Native Apps for Social Engine

Native Apps for Social Engine

People access Social networks with mobile devices

We are running and maintaining a Social Engine platform. Social Engine is designed for social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter etc. It’s a great engine for websites, however using a mobile device the experience on a SE site is limited, if not to say poor. There are responsive themes and even modules to display the site in mobile mode, when accessing with a phone. People are using their phone every time and everywhere, so it’s no surprise, that more than 50% are accessing the SE site with their smart phones or tablets. Compared to platforms who are offering native apps for their networks, a social network without native app always stands behind.

Now we are about to add these extra features to our own platform: native apps for both iOS and Android.

Apps for iOS and Android are two different projects

First some words about these two operating systems. Programming apps for iOS and Android are two different things. Starting with different coding languages, for iOS Object-C or since 2011 Swift is used, on Android it’s Java. But also the design is different, so it’s two completely separate projects.

Instead of coding the apps by oneself, it’s also possible to buy the apps from developers, who are skilled and familiar with the Social Engine framework (which is – by the way – also a purchased software). Since we got a special offer, we purchased the two apps from SocialEngineAddOns recently and we got both versions of the apps now for testing.

Instead of coding from scratch, let others do the job

Before the apps can be built, it’s required to fill some forms with informations relating to the specific SE installation and some Api keys plus individual color settings and pictures for splash screens, icons etc. Therefor one gets another module to install on the SE installation. It works like any other module. It’s also necessary to install a so called “REST API”, another module, which is used to communicate between the app and the installation on the server. The preparation worked okay, there were little bugs though, but we were able to find a way around to get ready for the app built.

Not to forget, in oder to offer native apps, there are developer accounts needed for Apple and Google. Both require payments, while the payment for Google Developer is one time 25 US$, for the Apple developer account, one has to pay 99$ yearly.

The app built starts with sending a support ticket to SEAO. Beside the information related to the SE installation and the Api Keys, SEAO needs the account details for the both developer accounts, too. We see this as a serious security issue, because after all you never know, who will work on your account on the other end! Extremely frustrating, if you didn’t know this before, so you couldn’t take this into account before purchasing the service.

Once this is done, you’ll need to wait a few days and then you will be able to run the apps on your smart phone or emulation.

Great first impression, but it’s seems to be a long way

The first impression was great! It’s clearly different to visit the SE network on a native app rather with a web browser on the mobile device.

But testing the apps in detail, revealed quite some issues, that need to solved. No problem, since this is not the final version.

First problem is the communication with SEAO. Every communication works through their support ticket system, which makes explaining the issues quite complicated. While errors on the site appear very clearly to us, it seems to be hard to be understood on the SEAO side.

One reason is of course, that the whole thing is very complex.

If it was a clean and fresh SE installation without any plugins or modules and very basic setup for the profile questions etc, it’s easy to explain and understand the errors, if there were any. SEAO offers the native apps for a long time already, so probably there are not much issues with a basic SE installation.

However, who runs a basic installation? The SE core is very basic and there are lots of useful add ons and tools to install. But even the core installation gives opportunities to make the network unique and special. 

Profile Questions only work on basic setups

For example we have created very complex interactive profile questions. A member can chose from a menu specific answers, which then opens other relating questions. This gives very individual profiles.

On both apps, this complexity of profile questions is not supported. They only show the profile questions on the first level.

Not only, that the profile information is not completely displayed on the apps, also if a user wants to edit the profile information, all sub questions are missing.

Also it seems, SEAO didn’t give much attention, how the question types are displayed. While text and multi text, as well as drop down menus seems to be fine, menus with multi choices are displayed very wired and confusing on the iOS version. Especially iOS users are used to clear designed apps! On Android, there are check boxes on Multi Choice menus, which is better to understand.

Even worse, that the current information are not loaded correctly. Multi choice options in “Edit my Profile” are completely empty on both app versions. In “Privacy Settings” both versions of the app have the option “Do not show my profile in search results” being checked, even though it’s actually not checked on the website (the website does reflect the saved settings correctly). At the same page, the “Recent Activity Privacy” displays correctly on Android, on iOS all boxes are being unchecked (on the website as reference, all boxes are being checked). This is very frustrating and has to be fixed before releasing the apps.

Are not all SE core features supported?

SEAO promotes the apps as supporting all SE core features. This one is clearly not supported. Unfortunately SEAO did not give any feedback on this yet.

Videos freeze on browse pages

Another issue is playing videos. Enbedded videos from YouTube and Vimeo are loading forever on the video browse pages. It does run, in single video pages. On that issue, SEAO said, that they are working on it. Great!

Privacy issues?

We have noticed privacy issues in displaying photos. Again, this is complex, because there are a lot of possible settings within the admin area on the SE installation itself. We need to mention, that we are using Advanced Photo Albums from SEAO, which gives tons of extra settings additional to the SE Albums module.

However, the issue in the apps is another. It appears on member profiles, where photos are displayed, even they shouldn’t, because of privacy settings. In the preview, one can see six pics of the member and a button “see more”. Clicking there leads to a page, where all pictures are displayed. Even worse, that the pictures can be shared within the network and even outside the network (WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook etc), it can be downloaded as well and one can make each picture “Profile Picture”.

Cool features, if there wasn’t the privacy issue. This would kill trust of the members in no time! Beside that, it’s against the law as well. This must be corrected, otherwise makes the app useless.

To be clear: these features can be enabled or disabled within the admin settings. But the settings do not apply to the app.

(Update: it seems to be fixed now. Pictures on profiles only appear, when visible to the logged in member. Well done, SEAO!)

Member level issues

Beside this, the activity feed also displays albums and contained pictures to members, who have no access to albums at all. That means, the activity feed filters albums by privacy settings (i.e. friends only), but it does show pictures, even when a user is excluded in viewing albums due member level settings.

In our case we want only paid members to see pictures. Should be easy with member level settings, but it’s still displayed in activity feed. The only way to avoid this, is to disable pictures displayed in the feed at all. Then it also paid members wouldn’t see any pictures within the feed.

Note: this is not an issue with the app, but also on the SE site. Why I mention this here is, that we asked SEAO if they could offer a solution for this. But from their reply to this request we see, things are again misunderstood. They said, that privacy settings can be configured within the admin panel. Well, true… but this has nothing to do with any privacy setting, but with member level settings.

A free member could easily use the activity feed, filter to photos only, and browse through all albums! No need to visit the albums browse page (which is protected).

We can’t blame SEAO for this “leak”, but we are hoping the could do a little modification to fix this. We can do the same for the SE installation, but it wouldn’t make sense, if this would not be the same on the Apps.

Group topics are not supported

Another real SEAO error is within the groups: the topics are not displayed! On the website, we have a topics tab, on the apps this is missing.

First I thought, it might be a conflict because we have added some extra features to the original group module. But I was checking this and it’s unlikely, that there is any conflict with our additional features. Before installing the app modules, we installed the latest version of groups and made sure, nothing is modified on the original code. Additional tables within the database, shouldn’t cause any conflicts, nor should some extra files. The topic feature is basic, but it does not appear within the app. By the way, it doesn’t appear on the SEAO demo app either.

Feed issues

Now posts in topics, appear in the feed, but there is no link to the topic, like it is on the website. While entries in the main feed at least link to the subject and object, like member profiles, groups, blog entries etc, on member profiles or group profiles, none of the links seem to work. Again, topics are not even linked to the content.

In the notifications, there is at least a link to the topic (user x liked your post in the group xyz), clicking on that notifications leads to the topic, but in webview modus. I assume, topics are not supported at all?

SEAO Plugin is not supported on iOS

An additional feature from SEAO themselves, “Member Verifications Plugin”, does work only on the Android version, on iOS it doesn’t appear at all.

Also some little display issues indicate that it’s still a beta version

The SE Poll plugin is partly supported. It doesn’t work in the feed, only on the poll pages. Not a drama, but should be fixed in future updates. SEAO said, that this plugin is not supported at the moment. Hmm… okay, but in y opinion it should be mentioned on their site, that some original SE plugins are not supported. I figured out by myself before purchasing the apps, that the chat feature also is not supported. But only, because I was actively searching for this feature… it is included in apps from other developers!

Obviously SEAO wants to push clients to go for their new chat service “Channelize”. But this is another additional install fee plus monthly subscription fees. At least, the basic messenges work on both apps. However, trying to open a group message sent by the group leader “Message all members” let the iOS app crash.

Please note also some display errors in the following pictures:

Some additional thoughts for those who are considering to buy native apps

Beside SEAO there are other developers offering similar services. Pricing goes from 499$ for both Apps up to 1200$. Usually there are also subscription options.

Read carefully the offered features, because they are not everywhere the same. Also some companies require plugins on your SE installation, like in case of SEAO, you need to have “Advances Activity Feed” installed on your SE network. The required REST Api plugin should be included, but double check this as well, before purchasing.

Features using limited Apis like Google Map & Location Api, should be disabled if using the free and limited Google Api.

Be aware, that you need support subscriptions in order to keep your apps up to date, not to forget the yearly subscription for your Apple developer account.

Also read the requirements and terms for publishing apps on Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

Would we buy again from SEAO?

The support center is friendly, they are trying to fix things as quick as possible. They even fixed an issue on another of their plugins, even though the support for it was already expired. Their plugins are full of features and it’s not surprising, that there are many possible bugs here and there. However, it’s sometimes frustrating to deal with lots of issues, especially on an active life site.

Also, it could go a way quicker in our opinion, but so far, we are still in good mood. We are looking forward, that the mentioned issues will be solved, so that we can release the apps soon. So long the final recommendation is outstanding.



UPDATE January, 2020

SEAO had updated their apps two times. Some things had been fixed. Some… not. I guess they stopped working on our apps, or paused, because I didn’t respond anymore to their latest message from September 10th, 2019. The request was, to get access to our server (ftp access to the SE installation). I am not convinced. Why do they need access to the installation? Perhaps to install something? To change something? We are talking about a live-site that is in productive mode! A software company, having issues to fix errors in their own software wants to access our server? 

Perhaps I wouldn’t mind, if they explained why. From our conversations, I would think, they should assume that we do have technical understanding. They ask all kind of access, to your site as super admin, to your server, to your apple developer account (with your apple ID) etc… so easy for them, but high security risk for us! We were patient for a long time! Now we had enough! We explained to our site users, why we won’t release the apps, we even removed several plugins from SEAO (not all yet though) and we have decided, to work on our own development.


My final recommendation:

Try to keep your SE site as clean as possible. Stay with original SE plugins and if possible only use another theme (but the new themes coming with SE are fine, they do well). If you really have to add plugins, choose wisely and try not to become dependent on third-party developers.


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