Building An Online Magazine App For Windows 8, Part 2: The Web Back End

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In part one1 of this series, we got a customized magazine app for Windows 8 up and running. In this second and last part, we will shift our focus to the server and content. We will look at how our magazine app obtains the articles to be shown, examine the transport protocol and set up a live content host.

When done, you will have a cloud-based content management system running on a free hosting plan from where you can manage and publish articles. With this, our HTML5-based magazine app will essentially be ready to submit to the Windows Store.

Setting Up The Content Host Via A Web Browser

We will be using freely available tools and an open-source content management system (CMS) for the back end, and we will host the content on a free Azure website account; so, getting everything up and running will be free. The goal here is to set up all of the components you’ll need with a minimum of effort, leaving you with a working end-to-end understanding of Microsoft-based Web development in 2013 that you can expand upon.

You can complete the entire process from your favorite browser.

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Here is how apps are presented in the Windows Store. A magazine app is used as a catalog by the Danish furniture designer Republic of Fritz Hansen, showing product data loaded from its website.

Articles Are Transported As JSON

In the Windows Store app file /js/data.js, the groups and articles to be displayed in the app are fetched from the content server using JSON:

var jsonGroup = {
    Key: "Group Key",               // key 
    Title: "Group title",           // title
    SubTitle: "Group sub title",    // subtitle
    GroupViewImage: "URL",          // image - used in tile views
    Image: "URL",                   // image - big group view image 
    Description: "HTML"             // html - a group description
};

var jsonArticle = {
    GroupKey: "Group Key",          // key of group article belongs to
    Title: "Article title",         // title
    SubTitle: "Article sub title",  // subtitle
    GroupViewImage: "URL",          // image - used in tile views
    Image: "URL",                   // image - big article lead image 
    Description: "HTML",            // html - the actual article
    Url: "URL"                      // url - for share charm
}

The method used by the app to fetch data is rather crude. On launch, all articles are downloaded by the app and then cached on the local file system. The app auto-refreshes articles upon every launch or uses cached content if the content server is inaccessible.

To create your own content host, you would need to expose the structures covered below. For the purpose of this article, we will be using online services and pre-built bits to quickly raise up a content host with full content-management capabilities and the required JSON endpoints.

Azure Website Running Composite C1 CMS

Windows Azure is Microsoft’s cloud platform, which offers hosting and tools for building large-scale Web applications at one end and for providing easy access to Web applications at the other end. Here, we will be using the easy bits — i.e. Azure websites.

Azure allow you to host up to 10 websites for free. Setting up a content host on this platform is pretty easy. Here, we will set up Composite C13, an open-source CMS running on the .NET Web stack.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Composite C1 core team, so my choice of CMS is anything but impartial. Knowing the CMS very well has enabled me to create the tools for this article that should make this a fairly smooth ride, so please bear with me.

If you don’t want to take the cloud route here, you can download Composite C1 or the source code from CodePlex4.

Windows Azure: Signing Up For The First Time

If you haven’t used an Azure website before, you’ll need to jump through the fiery hoops of registration, which will take about five minutes. You will be offered a 90-day free trial, but the Azure website you create here will keep on being free, even after the 90 days.

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Sign up for a Windows Azure account.

To complete the registration, you’ll need to provide a mobile phone number and credit-card number. Don’t panic: As long as you don’t upgrade your Azure website plan or actively use other paid Windows Azure services, you will never be charged.

Note that the free option has limitations on traffic and CPU usage, and you can’t customize the website’s domain name unless you pay up; however, for the purpose of feeding data to an app, a host name like my-content-host.azurewebsites.net is just fine.

Here is how to sign up:

  1. Go to the Windows Azure page for a free trial6.
  2. Click “Try it now.”
  3. Log in using a Microsoft account.
  4. In the registration wizard, specify your country, and click “Next.”
  5. On the second page, specify your mobile phone number, and click “Send text message.”
  6. Enter the six-digit code that you receive as a text message on your phone, and click “Verify code,” then “Next.”
  7. Fill in your credit-card details and address, and click “Next.”

Creating an Azure Website

Once you have access to the Windows Azure management portal, here is how to create an Azure Website instance:

  1. Launch the management portal7.
  2. Click the “New” button in the lower toolbar.
  3. Select “Compute,” then “Web Site,” then “From Gallery.”
    Creating an Azure Website from gallery8
  4. Select “.NET CMS Composite C1” and continue.
    Azure Website Gallery listing9
  5. Specify a name and a location for your website, and finish the wizard.
    Creating an Azure Website10

This will create your website. In the websites view, you will see yours running in “Free” mode, and you will see the URL.

It could take half a minute for your website to be reported as ready. When it’s ready, you can launch it by clicking the URL.

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Once you launch the website, the CMS set-up wizard kicks in.

The CMS Set-Up Wizard

“Next” your way through the CMS set-up wizard; the only major options will be the default language for content and the starter website. Select the “Open Cph — Razor” website if you fancy Twitter Bootstrap and want to look at ASP.NET Razor.

Once you have completed the wizard, you’ll see the CMS admin window (the C1 console) and the welcome screen:

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Welcome to the C1 console. This is where you can manage content, customize the website, install extension packages and other things.

Installing the App Feed Extensions

Using the C1 console, you can install two extension packages — made specifically for our magazine app — which will set up the bits needed to manage articles and feed it to the Windows 8 app. Some sample articles are also included, so that you have something to play around with.

To install the two packages, do the following in the C1 console:

  1. Go to the “System” view.
  2. Select “Packages,” then “Available Packages,” then “Composite.Tools,” and then select the Composite.AppFeed.Server package.
  3. Execute “Package Info” on it.
  4. In the document view, click “Install” and finish the installation wizard.
  5. Also, install the package named “Composite.AppFeed.Provider.Magazine.”

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The package manager lets you add features to the website.

Under the Hood

The two package installations will add the following:

  • data types for articles and groups,
  • a user interface to manage these data types.
  • the basic plumbing needed to communicate with the Windows 8 app using JSON,
  • A configuration file in which you can set new providers for article content (i.e. to integrate with additional content sources).

To examine how these elements have come about or to extend something, get the source code14 for the Composite.AppFeed.Server and Composite.AppFeed.Provider.Magazine packages. We won’t get into the implementation details here; just note that things can be extended should you need it.

Managing Articles For The Magazine App

Once the packages have been installed, you will have the following new elements in the C1 console:

  • In the “Content” view, you will have a new folder named “Windows 8 App Magazine Content.” Here, you can create and edit articles and article groups.
  • In the “Media” view, you will have a new folder at /Media Archive/App Feed images/Generic backgrounds. Articles with no accompanying image will receive a random image from this folder to brighten up the Windows 8 tile-oriented interface.

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The editing UI in Composite C1 is called the C1 console.

When you edit articles, you will do so visually or via the source view. You can do basic formatting, work with images, link to media and websites, embed HTML5 video, and call the C1 function to add dynamic content. This is the content that will show up in the Windows 8 app once we hook things up.

You Cannot Serve JavaScript in an Article’s HTML

In case you are wondering, if you add JavaScript-driven features to an article’s HTML, you will not see them run in the Windows 8 app. Security prohibits a Windows 8 HTML5 app from executing externally loaded JavaScript, which kind of makes sense because of the app’s privileged access to native APIs.

Should you need to include custom JavaScript, you can add your script files to the Windows 8 app project. On that side of the fence, anything goes.

Connect Your App To Your Azure Website

Once your website is running on a public URL, you can hook it up to your app like this:

  1. Open up the Windows 8 app project that we created in the first article in this series.
  2. Edit the /js/settings.js file.
  3. Change the value of dataHostUrl to reflect the URL of your local website, like http://my-magazine-app.azurewebsites.net/.
  4. Launch the app (hit F5).

When the app has launched, you will see the same content items as you saw in the CMS. If you go back to the CMS and change some content, you will see those changes in the app once you relaunch it.

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The sample content from the CMS is shown here in the Windows 8 app.

Publishing Your App To The Windows Store

The template that you initially downloaded and adapted should have all of the trimmings required for your app to pass the submission process. Still, make sure the following are in place:

  • Check that the information in /package.appxmanifest is relevant and up to date.
  • In /js/settings.js, the value of privacyUrl should point to a public Web page containing your privacy policy17; the CMS is a convenient place to put such a page.
  • If your content has images featuring nudity or the like, set the correct age restrictions when submitting the app. Unlike Apple18, Microsoft won’t censor your content, provided that you’ve set the appropriate age rating19.

You can run the app through a set of local tests20 to catch issues that could complicate the approval process. Assuming you have created a developer account for the Windows Store, you can use Visual Studio to do the packaging, testing and uploading; go to Project → Store → Create App Packages.

The actual publication process is mostly Web-based and entails naming your app and adding descriptions and screenshots. For a detailed guide on this process, see “Submitting Your App21.”

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You can package, test and upload your app from within Visual Studio.

I have seen a number of apps based on this template go through the approval process. Absent not having a working privacy policy or not specifying the correct age rating, the approval process has been a smooth ride.

Once you have submitted the app, expect it to be online within a day or two. And congratulations on publishing your first Windows 8 app!

Wrapping Up

With support for developing native Windows 8 apps using HTML5, JavaScript and CSS, Web developers can pretty easily step onto this scene.

The app we’ve created is generic and basic but open to customization. All of the elements used are open source and built for change, so you can modify the behavior and look of the app and customize the data model and CMS experience to meet your requirements.

Connecting your app to the content you manage in a CMS will come very naturally because you are using Web technology at both ends of the wire. The articles need not be the centerpiece of the app; obviously, you can take this in any direction. By having access to the OS-integrated JavaScript API available to Windows Store apps and by taking advantage of all of the HTML5 features of Internet Explorer 10, you will enjoy both a simpler and a richer development experience, all the while in a familiar setting.

If you have any questions, you can use the Composite C1 developer forum23. Happy coding!

(al ea)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/09/19/online-magazine-app-for-windows-8-part1-html5-app/
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Republic-of-Fritz-Hansen-in-store-large_mini.png
  3. 3 http://compositec1.codeplex.com/
  4. 4 http://compositec1.codeplex.com/
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Azure-sign-up-large_mini.png
  6. 6 http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/pricing/free-trial/
  7. 7 https://manage.windowsazure.com/
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Creating-a-New-Azure-Website-large_mini.png
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Azure-Websites-Gallery-Listing-large_mini.png
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Configuring-Azure-Website-large_mini.png
  11. 11 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Composite-C1-Setup-Wizard-Welcome-large_mini.png
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/CompositeC1WelcomeScreen-large_mini.png
  13. 13 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Composite-C1-Package-Manager-large_mini.png
  14. 14 https://c1packages.codeplex.com/
  15. 15 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Editing-article-large_mini.jpg
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/win8screenshot-large_mini.png
  17. 17 http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/apps/hh694083.aspx#acr_4_1
  18. 18 http://gizmodo.com/5562802/the-latest-examples-of-apples-stupid-editorial-censorship
  19. 19 http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/apps/hh694080.aspx
  20. 20 http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/apps/hh694081.aspx
  21. 21 http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/apps/br230835.aspx
  22. 22 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/VS2012-Project-Store-Create-app-packages-large_mini.png
  23. 23 http://compositec1.codeplex.com/discussions

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Marcus Wendt is lead on the Composite C1 project - a web CMS that is open source and running on the .NET web stack - where he is mostly concerned with giving both users and developers a good user experience.

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Note: Our rating-system has caused errors, so it's disabled at the moment. It will be back the moment the problem has been resolved. We're very sorry. Happy Holidays!

  1. 1

    Maria Fatima Henriques

    November 4, 2013 4:31 am

    Nice one! Maybe we can try this out for our Web Magazine…

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