Build your own Signal Desktop

Packaging the Signal Private Messenger and NW.js into a standalone app

The Signal Private Messenger is great. Use it. It’s probably the best secure messenger on the market. When recently a desktop app was announced people were eager to join the beta and even happier when an invite finally showed up in their inbox. So was I, it’s a great app and works surprisingly well for an early version.

The only problem is that it’s a Chrome App. Apart from excluding folks with other browsers it’s also a shitty user experience. If you too want your messaging app not tied to a browser then let’s just build our own standalone variant of Signal Desktop.

NW.js beta with Chrome App support

Signal Desktop is a Chrome App, so the easiest way to turn it into a standalone app is to use NW.js. Conveniently, their next release v0.13 will ship with Chrome App support and is available for download as a beta version.

First, make sure you have git and npm installed. Then open a terminal and prepare a temporary build directory to which we can download a few things and where we can build the app:

$ mkdir signal-build
$ cd signal-build

[OS X] Packaging Signal and NW.js

Download the latest beta of NW.js and unzip it. We’ll extract the application and use it as a template for our Signal clone. The NW.js project does unfortunately not seem to provide a secure source (or at least hashes) for their downloads.

$ wget
$ unzip
$ cp -r nwjs-sdk-v0.14.4-osx-x64/

Next, clone the Signal repository and use NPM to install the necessary modules. Run the grunt automation tool to build the application.

$ git clone
$ cd Signal-Desktop/
$ npm install
$ node_modules/grunt-cli/bin/grunt

Finally, simply to copy the dist folder containing all the juicy Signal files into the application template we created a few moments ago.

$ cp -r dist ../
$ open ..

The last command opens a Finder window. Move to your Applications folder and launch it as usual. You should now see a welcome page!

[Linux] Packaging Signal and NW.js

The build instructions for Linux aren’t too different but I’ll write them down, if just for convenience. Start by cloning the Signal Desktop repository and build.

$ git clone
$ cd Signal-Desktop/
$ npm install
$ node_modules/grunt-cli/bin/grunt

The dist folder contains the app, ready to be launched. zip it and place the resulting package somewhere handy.

$ cd dist
$ zip -r ../../package.nw *

Back to the top. Download the NW.js binary, extract it, and change into the newly created directory. Move the package.nw file we created earlier next to the nw binary and we’re done. The nwjs-sdk-v0.13.0-beta3-linux-x64 folder does now contain the standalone Signal app.

$ cd ../..
$ wget
$ tar xfz nwjs-sdk-v0.14.4-linux-x64.tar.gz
$ cd nwjs-sdk-v0.14.4-linux-x64
$ mv ../package.nw .

Finally, launch NW.js. You should see a welcome page!

$ ./nw

If you see something, file something

Our standalone Signal clone mostly works, but it’s far from perfect. We’re pulling from master and that might bring breaking changes that weren’t sufficiently tested.

We don’t have the right icons. The app crashes when you click a media message. It opens a blank popup when you click a link. It’s quite big because also NW.js has bugs and so we have to use the SDK build for now. In the future it would be great to have automatic updates, and maybe even signed builds.

Remember, Signal Desktop is beta, and completely untested with NW.js. If you want to help file bugs, but only after checking that those affect the Chrome App too. If you want to fix a bug only occurring in the standalone version it’s probably best to file a pull request and cross fingers.

Is this secure?

Great question! I don’t know. I would love to get some more insights from people that know more about the NW.js security model and whether it comes with all the protections Chromium can offer. Another interesting question is whether bundling Signal Desktop with NW.js is in any way worse (from a security perspective) than installing it as a Chrome extension. If you happen to have an opinion about that, I would love to hear it.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that when building Signal on your own you will possibly miss automatic and signed security updates from the Chrome Web Store. Keep an eye on the repository and rebuild your app from time to time to not fall behind too much.