of the
UI using a NativeScript-specific XML
which NativeScript compiles to native UI widget calls at
Of course, there is no CSS engine in UIKit or Android's UI toolkit, so
NativeScript includes its own, implemented in JavaScript of

You could program directly to this middle layer, but I suspect that its
real purpose is in enabling Angular, Vue, Svelte, or the like. The
pitch would be that NativeScript lets app developers use pleasant
high-level abstractions, but while remaining close to the native APIs;
you can always drop down for more power and expressiveness if needed.

Diving back down to the low level, as we mentioned all of the
interactions between JavaScript and the native platform APIs happen on
the main application UI thread. NativeScript does also allow
programmers to create background threads, using an implementation of
the Web Worker
One could even in theory run a React-based UI in a worker thread and
proxy native UI updates to the main thread; as an unopinionated
platform, NativeScript can support many different frameworks and

Finally, there is the question of how NativeScript runs the JavaScript
in an application. Recall that Ionic / Capacitor uses the native JS
engine, by virtue of using the native WebView, and that React Native
used to use JavaScriptCore on both platforms but now uses its own Hermes
implementation. NativeScript is another point in the design space,
using V8 on both platforms. (They used to use JavaScriptCore on iOS but
switched to

once V8 was able to run on iOS in "jitless" mode.) Besides the reduced
maintenance burden of using a single implementation on all platforms,
this also has the advantage of being able to use V8
to move
JavaScript parse-and-compile work to build-time, even on iOS.


NativeScript is fundamentally simple: it's V8 running in an
application's main UI thread, with access to all platform native APIs.
So how do we expect it to perform?

Startup latency

In theory, applications with a NativeScript-like architecture should
have no problem with startup time, because they can pre-compile all of
their JavaScript into V8 snapshots. Snapshots are cheap to load up
because they are already in a format that V8 is ready to consume.

In practice, it would seem that V8 snapshots do not perform as expected
There are a number of aspects about this situation that I don't
understand, which I suspect relate to the state of the tooling around V8
rather than to the fundamental approach of ahead-of-time compilation.
V8 is really made for Chrome, and it could be that not enough
maintenance resources have been devoted to this snapshot facility.

In the meantime, NativeScript instead uses V8's code cache
, which caches the result of
parsing and compiling JavaScript files on the device. In this way the
first time an app is installed or updated, it might start up slowly, but
subsequent runs are faster. If you were designing a new operating
system, you'd probably want to move this work to app install-time.

As we mentioned above, NativeScript apps have access to all native APIs.
That is a lot of APIs, and only some of those interfaces will actually
be used by any given app. In an ideal world, we would expect the build
process to only include JavaScript code for those APIs that are needed
by the application. However in the presence of eval and dynamic
property lookup, pruning the native API surface to the precise minimum
is a hard problem for a bundler to perform on its own. The solution for
the time being is to manually allow and deny subsets of the platform
It's not an automatic process though, so it can be error-prone.

Besides the work that the JavaScript engine has to do to load an
application's code, the other startup overhead involves whatever work
that JavaScript might need to perform before the first frame is shown.
In the case of NativeScript, more work is done before the initial layout
than one would think: the main UI XML file is parsed by an XML parser
written in JavaScript, any needed CSS files are parsed and loaded (again
by JavaScript), and the tree of XML elements is translated to a tree of
The layout of the items in the view tree is then computed (in
JavaScript, but calling into native code to measure text and so on), and
then the app is ready.

At this point, I am again going to wave my "I am just a compiler
engineer" flag: I am not a UI specialist, much less a NativeScript
specialist. As in compilers, performance measurement and monitoring are
key to UI development, but I suspect that also as in compilers there is
a role for gut instinct. Incremental improvements are best driven by
metrics, but qualitative leaps are often the result of somewhat
ineffable hunches or even guesswork. In that spirit I can only surmise
that React Native has an advantage over NativeScript in
time-to-first-frame, because its layout is performed in C++ and because
its element tree is computed directly from JavaScript instead of having
JavaScript interpret XML and CSS files. In any case, I look forward to
the forthcoming part 2 of the NativeScript and React Native performance

that were started in November 2022.

If I were NativeScript and using NativeScript's UI framework, and if
startup latency proves to actually be a problem, I would lean into
something in the shape of Angular's ahead-of-time compilation
, but for the middle
NativeScript UI layer.


On the face of it, NativeScript is the most jank-prone of the three
frameworks we have examined, because it runs JavaScript on the main
application UI thread, interleaved with UI event handling and painting
and all of that. If an app's JavaScript takes too long to run, the app
might miss frames or fail to promptly handle an event.

On the other hand, relative to React Native, the user's code is much
closer to the application's behavior. There's no asynchrony between the
application's logic and its main loop: in NativeScript it is easy to
identify the code causing jank and eventually fix it.

The other classic JavaScript-on-the-main-thread worry relates to garbage
collection pauses. V8's garbage collector does try to minimize the
stop-the-world phase by tracing the heap concurrently and leveraging
parallelism during pauses
. Also, the
user interface of a mobile app runs in an event loop, and typically
spends most of its time idle; V8 exposes some API that can take
advantage of this idle time to perform housekeeping tasks instead of
needing to do them when handling high-priority events.

That said, having looked into the code of both the iOS and Android
run-times, NativeScript does not currently take advantage of this
facility. I dug deeper and it would seem that V8 itself is in flux, as
the IdleNotificationDeadline

is on its way out; is the thought that concurrent tracing is largely
sufficient? I would expect that if conservative stack

lands, we will see a re-introduction of this kind of API, as it does
make sense to synchronize with the event loop when scanning the main
thread stack.

Peak performance

As we have seen in our previous evaluations, this question boils down to
"is the JavaScript engine state-of-the-art, and can it perform
just-in-time compilation". In the case of NativeScript, the answers are
yes and maybe, respectively: V8 is state-of-the-art, and it can JIT on
Android, but not on iOS.

Perhaps the mitigation here is that the hardware that iOS runs on tends
to be significantly more powerful than median Android devices; if you
had to pick a subset of users to penalize with an interpreter-only
run-time, people with iPhones are the obvious choice, because they can
afford it.

Aside: Are markets wise?

Recall that our perspective in this series is that of the designer of a
new JavaScript-based mobile development platform. We are trying to
answer the question of what would it look like if a new platform offered
a NativeScript-like experience. In this regard, only the structure of
NativeScript is of interest, and notably its "market success" is not
relevant, except perhaps in some Hayekian conception of the world in which
markets are necessarily smarter than, well, me, or you, or any one of

It must be said, though, that React Native is the 800-pound gorilla of
JavaScript mobile application development. The 2022 State of JS

shows that among survey respondents, more people are aware of React
Native than any other mobile framework, and people are generally more
positive about React Native than other frameworks. Does NativeScript's
mitigated market share indicate something about its architecture, or
does it speak speak more to the size of Facebook's budget, both on the
developer experience side and on marketing?

Aside: On the expressive power of application framworks

Oddly, I think the answer to the market wisdom question might be found
in a 35-year-old computer science paper, "On the expressive power of


In this paper, Matthias Felleisen considers the notion of what it means
for one programming language to be more expressive than another. For
example, is a language with just for less expressive than a language
with both for and while? Intuitively we would say no, these are
similar things; you can make a simple local transformation of while (x) {...} to for (;x;) {...} and you have exactly the same program
semantics. On the other hand a language with just for is less
expressive than one which also has goto; there is no simple local
rewrite that can turn goto into for.

In the same way, we can consider the question of what it would mean for
one library to be more expressive than another. After all, the API of a
library exposes a language in which its user can write programs; we
should be able to reason about these languages. So between React Native
and NativeScript, which one is more expressive?

By Felleisen's definitions, NativeScript is clearly the more expressive
language: there is no simple local transformation that can turn
imperative operations on native UI widgets into equivalent
functional-reactive programs. Yes, with enough glue code React Native
can reach directly to native APIs in a similar way as NativeScript, but
everything that touches the native UI tree is expressly under React
Native's control: there is no sanctioned escape hatch.

You might think that "more expressive" is always better, but Felleisen's
take is more nuanced than that. Yes, he says, more expressive languages
do allow programmers to make more concise programs, because they allow
programmers to define abstractions that encapsulate patterns, and this
is a good thing. However he also concludes that "an increase in
expressive power is related to a decrease of the set of 'natural'
(mathematically appealing) operational equivalences." Less expressive
programming languages are easier to reason about, in general, and indeed
that is one of the recognized strengths of React's programming model: it
is easy to compose components and have confidence that the result will


A NativeScript-like architecture offers the possibility of performance:
the developer has all the capabilities needed for writing
pleasant-to-use applications that blend in with the platform-native
experience. It is up to the developers to choose how to use the power
at their disposal. In the wild, I expect that the low-level layer of
NativeScript's API is used mainly by expert developers, who know how to
assemble well-functioning machines from the parts on offer.

As a primary programming interface for a new JavaScript-based mobile
platform, though, just providing a low-level API would seem to be not
enough. NativeScript rightly promotes the use of more well-known
high-level frameworks on top: Angular, Vue, Svelte, and such. Less
experienced developers should use an opinionated high-level UI
framework; these developers don't have good opinions yet and the API
should lead them in the right direction.

That's it for today. Thanks for reading these articles, by the way; I
have enjoyed diving into this space. Next up, we'll take a look beyond
JavaScript, to Flutter and Dart. Until then, happy hacking!

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Source: Planet GNU

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