Mark Lassoff is the founder and President of LearnToProgram, Inc., a Vernon-based technical publisher specializing in creating materials to train web, mobile, and game developers. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @mlassoff.
I’m fond of saying that a good developer is a lazy developer.
Many existing web platforms that developers and designers are taking advantage of leave little reason to reinvent the wheel. The assorted platforms, APIs, and libraries that I’ll discuss in this article will save you weeks of development time and allow you to get your products to market very quickly.
But before I reveal my five favorite web platforms, I want to discuss some vocabulary. In the web development world, the terms “API,” “library,” and “platforms” have been used mostly interchangeably, but they really fall into several different categories.
The first of these categories are true APIs, or application programming interfaces. APIs specify how distinct software components should interact with each other. You are likely familiar with the Google Maps API, which allows you to embed Google Maps and related information into an existing web or mobile application. APIs are designed to make developers’ jobs easier, as they can access larger software systems through an agreed-upon protocol.
If you’d like to examine some common APIs, you can start with:
- Google Developers API: This series of APIs from Google allows you to integrate a number of Google tools directly into your web application. You let Google do the heavy lifting and simply use the existing interface to process the results.
- Facebook API: There is no need to reinvent social networking when you can use Facebook’s existing social networking tools to make your app social. Follow in the footsteps of many successful web brands that integrated Facebook into their site.
- Twitter API: I love the Twitter API. It’s incredibly easy to use and powerful. You can integrate a number of Twitter features into your site or application using the API. If you’re just getting started with APIs, Twitter presents an easy-to-understand starting place.
Web Application Frameworks
A web application framework is another type of library that is frequently used to save development time and effort. It presents a scaffolding for common development tasks, with prewritten code accessed by a library of documented commands. Web application frameworks usually contain prewritten code for common tasks like database integration, session management, and user registration.
Web Application Frameworks are often categorized by the technology stack they optimize. Here are some common web application frameworks and the technology they’re associated with:
- PHP: Laravel, Drupal, Code Igniter, Cake PHP, WordPress
- Ruby: Ruby on Rails
- Java: Grails, Google Web Toolkit, Java Server Faces
- .NET: MVC, Monorail
Web Presentation Frameworks
As web presentation environments have become more diverse – to include tablet, mobile, and traditional devices – the presentation layer has become more difficult to optimize for multiple environments. Web presentation frameworks provide the necessary scaffolding to deliver diverse content across multiple display environments.
If you’ve ever had the unenviable task of making a web application look good across multiple screen sizes, you probably already understand the need for web presentation frameworks.
Some common web presentation frameworks include:
- FuelUX: While not a complete presentation framework in its own right, FuelUX provides components that are designed to work with bootstrap and optimized for multiple screen sizes. FuelUX replaces the common components that you see in web browsers and browser-based applications.
- Foundation: One of the major complaints about client-side frameworks is speed. Foundation claims to be one of the fastest frameworks available. It is an easy-to-learn framework with a number of quality templates that can be used as starting-points for development.
- Gumby: Who can resist a framework called Gumby? The Gumby front-end framework is a flexible alternative, allowing you to create just about any type of design and optimize it for different display formats.
The Top Five
Now that we’ve discussed the different types of frameworks available, it’s time to reveal my Top 5 Web Platforms. These come from all of the above categories and are designed to get you online and into business quickly. While they’re not substitutes for solid marketing strategy and product, they’ll let you get to that all-important MVP (minimally viable product) stage much more quickly.
In no particular order, here we go…
Shopify will let you create an online store in about 15 minutes. It is, however, much more than an ecommerce shortcut. Shopify will allow you to build a complete eCommerce store with a comprehensive feature set that runs independently on your website. If you’re selling online, Shopify and its associated API is a great starting point— and one that will grow with you as your business grows.
I’ve already waxed poetic about Bootstrap. Again, it’s probably the most popular existing presentation framework, allowing you to easily scale scale your web application to fit on any screen. I love this display framework and recommend that you not build a website or browser-based web application without it.
Disqus is a free threaded discussion framework that you can implement on your blog or site in just a couple of minutes. It allows your users to use single sign-in to participate in discussions right on your site. You can administer these discussions as well as participate. By being part of the growing Disqus network, your site can leverage user discussions across sites. Highly recommended.
Mixpanel is a powerful, new take on web analytics that focuses on user activity on your site or in your app. Easily integrated with powerful API tools, Mixpanel is the marketer’s dream. It tells you exactly what your users are doing on your site and how they got there, and it enables microscopically focused followup. Free for small sites and inexpensive for large sites, Mixpanel is an invaluable tool for my company, LearnToProgram, as we run very focused followup campaigns based on our users’ activity (or inactivity).