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Building Great #WinApps: Platforms a plenty

by Brandon on January 22nd, 2014

One of the greatest things about developing for Windows can also be a challenge. On competitive platforms you can find options. On Windows, you’re given options. And, well, many of them. I’m going to start with a quick rundown of how I see the competitive environments, then dive into your options on Windows 8/RT. Feel free to skip ahead if that’s all you’re interested in finding.

iOS

On iOS the only first-class platform you have available is Objective C with Cocoa Touch. To a C++ (+JS / C# / etc) developer like me, examples of this code might as well be written in Cyrillic. That’s just at first glance though, I expect it’s not that hard to pick up. Weird as it may look.

Of course, you do have other options. They’re just not ones Apple cares about. Or in some cases, options they actively try to punish you for choosing. The two that come to mind for me are HTML/JS apps where you package up your code and mark-up into a native package and host it in a WebView (maybe using something like PhoneGap), or Xamarin. Okay, maybe Adobe has some thing too. If you care about that, you know about it.

HTML apps can, of course, call out to their Objective-C hosts, which lets you write some platform-specific, optimized native code when it is called for. It’s just clumsy.

Android

Android developers are roughly in the same boat, in that you get one real first-party option: Java, with a proprietary UI framework. For someone like me, this gives the advantage of having a familiar looking and working language (I tend to think of it as “lesser C#”). They do offer the NDK which I understand lets you write native C/C++ code if you want to avoid GC overhead and other Java pitfalls, though I think you’re still required to use Java to interact with the UI framework. Also, its use seems to be discouraged for most situations.

Otherwise, the same alternatives as iOS apply (HTML/JS, Xamarin, maybe some Adobe thing if you’re that sort of person). I actually don’t know if they hinder JS execution speed in the way that iOS does, but they certainly don’t do anything to make HTML/JS apps easy or efficient. In fact, my understanding is that it’s actually substantially harder to do this on Android than on iOS, primarily because of their fragmentation problem. CSS capabilities vary hugely from one version of Android to the next. And if you want to target the majority of Android users, you need to be able to run on a pretty sad and ancient set of web standards and capabilities. Ironic from the company that makes Chrome OS, but that’s reality.

Windows Phone 8

Windows Phone 8 is actually quite a lot like Android in this regard. By default you get first-party support for a managed language (C#) with a proprietary UI framework and some ability to write native C++ code if you wish.

Once again, you can write HTML/JS apps (and of course Xamarin could be described as either “at home” or maybe just “not applicable” here). HTML/JS apps here are a lot like those on Android, with a few advantages:

1) Every user has the same modern IE10 rendering engine with great support for CSS3 and some things that even desktop Chrome still doesn’t have, like CSS Grid (which is a truly wonderful thing).

2) JS runs efficiently and I believe animations can run independent of the UI thread.

3) Since the engine is the same as desktop IE10, you can build, test, and debug against that, which means you don’t have to deal with the weight of the phone emulator for much of your development process.

In other ways it’s more rough. There’s no real way to debug or DOM inspect the phone or even the emulator. I think iOS and Android may have some advantages in that particular regard.

Mobile web app blues

On each of the above platforms, web apps face various problems. On at least iOS, your JavaScript runs at about 1/10th speed, mostly because Apple hates you. Err, wants you to use Objective C and Cocoa Touch.

Some common problems are:

A) You need to write a host process. On Android and WinPhone this is in Java or C#, which means you do have two garbage collectors and two UI frameworks to load up. Though fortunately the CLR/Java garbage collector shouldn’t have much of anything to actually do.

B) The WebView controls on these platforms (including WP8) tend to suck at certain things like handling subscrollers. They’re less common on the web, but immensely useful for app development.

C) None of them give you direct access to the native platform, outside of what’s in their implementation of HTML5 / CSS3 standards.

Windows 8

Windows 8 (/8.1/RT) is different. Here you actually get first-party options. In fact, not only are there options for programming language and UI framework, but you can mix and match many of them.

UI Frameworks

  Direct3D XAML HTML
UI languages C++ C++
C#
JavaScript
Backend languages C++
C#
C++
C#
(JS, theoretically)
JavaScript
C#
C++

 

That’s a lot of possible combinations, and the paradox of choice very much comes into play. What’s great is that a lot of developers can use tools, languages, and UI frameworks they’re familiar with. What’s not so great is that the number of choices, and understanding how each of them work, can be overwhelming.

What is WinRT?

WinRT, or the Windows Runtime, describes a set of APIs exposed by Windows to any of the languages described above. The beauty of this is that when a team at Microsoft decides to offer functionality to Windows developers, they define and implement it once, and the WinRT infrastructure “magically” makes it available in a natural form to C++, C#/.NET, and JavaScript code running in a Windows 8 app.

I’ll dive more into what the Windows Runtime is and how it works in a later post, if there’s interest. Though I believe there are already articles around the web already which describe it well enough.

Suffice to say that WinRT APIs are not designed to be portable and are not part of any kind of standard. These are equivalent to the native iOS and Android APIs, which let you do things like access file storage, custom hardware devices, or interact with platform-specific features like the Share charm, live tiles, and so on.

So then what is WinJS?

Despite some misconceptions I’ve heard, WinJS is not a proprietary version of JavaScript, or anything at all like that. Its full name is the Windows Library for JavaScript, and it’s just a JS and CSS library. Literally, it’s made up of base.js, ui.js, ui-light.css, and ui-dark.css. Those files contain bog standard JavaScript and CSS, and you can peruse them at your choosing (and debug into them, or override them via duck punching, when needed). It’s a lot like jQuery, and offers some of the same functionality, as well as several UI controls (again, written entirely in JS) which fit the platform’s look and feel.

Technically you don’t need to use any of it in your JS app, but there are a few bits you’ll almost certainly want to use for app start-up and dealing with WinRT APIs (i.e. WinJS’s Promise implementation, which works seamlessly with async WinRT calls). The rest is up to you, though I find several pieces to be quite useful.

I’ll dig into WinJS and the parts I use (and why) in a later post. But hopefully that summary is helpful here.

Got it, so which option should I choose?

That table above suggests a sizable matrix to evaluate. I wrestled with how to best present my own boiled down version of this (I’ve in fact just rewritten this whole section three times). I looked at presenting this in a “If you’re an X, consider Y and maybe Z” format. But that’s challenging, particularly as someone who came into mobile app developing having had differing degrees of familiarity with a variety of platforms.

Instead I’m actually going to focus on the merits of each option I present, and call out how your background might factor in as appropriate. First up is…

C++ and Direct3D

This is the “closer to the metal” option and most appropriate for high-performance 3D games. It’s also a perfectly valid option for 2D games, especially if you’re already familiar with C++ and/or D3D, or even OpenGL. This is one of the easier options to rule in or out. It gives you the best performance potential, but is likely the most work, the most specialized, and least portable to non-MS platforms (relative to the other options here).

C++ and XAML

First off, if you’re a C/C++ developer and you’ve hated that for ages now Microsoft has kept its best UI frameworks to itself (or reserved them for those crazy .NET folks), rejoice! Beginning with Windows 8, Microsoft has realized that some people like C++ but also enjoy living in this this century with things like an object-oriented control and layout model and markup-based UI.

If you choose this option, your code will run faster than if you wrote it in C# or JavaScript. It just will. You get a modern UI framework with a solid set of controls and good performance. Itself fully native C++ code, the XAML stack renders using Direct3D, supports independent (off-thread) animations, and integrates with Windows 8’s truly great DirectManipulation independent input system. In Win8.1 I think it may even use some DirectComposition and independent hit testing magic that JS apps have had since 8.0. Maybe.

XAML fans tend to favor the MVVM pattern. Others use MVC with it, with varying degrees of success. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of either. I know that’s blasphemy to a lot of people. I wrote a little rant here on the subject, but I’ll spare you and publish it as a separate post later. Maybe someone will read it and explain the error of my ways 😉

C# and XAML

Here you find basically the same thing as above, with these differences:

  1. It’s going to be slower. The largest impacts are:
    • Start-up. 
      Loading the CLR and having it JIT compile your code adds start-up time you don’t have as a C++ app.
    • Garbage collection.
      There’s just no getting around the fact that GC overall adds overhead and limits your ability to optimize.
      Depending on what you’re doing, the performance difference from C++ may or may not be noticeable.
  2. It’s going to be easier. Particularly if you don’t already know C++, and very much so if you already know C# or Java.
  3. It is for now the easiest way to share code with Windows Phone.
  4. It’s got killer tools, both in VS and extensions.

If you’re already a C# + XAML developer, this should be compelling. You get to use the language you (probably) love, the markup language you know, and a good chunk of the .NET API set you’re used to.

Yeah, there are some differences if you’re coming from WPF or Silverlight (or the phone version of Silverlight). It should still be an easy enough transition, and it’s cool that it’s a native code implementation and available to C++ developers (and thus now starting to be adopted inside Windows itself). Complain all you want about the N different versions they’ve confused you with over the years, but know that this is absolutely the version of XAML that Microsoft is taking forward.

JavaScript and HTML (and maybe some C++!)

If you know JavaScript, HTML, and CSS, this gets familiarity points. Contrary to some misconceptions, JavaScript apps on Windows are, in fact, real JavaScript. The major differences from writing a web app hosted in a WebView are:

  1. Windows provides the host executable, wwahost.exe. You don’t need to provide one. Your app is literally a zip file of JS, HTML, and CSS files, along with a manifest and any resources you choose to include (including, optionally, any DLLs of C# or C++ code you want to invoke).
  2. They’re faster, because the OS does smart things like caching your JS as bytecode at install time, and letting it participate in optimization services like prefetch and superfetch.
  3. You get direct access to the full set of Windows Runtime APIs.
  4. You can use the WinJS library of JS and CSS without having to directly include the files in your app (all apps share a common installation of it on the end user’s machine).

What if you’ve never used JS before? First off, forget anything you’ve heard about JavaScript. Since we’re talking Windows apps, you don’t have to worry about different web browsers, or ancient JavaScript limitations, or the perils of IE6’s CSS implementation. Yes, you’ll run into bugs your C++ or C# compiler would have caught, and refactoring can sometimes be a challenge. But you’ll also gain several benefits:

  1. A really productive, dynamic language which works really well with the web.
  2. A fast, lightweight, flexible UI framework which makes so many things fast and easy, as I’ll describe later.
  3. More portability. I’ll cover this more in a later post, but if you forego a few niceties not available on other platforms (i.e. my beloved CSS Grid), much of your app will be really easy to port to other platforms or the web. Yes, much more portable than Xamarin.
  4. Tons of documentation (hell, I reference MDN daily) and example code out on the web.
  5. Great tools. Both in VS (and Blend I hear, if you’re into that sort of thing), and from third parties. Seriously, you’ve got to love web-based tools like this awesome one for analyzing performance characteristics of different implementations.
  6. Lots of portable libraries like jQuery, KnockoutJS, AngularJS, and so on. Drop them into your app and go.
  7. You can use PhoneGap to make your app even more portable, as it wraps various WinRT call in a common wrapper that also works on WP8, iOS, and Android.
  8. If you don’t know it already, you’ll learn a valuable new skill for your repertoire, and one that’s not tied to any particular vendor’s whims.

You also get a few advantages from going with HTML over XAML:

  1. Start-up performance. Surprised? HTML/JS apps can actually start faster than equivalent C# + XAML apps. Well, on Windows anyway. Weird, right?
  2. UI performance. XAML got better in 8.1, but there are still several cases where the HTML engine is just better. Better at animations (within the realm of accelerated CSS3 animations and transitions), better at scrolling/panning, and better at other touch manipulations like swipe and drag+drop. In 8.0 the ListView control was faster (though maybe XAML caught up in 8.1).
  3. It’s super easy to consume HTML from web services, including your own. And because there are so many great tools for building and manipulating HTML outside of a browser, you can really easily write a server that passes down markup your app will render natively, without having to load a separate WebView.

There are other things, too. I like the WinJS async model better. You may not. I like the templating model. I like that everything including my UI is generally portable. I prefer CSS to the way XAML handles styling, and find it easier to write responsive UI (in the modern web sense of “responsive” – i.e. adapting to variable screen sizes) . I like that it’s being pushed forward by titans other than just Microsoft. Oh, and it has some built-in controls that XAML lacks.

Regardless of your background, if you’ve got a few days to experiment, I highly recommend taking up a project like writing a simple app in JavaScript and HTML. In fact, in a later post I’ll walk through one from the perspective of someone with little or no JS/HTML/CSS knowledge. You might just find it fun, and be surprised by the result.

Plus, if you’re writing anything performance intensive (for example, some custom image processing routines), or some IP you want to keep obscured from prying eyes, you can do that part in C++. Windows makes it incredibly easy to write a bunch of custom C++ code that crunches data and then return that to your JavaScript frontend. It’s kind of brilliant, and I highly recommend checking it out. I’m sure I’ll give an example of that at some point too.

There are downsides. Unfortunately, even in 8.1, WebWorkers don’t support transferable objects, so anything you pass between threads gets copied. You also can’t share a WebWorker among multiple windows (without routing through one of said windows). With C++ or C# you get more control over threading and memory. The advantage in JavaScript is you don’t have to worry about locking, as the platform enforces serialized message passing as the only cross-thread communication mechanism.

The real answer

Most apps (which aren’t 3D games) are going to use either C#+XAML or HTML+JS. Which one you choose will probably depend a lot on your background and personal preferences. Both platforms can be used to create great, fast, beautiful, reliable, maintainable apps. Both can let you be extremely productive as a developer. Both look to have bright futures.

Microsoft used JS apps for most of the in-box Windows apps. The Mail client in Windows 8.1, the Xbox apps, and the Bing apps (except Maps). The Xbox One uses it for, as far as I can tell, everything. In other words, it’s not going anywhere, even if some folks suggest otherwise.

My answer

In my case, I was primarily a C++ developer who was an expert in Microsoft’s internal UI framework, which I’d used for years. I had built WinForms C# apps many years ago, and dabbled in WPF and Silverlight here and there (even making a rough Twitter app in the latter at one point!). The most extensive experience I had with WPF was when I was at Microsoft and was loaned out to help a struggling team with their project. I found that WPF/XAML had a few neat tricks, but I didn’t exactly fall in love with it.

I’d also had a bit of experience with web development, but it was pretty limited. I’d customized some WordPress themes and written some little JS slideshow / flipper sort of things, but nothing sophisticated, and I really had only known just enough about the language to get the job done.

When I decided to build my first Windows 8 app, 4th at Square, I chose JS because I wanted my app to be fast, because I wanted the project to be a fun learning experience, and because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As my first app (which I haven’t touched in a while now) I won’t point to it as a pinnacle of design. Or, well, anything. I do use it nearly every day though. And it met all of my goals. It was fast, even on a first-gen Surface RT. It was fun and educational. And I found myself liking a lot about that way of building an app.

3 Comments
  1. Manolo permalink

    Very nice article! I really enjoyed the reading, and it pointed me in directions i would have not considered otherwise =D

    Big thanks from a novice mobile developer!

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