How To Write a Flutter Web Plugin: Part 2

Harry Terkelsen
Feb 13 · 9 min read

Introduction

In Part 1 of this guide, you learned how to add web support to a Flutter plugin using the same technologies that Android and iOS plugins use: MethodChannels. While this is a viable method for adding web support to a Flutter plugin, it does have some disadvantages.

For one, there is unnecessary overhead of sending plugin method calls over a MethodChannel. On the web, your entire app is compiled into one JavaScript bundle, so the plugin code is needlessly serializing the method call into a byte array, which is then instantly deserialized by the web plugin.

Another disadvantage of using a MethodChannel is that it makes it difficult for the compiler to remove (by tree-shaking) unused plugin code. The web plugin calls the appropriate method based on the name of the method call passed by the MethodChannel, so the compiler has to assume that all of the methods in the plugin are live, and none of them can be tree-shaken out.

In this article you will learn a different way to add web support for a Flutter plugin. If you plan to add web support to one of the plugins owned by the Flutter team (i.e., a plugin in the flutter/plugins or FirebaseExtended/flutterfire repo), then you must implement it this way.

Federated Plugins

Before we walk through how to actually implement a plugin, it’s worth discussing how we structure multi-platform plugins on the Flutter team. We intend for the plugins owned by the Flutter team to be models showing best practices for implementing Flutter plugins. The main difference between the old way of writing Flutter plugins and the new way is that platform-specific implementations are in different packages. We call a plugin implemented in this way a federated plugin.

Advantages

Why split the various implementations across multiple packages rather than combining them all into a single package? There are a few reasons why this is better for the long-term maintainability and growth of a plugin:

  • A plugin author does not need to have domain expertise for every supported Flutter platform (Android, iOS, Web, Mac OS, etc.).
  • You can add support for a new platform without the original plugin author needing to review and pull in your code.
  • Each package can be maintained and tested separately.

Restructuring your plugin as a federated plugin allows anyone to implement support for new platforms without requiring you to do it yourself. For example, if Flutter supports Nintendo Switch in the future, then a Switch expert can add support for your plugin without you needing to learn all the new APIs. You can even vet the new Switch plugin, and if it meets your standards, you can make it an “endorsed implementation”, meaning that users of your plugin won’t even have to specifically depend on it in order to use it!

Platform Interfaces

How can we implement web support for a plugin without using a MethodChannel? By creating an abstraction that describes exactly what the plugin package (such as package:url_launcher) requires from its platform-specific implementations (such as package:url_launcher_web). This approach abstracts how the plugin package communicates with the platform implementation and replaces it with a description of what behavior and data the plugin package requires from the platform. In the context of Flutter plugins, we call this abstraction a platform interface.

Example: url_launcher Platform Interface Sketch

To give a concrete example of a platform interface, let’s look at a platform interface that could be defined for package:url_launcher. Our first web implementation of url_launcher set up a MethodChannel that listened for calls to the launch method, which took a url parameter. So, in order for a platform-specific backend to work with package:url_launcher, it needs to implement a method with the signature Future<bool> launch(String url). A reasonable platform interface for package:url_launcher would look like this:

Sketch for url_launcher Platform Interface

Migrating a Plugin to Use a Platform Interface

In the flutter/plugins GitHub repository, we have adopted a style for writing federated plugins with platform interfaces. You must emulate this style if you want to land a Pull Request adding new platform support to one of the officially-supported plugins. Migrating a plugin to the new federated platform interface format is done in 3 steps (3 PRs):

  1. Add the <plugin name>_platform_interface package.
  2. Migrate the plugin to use the platform interface.
  3. Add a <plugin name>_web package that extends the platform interface.

Let’s work through an example of how this would be done for a real plugin.

Example: Migrating package:url_launcher

Step 1: Creating the platform interface package

In the first step, we’ll create the platform interface package and rearrange the existing code to use our federated plugin directory layout. For the purposes of this example, we are assuming that the plugin is in a repo that is laid out like the flutter/plugins GitHub repo (in other words, the plugin lives in a directory like packages/url_launcher). Specifically, we are assuming a layout that looks like this:

- README.md
- packages/
- some_other_plugin/

- url_launcher/
- pubspec.yaml
- lib/

- android/

- ios/

The gist of this refactoring is that we are creating a directory that holds not only the plugin package, but also the platform interface package and the web package. We want to move packages/url_launcher to packages/url_launcher/url_launcher and create another package packages/url_launcher/url_launcher_platform_interface (and eventually create another package packages/url_launcher/url_launcher_web).

Move url_launcher to its own subdirectory

Assuming you’re in the packages/ directory, you can move the url_launcher plugin to a federated subdirectory by running the following:

$ git mv url_launcher url_launcher_tmp
$ mkdir url_launcher
$ git mv url_launcher_tmp url_launcher/url_launcher
$ git commit -m "Move url_launcher to url_launcher/url_launcher"

Create the url_launcher_platform_interface package

Move to the packages/url_launcher directory we created in the last step. Then create the platform interface package by running:

$ mkdir url_launcher_platform_interface

Now, you need to add a few files in the url_launcher_platform_interface to make it a real package. For the license file, you can usually git cp the LICENSE from the “plugin package” (in this case package:url_launcher). You should create a CHANGELOG.md file that contains the following:

## 1.0.0- Initial open-source release.

You also need to define a pubspec.yaml; you can use the pubspec.yaml for the actual package:url_launcher_platform_interface as a template. The note about avoiding breaking changes should be included in the pubspec.yaml of every platform interface package.

Finally, you also need a README.md file. Again, you can use the README.md in the actual package:url_launcher_platform_interface as a template.

Let’s get to the actual code. Edit the file lib/url_launcher_platform_interface.dart and paste in the following code:

lib/url_launcher_platform_interface.dart

In the code comments above, once again implementers of platform implementations are told to use extends rather than implements to write their implementations of UrlLauncherPlatform. This is the same warning as in the pubspec.yaml and README.md files. Not only does the class warn implementers to use extends rather than implements, it enforces this by extending PlatformInterface. If you’re interested in seeing how PlatformInterface enforces that subtypes use extends rather than implements, check out package:plugin_platform_interface. The main thing you should take away from the code above is that you must have the same boilerplate in your platform interface classes in order to prevent implementers from using implements.

Notice also the instance getter and setter in the platform interface. New platforms can support a plugin by extending the platform interface and setting their platform-specific class as the default instance. The default instance for any platform interface should always be one that uses MethodChannel to send the method call on the channel to the platform backend. Defaulting to an implementation backed by a MethodChannel means that the existing Android and iOS implementations will continue to work by default (as well as web implementations if they were implemented using MethodChannel as shown in Part 1 of this guide).

The last thing to note is that all of the methods in the platform interface should have a default implementation that just throws an UnimplementedError. Since every implementation of UrlLauncherPlatform must use extends, then if a new method is added to the interface, it won’t be a breaking change that causes apps to break. If an implementation used implements, it would be a breaking change because that implementation would no longer implement every method in the interface.

We set the default UrlLauncherPlatform to MethodChannelUrlLauncher in the last step. Now we need to write MethodChannelUrlLauncher. Edit lib/method_channel_url_launcher.dart and paste in the following:

lib/method_channel_url_launcher.dart

If you followed Part 1 of this guide, you will recognize the code to invoke the method on the MethodChannel above. In the next step, when we refactor package:url_launcher to use package:url_launcher_platform_interface, since the default platform interface uses MethodChannel to dispatch the calls, all currently existing platforms for package:url_launcher should continue to work.

With this code written, we are done with package:url_launcher_platform_interface. All that’s left is to commit the new code, submit it to version control (e.g. land a PR on GitHub), and upload the new package to pub.dev. You must submit this package to pub.dev before moving on to the next step because we will be refactoring package:url_launcher to have a dependency on this new package.

Step 2: Refactoring package:url_launcher to use the platform interface

Now that our platform interface package from Step 1 has been published to pub.dev, let’s use it in package:url_launcher.

Updating dependencies

In the pubspec.yaml for package:url_launcher, add a dependency on url_launcher_platform_interface as shown below:

name: url_launcher
version: <bump to next minor version>

dependencies:
flutter:
sdk: flutter
url_launcher_platform_interface: ^1.0.0

Refactoring all usages of MethodChannel

If you recall from Part 1 of this guide, our (simplified) package:url_launcher contained the following launch() method:

Old url_launcher.dart

We need to refactor this to use the platform interface we just defined instead. Change it to the following:

New url_launcher.dart

As we covered in the previous section, since the default UrlLauncherPlatform uses MethodChannel, this refactoring is safe. We aren’t changing behavior with this change, just paving the way for platforms to implement package:url_launcher without using method channels.

Make sure to add an entry to the CHANGELOG.md saying that you are migrating package:url_launcher to use the platform interface. With this small refactoring done, you can commit your changes, upload package:url_launcher to pub.dev, and we can move on to writing the implementation of package:url_launcher for the web platform.

Step 3: Implementing package:url_launcher_web using the platform interface

In Part 1 of this guide, we created a package:url_launcher_web that uses MethodChannel for communication with the plugin. Let’s refactor this plugin to use the platform interface instead.

Replace the contents of lib/url_launcher_web.dart with the following:

lib/url_launcher_web.dart

Note how we have changed UrlLauncherPlugin to extend UrlLauncherPlatform. We still have the registerWith() method from before, but now instead of registering a MethodChannel, we instead register that this is the default instance of UrlLauncherPlatform. Now, in package:url_launcher when it calls UrlLauncherPlatform.instance.launch() it will call the launch() method we define here.

We touched on the advantages of using a platform interface above, but here we can see it more clearly. Note how we are no longer serializing and deserializing every method call to the plugin, we are simply calling a method. Writing platform-specific implementations for a plugin no longer requires understanding Flutter’s MethodChannel APIs, it is clear that this class is implementing all the necessary functionality to get package:url_launcher working on the web.

Platform Interface Design Principles

The example above is very simple; the platform interface has only one method. In this section we’ll cover some general principles to keep in mind when creating a platform interface package for a plugin. If you keep these principles in mind, creating a platform interface package for a plugin is straightforward in almost all cases.

Make a 1:1 mapping with MethodChannel calls

In the ideal case, you can design a platform interface for a plugin by finding everywhere the plugin calls the MethodChannel and making a method in the platform interface corresponding to each call. That’s what we did in the package:url_launcher example above. This makes it very simple to implement the default platform interface implementation backed by a MethodChannel since each method in the platform interface corresponds exactly to a MethodChannel call. This also makes it trivial to refactor the plugin package to use the platform interface: simply replace each MethodChannel call with the corresponding call on the platform interface.

Keep the platform interface package minimal

Avoid bringing abstractions from the plugin package into the platform interface package. This allows the plugin package to be more flexible.

To give an example, suppose that instead of a launch() method, the package:url_launcher interface looked like this:

Alternative url_launcher interface

Suppose further that we mimicked this API in the platform interface, resulting in something like:

Alternative url_launcher_platform_interface

Now we won’t be able to refactor package:url_launcher to a different API without also refactoring package:url_launcher_platform_interface. If package:url_launcher_platform_interface followed the advice above and just had a method for each MethodChannel call, then the fake API for package:url_launcher above and the actual API will both be simple to implement via the platform implementation.

Enforce that implementers use extends

We’ve mentioned it a few times already in this article, but it is a very important point that bears repeating. Make sure you use package:plugin_platform_interface to enforce that implementers of your platform interface use extends rather than implements. Read more about implementing federated plugins for background information on why implements is a bad idea for platform interfaces.

Conclusion

Whether you are writing a new plugin or adding web support to an existing one, using a platform interface will future-proof your plugin and make it much easier to extend and maintain in the long run. In this article you learned how to refactor your plugin to use a platform interface, and how to write a web plugin using that interface. Now go forth and write your plugins!

Flutter

Flutter is Google's mobile UI framework for crafting high-quality native interfaces on iOS and Android in record time. Flutter works with existing code, is used by developers and organizations around the world, and is free and open source. Learn more at https://flutter.dev

Harry Terkelsen

Written by

Flutter

Flutter

Flutter is Google's mobile UI framework for crafting high-quality native interfaces on iOS and Android in record time. Flutter works with existing code, is used by developers and organizations around the world, and is free and open source. Learn more at https://flutter.dev

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