Universal Desktop Apps using Web technologies

Electron is a framework for creating native desktop applications using web technologies like HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

A lot of popular desktop applications are built using GitHub’s Electron, like Visual Studio Code, Slack, Atom, etc.

Electron apps are like NodeJS applications bundled with a minimal Chromium browser and uses web pages for UI.

Let’s see how we can quickly setup our environment and build a “Hello World” electron app.

Application structure

Electron apps are generally structured like this,

The package.json contains information about the app and it follows the exact format of a NodeJS app’s package.json.

    "name": "hello-electron",
    "version": "1.0.0",
    "main": "main.js"

The main.js is the startup file. If we do not specify a name Electron will look for a index.js instead.

const electron = require('electron')
// Module to control application life.
const app = electron.app
// Module to create native browser window.
const BrowserWindow = electron.BrowserWindow

// Keep a global reference of the window object, if you don't, the window will
// be closed automatically when the JavaScript object is garbage collected.
let mainWindow

function createWindow () {
  // Create the browser window.
  mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({width: 800, height: 600})

  // and load the index.html of the app.
  mainWindow.loadURL('file://' + __dirname + '/index.html')

  // Open the DevTools.

  // Emitted when the window is closed.
  mainWindow.on('closed', function () {
    // Dereference the window object, usually you would store windows
    // in an array if your app supports multi windows, this is the time
    // when you should delete the corresponding element.
    mainWindow = null

// This method will be called when Electron has finished
// initialization and is ready to create browser windows.
// Some APIs can only be used after this event occurs.
app.on('ready', createWindow)

// Quit when all windows are closed.
app.on('window-all-closed', function () {
  // On OS X it is common for applications and their menu bar
  // to stay active until the user quits explicitly with Cmd + Q
  if (process.platform !== 'darwin') {

app.on('activate', function () {
  // On OS X it's common to re-create a window in the app when the
  // dock icon is clicked and there are no other windows open.
  if (mainWindow === null) {

// In this file you can include the rest of your app's specific main process
// code. You can also put them in separate files and require them here.

The above script loads an index.html file and opens the developer tools.

        <title>Hello Electron</title>
        <h1>Hello Electron!</h1>

Running the application

We need the Electron binary to run our application. Let’s install the binaries using npm.

npm install -g electron-prebuilt --save-dev

This command will install the electron binaries globally and save it as a dev dependency for our application.

Once we have the Electron binaries we can run our application using the following command.

electron .

Packaging the application

To distribute our application we need to package it. Quick and easy way to do that is to use the command line tool Electron Packager.

electron-packager can be installed gobally using npm

npm install -g electron-packager

To package our app, simply run,

electron-packager . --platform=win32 --arch=ia32 --asar=true

This command packages our app as a 32 bit Windows application (--platform=win32 --arch=ia32). Electron apps can be packaged as a Windows, Linux and Mac application.

asar (Electron Archive) is an archive format like tar but with indexing capabilities.

Specifying the option --asar=true will archive our application’s source files in a single .asar file instead of packaging it as-is.

In closing…

Creating desktop apps for all the major platforms (Windows, Linux and Mac) is very easy using Electron.

We can also use popular javascript frameworks like AngularJS, jQuery, etc.

With some changes, an existing AngularJS application can also be packaged as a desktop app using Electron.