Tutorial

How To Create Your First Cross-Platform Desktop Application with Electron on macOS

DevelopmentJavaScript

The author selected the Apache Software Foundation to receive a donation as part of the Write for DOnations program.

Introduction

Electron is an open source framework for creating native applications with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. It combines support for building and running applications cross platform on Mac, Windows, and Linux. Many popular desktop applications have been built using Electron, such as Visual Studio Code, WhatsApp, Twitch, Slack, and Figma.

Electron facilitates designing more complex application features like automatic updates or native menus, which means that developers can focus on the core design of their application. Further, Electron is an open source project maintained by GitHub with an active community of contributors.

In this tutorial, you’ll first set up a project and install Electron. After that you’ll create your first “Hello World!” application using Electron and customize it. You’ll implement graceful window setup and create new windows for the application. After following all of these steps, you will have an Electron cross-platform desktop application on macOS.

Prerequisites

To complete this tutorial, you will need:

Note: This tutorial was tested on macOS 10.15.3.

Step 1 — Creating the Project

First you’ll install Electron to your machine and create the project folder to build the desktop application.

To start the Electron installation process, create the project folder called hello-world and navigate to the folder with the following commands:

  • mkdir hello-world
  • cd hello-world

Next, you’ll initiate your project by creating the package.json file.

The package.json file is an essential part of a Node.js application, it performs the following:

  • Lists the packages that your project depends on.
  • Specifies the package version your project can use.

To create the package.json file, run the following command:

  • npm init

You will be asked a series of questions, starting with the package name. You can use the default application name, hello-world, as your package name.

Then it asks for the version. To use v1.0.0, which comes as default, press ENTER.

After that, it asks for a description. There you can add a description of your project, something like: hello world application on Electron.js.

Next, for the entry point, enter main.js.

The file invoked at the initial run time of application is known as the entry point. In this case, main.js is the entry point of the package.json file.

For the remaining questions, accept the defaults with ENTER.

Note: In this tutorial we’re leaving the author and license empty, but you can use your first and last name as the author depending on your project status. The license of your package specifies how others are permitted to use the application, and any restrictions you’re placing on it. The most common licenses are: MIT, BSD-2-Clause, and ISC. For more details, check the full list of SPDX license IDs. From there you can use a preferred license for your project, but this is not mandatory.

Having followed the prompts you’ll receive the following output:

Output:
. . . Use `npm install <pkg>` afterwards to install a package and save it as a dependency in the package.json file. Press ^C at any time to quit. package name: (hello-world) version: (1.0.0) description: hello world application on Electron.js entry point: (index.js) main.js test command: git repository: keywords: author: license: (ISC)

After that, you’ll be asked to confirm the configuration:

Output:
About to write to /hello-world/package.json: { "name": "hello-world", "version": "1.0.0", "description": "hello world application on Electron.js", "main": "main.js", "scripts": { "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1" }, "author": "", "license": "ISC" } Is this OK? (yes)

You’ll now have the newly generated package.json file inside your hello-world project directory. Next you’ll install Electron.

Step 2 — Installing Electron

Now you’ll implement the configuration of the package.json file and install Electron.

For that, open the package.json file in your preferred text editor:

  • nano package.json

Add the following highlighted line inside the scripts object:

package.json
{
  "name": "hello-world",  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "hello world application on Electron.js",
  "main": "main.js",
  "scripts": {
    "start": "electron .",
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
 },
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC"
}

The scripts property takes an object with as many key/value pairs as desired. Each one of the keys in these key/value pairs is the name of a command that can be run. The corresponding value of each key is the actual command that can be run. Scripts are frequently used for testing, building, and streamlining of the needed commands.

In this project, you’ll use start as a key and electron . as a value.

Once you’re done, save and exit the file.

Next, you’ll install Electron as a development dependency in your project. Run the following command inside your hello-world project directory:

  • npm install --save-dev electron

After successfully installing the Electron dependency to your project, the package.json file will be similar to this:

package.json
{
  "name": "hello-world",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "hello world application on Electron.js",
  "main": "main.js",
  "scripts": {
    "start": "electron .",
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  },
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC",
  "devDependencies": {
    "electron": "^8.2.1"
  }
}

The dependency property takes an object that has the name and version for each dependency.

There are two dependency properties dependencies and devDependencies that can be identified with a key difference. The dependencies property is used to define the dependencies that a module needs to run in production. The devDependencies property is usually used to define the dependencies the module needs to run in development. To install the package as devDependencies use the --save-dev flag with your command.

You’ve installed Electron to your machine and created the project folder to build your application. Now you’ll write your first hello-world application using the Electron framework.

Step 3 — Writing the “Hello World!” Application

Let’s start writing your first Electron application.

Electron operates with two types of processes: the main process (server-side) and the renderer process (client-side). The Electron main process is run on the Node.js runtime.

For that, you’ll be working with two files: main.js and index.html.

main.js is your application’s main process and index.html is your Electron application renderer process.

hello-world
+-- package.json
+-- main.js
+-- index.html

Next, we create a manual browser window and load the content using Electron API calls, which you can use to execute HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and so on.

First open your main.js file:

  • nano main.js

Then add the following line of code to implement the BrowserWindow module:

main.js
const { app, BrowserWindow } = require('electron')

This contains two destructuring assignments called app and BrowserWindow, which are required for an Electron module. The Browserwindow module is used to create a new window in your Electron application.

Next, add the following code to your main.js file:

main.js
. . .
function createWindow () {
  const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
    width: 800,
    height: 600
  })

  mainWindow.loadFile('index.html')
}

app.whenReady().then(createWindow)

You add an Electron createWindow function to your hello-world application. In this function, you create a new BrowserWindow renderer process and pass the width and height parameters. The width and height will set the application window size.

The mainWindow.loadFile() method renders some contents into the BrowserWindow. The index.html file will load the content.

The main process will be started when the app.whenReady().then(windowName) method is ready. At this point, the main process calls the createWindow function. This function creates a new renderer process, or browser window instance, with a width of 800px and height of 600px. Then the renderer process proceeds to load content using mainWindow.loadFile('index.html') method. In this tutorial, you use index.html as the filename.

Next add the following events code to your file:

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

app.on('activate', () => {
  if (BrowserWindow.getAllWindows().length === 0) {
    createWindow()
  }
})

You add the two main system events into the project—window-all-closed and activate events:

  • window-all-closed: Quits the application when all windows are closed. On macOS it is common for applications and their menu bar to stay active until the user quits explicitly with CMD+Q.
  • activate: Various actions can trigger this event, such as launching the application for the first time, attempting to re-launch the application when it’s already running, or clicking on the application’s dock (macOS) or taskbar icon.

After adding these code blocks, your final output of the main.js file will be similar to this:

main.js
const { app, BrowserWindow } = require('electron')

function createWindow () {
  const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
    width: 800,
    height: 600
  })

  mainWindow.loadFile('index.html')

}

app.whenReady().then(createWindow)

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

app.on('activate', () => {
  if (BrowserWindow.getAllWindows().length === 0) {
    createWindow()
  }
})

Once you’re done, save and exit this file.

Next, create and open the index.html file:

  • nano index.html

Add the following code, which is sent as the final output:

index.html
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
  <head>
    <meta charset="UTF-8">
    <title>Hello World!</title>
  </head>
  <body
    <h1>Hello World!</h1>
  </body>
</html>

Here you create a static HTML web page. The Electron application renderer process supports all HTML syntax since Electron uses Chromium for the rendering process.

Now that you’re done, you can run your application:

  • npm start

You will get an application window as an output.

Hello world printed output window of the application

You’ve created your first cross-platform application with the Electron framework. Next you’ll work with some customizations, which you can add for interactivity.

Step 4 — Customizing Your “Hello World!”“ Application

Now you have completed the initial setup of your first cross-platform application using the Electron framework. Let’s see what else you can do to improve the native behavior of the application.

Electron has a number of built-in features such as dialog boxes, windows options, new windows, menus, shortcuts, notifications, touch bars, session controls, and so on, that improve the user experience of your desktop application. Let’s add some features to customize the hello-world application.

Graceful Window Setup of the Application

When you load a page into the window directly, at the startup of your application you may see the page does not load at once. This isn’t a great experience in native applications. Let’s fix this issue in a few steps.

To do this, you need to hide the BrowserWindow by passing new configuration parameters at the time it gets created.

For that, open the main.js file:

  • nano main.js

Add the show: false parameter to the body of the BrowserWindow object:

main.js
const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
   width: 800,
   height: 600,
   show: false
 })

Next, you’ll add a new listener to the BrowserWindow instance by adding the highlighted code line inside the createWindow function body. You’ll also add new configuration parameters into the BrowserWindow to change the background color of the initially built window.

For that, you have to add the following code line of backgroundColor object, inside the BrowserWindow function. Feel free to change the hex color code as you wish.

backgroundColor: '#Your hex color code'

Add this line like the following highlighted code to your createWindow function:

main.js
function createWindow () {
 const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
   width: 800,
   height: 600,
   show: false,
   backgroundColor: '#ffff00'
 })
 mainWindow.loadFile('index.html')

 mainWindow.once('ready-to-show', mainWindow.show)

}

To reduce the garbage collection, you need to execute this listener one time by using the once keyword. Therefore, the mainWindow.show method executes only once at the run time of this application.

Now save your file and run your application using the terminal:

  • npm start

Your application will show with a yellow background.

Hello world printed output window with the background color of yellow

Finally, you will see the application window loading gracefully.

Creating a New Window for the Application

The use of more than one window is a common feature of basic to advanced applications. Let’s add that feature to your newly created application.

Electron can create multiple renderer processes (multiple windows) from a single main process.

First, open main.js:

  • nano main.js

Create a new method called secWindow and set the width and height parameters of the newly created window by adding the highlighted code:

main.js
function createWindow () {
const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
  width: 800,
  height: 600,
  show: false,
  backgroundColor: '#ffff00'
})

const secWindow = new BrowserWindow({
  width: 600,
  height: 400,
 })
. . .
}

Now load content to the newly created BrowserWindow renderer process. At this time you’ll load some remote URL (Website) content.

In this tutorial, you’re using https://www.digitalocean.com web content for the second window of the application. For that, in the second window initialization secWindow.loadURL, you add the following code line to the body of the createWindow function:

main.js
 function createWindow () {
 const mainWindow = new BrowserWindow({
   width: 800,
   height: 600,
   show: false,
   backgroundColor: '#ffff00'
 })

const secWindow = new BrowserWindow({
   width: 600,
   height: 400,
 })

 mainWindow.loadFile('index.html')

 secWindow.loadURL('https://www.digitalocean.com/')

 mainWindow.once('ready-to-show', mainWindow.show)
}

Now save and exit your file and run your application in the terminal:

  • npm start

You will get your initial window with the yellow background and a new application with the loaded URL.

New desktop application window of loaded URL with previously hello world printed output window

You’ve made customizations to your newly created application to make it more interactive for users. Now it’s time to build your Electron application.

Step 5 — Building Your First Application

After adding some features to your application, you need to build it for the purpose of distribution. In this section, you will learn how to build the application for various platforms.

The build process of the Electron application is considered somewhat hard because it needs a lot of tools. However, here you’ll use the electron-builder CLI tool that provides the best way to build your application for any platform.

First, you’ll install the electron-builder CLI tools globally. To do this run the following command:

  • sudo npm install -g electron-builder

Note: You can use either npm or yarn to install electron-builder—there are no noted differences in performance. If you intend to develop your application in the long term, the makers of electron-builder recommend yarn to avoid potential compatibility issues. To install using yarn, you’ll need to ensure it’s installed on your computer and then run yarn add electron-builder --dev to install electron-builder with yarn.

After completing the installation of the electron-builder, you can verify the success of it by running the following command in your terminal:

  • electron-builder --version

You’ll receive the current version of Electron in your output.

Now you can build your first cross-platform application. To do this open your terminal and run the following command in your project directory:

  • electron-builder -mwl

You use the flags -mwl to build applications for macOS, Windows, and Linux respectively.

Note: Only macOS users can build for all platforms. Windows users can build the application for Windows and Linux platforms only. Linux users can build only for Linux platforms. For more details, you can refer to the documentation.

To build applications for separate operating systems use the following:

Build applications for macOS:

  • electron-builder --mac

Build applications for Windows:

  • electron-builder --win

Build applications for Linux:

  • electron-builder --linux

This process takes some time while dependencies download and your application builds.

Your project directory creates a new folder called dist. All your built applications and unzip versions of the application are located in that folder.

As an example, if you build your application for all platforms, your project dist folder is similar to the following file structure:

hello-world
  +-- hello-world-1.0.0-mac.zip
  +-- hello-world-1.0.0.dmg
  +-- hello-world Setup 1.0.0.exe
  +-- win-unpacked
  +-- mac
  +-- linux-unpacked
  +-- hello-world_1.0.0_amd64.snap

electron-builder builds the Electron app for the current platform and current architecture as the default target.

  • macOS: DMG and ZIP for Squirrel.Mac
  • Windows: NSIS (.exe)
  • Linux: If you build on Windows or macOS, Snap and AppImage for x64 will be the output. Otherwise if you build on Linux, the output will be Snap and AppImage files for the current architecture.

You’ve now built your application for all platforms.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, you created your first cross-platform application with the Electron framework, added native features, and built it for distribution, on macOS.

To learn more about Electron, you can check out their documentation. Now you can also share your newly created desktop application with anyone by creating an installer.

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