It’s a WPF World, part 2

Let me continue my ramble about Microsoft technologies leading up to WPF.  Last time, I ended by talking about the .NET technologies and why I think they are so important.  .NET has become the de facto standard for developing applications for the Windows platform (thick clients).  And although ASP.NET likely doesn’t have nearly as big a chunk of market share as Windows Forms, it feels like the WISA stack (Windows, IIS, SQL Server, ASP.NET) is gradually overtaking the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP).  And with the rise of RIAs (Rich Internet Applications), ASP.NET Ajax will likely encourage the continued adoption of the ASP.NET technologies.

Going back to my list of the most important benefits of the .NET world from last time, I realized that I’d like to add a final bullet item.  (In the list–what’s so special about .NET):

  • Programmer Productivity — with things like intellisense and code snippets in Visual Studio, you can be incredibly productive, whether working in Win Forms or ASP.NET

I make the claim about productivity without having had experience with other development environments (at least since doing OWL development with Borland tools).  But the rise in productivity is true even just of Microsoft tools.  They just continue to get better and better.  And though “real programmers” might pooh-pooh all this intellisense nonsense in favor of hand coding in Textpad, I have to believe that even these guys would be more productive if they truly leveraged the tools.

When .NET first came out, I remember reading the marketing materials and being a little misled about where ASP.NET fit into things.  It seemed like Microsoft was touting convergence of Windows vs. web development, by talking up the similarities of the dev experience, working in Windows Forms vs. Web Forms.  Developing with ASP.NET was ostensibly very similar to developing Win Forms applications–you started with an empty design surface, dragged visual controls onto it, and double-clicked to bring up an editor where you wrote your code-behind.  (Nevermind that this model encouraged low quality architectures as people wrote monolithic chunks of event handler code–perpetuating bad habits that we learned with VB6).

But the web model was still very, very different from the thick client model.  On Windows, we were still working with an event-driven model, using the same old Windows message loop that we’d always used.  But users interact with a web-based interface in a completely different way.  We used server-side controls in ASP.NET to hide some of the complexity, but we were still just delivering a big glob of HTML to the client and then waiting for a new HTTP request.

The ASP.NET development environment also felt a bit kludgy.  I remember being a bit dismayed when I wrote my first ASP.NET application.  In the classic Win Forms development environment, there were two separate views of your application, where a developer lived–the design surface and the code behind.  The ASP.NET environment has three–the design surface, the code behind, and the HTML content.  So now instead of a developer jumping back and forth between two views, you end up jumping around in all three.

Spoiler–this web application architecture gets a lot cleaner with Silverlight 2.0.  There seems to be actual convergence between thick vs. thin clients as we use WPF for thick clients, Silverlight 2.0 for thin.  But more on that later.

So along comes WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) and XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language).

I remember when I first read about XAML and WPF (Avalon at the time).  My first reaction was to be mildly frustrated.  At first glance, XAML seemed to be an arbitrary switch to a new syntax for defining GUIs.  And it seemed cryptic and unnecessary.  In the effort to be able to define a user interface declaratively rather than procedurally, it looked like we were ending up with something far messier and garbled than it needed to be.  It felt much easier to understand an application by reading the procedural code than by trying to make sense of a cryptic pile of angle brackets.

But I’ve come to realize that the switch to defining GUIs declaratively makes a lot of sense.  With XAML, thick clients move a bit closer to web applications, architecturally–the GUI is built from a static declaration of the UI (the XAML), a rendering engine, and some code behind.  And the layout of a user interface (rather than the behavior) is implicitly static, so it makes sense to describe it declaratively.  [As opposed to Windows Installer technology, which converts the dynamics of the installation process to something declarative and ends up being far messier].

Why does it make sense to separate the markup from the code like this?

  • Architecturally cleaner, separating the what (XAML declaraction of GUI) from the how (code-behind).  (Separating the Model from the View)
  • Enables broad tool support–tools can now just read from and write to XAML, since the GUI is now defined separately from the application itself.  (Enabling separate tools for designers/devs, e.g. Expression Blend and Visual Studio).
  • Cleaner for web apps — because we can now serialize a description of the GUI and send it across the wire.  This just extends the ASP.NET paradigm, using a similar architecture, but describing a much richer set of elements.

Another of my earlier reactions to XAML was that it was just a different flavor of external resource (.resx) files.  It looked similar–using angle brackets to describe GUI elements.  But XAML goes far beyond .resx files.  Resource files are used to externalize properties of UI controls that are potentially localizable.  E.g. Control sizes, locations and textual elements.  But the structure is flat because a resource file is nothing more than a big collection of keyword/value pairs.  Nothing can be gleaned about the structure of the UI itself by looking at the .resx file.  XAML, on the other hand, fully describes the UI, hierarchically.  It is far more than a set of properties, but it is logically complete, in that it contains everything required to render the GUI.

XAML is a big part of what makes WPF so powerful.  But there are a number of other key features that differentiate WPF from Windows Forms.

  • Totally new rendering engine for the GUI, based on Direct3D.  This enables better performance in rendering of the GUI, because everything in your GUI is described as 3D objects.  So even apparent 2D user interfaces can take advantage of hardware acceleration on the graphics card.  [The new NVidia GT200 GPU has 1.4 billion transistors, compared with original Core 2 Duo chips, which were in the neighborhood of 300 million].
  • Vector graphics.  The GUI is now entirely defined in vector graphics, as opposed to bitmapped/raster.  This is huge, because it means that you can define the GUI geometry indepedent of the target machine’s screen resolution.  This should mean–no more hair-pulling over trying to test/optimize at various screen resolutions and DPI settings.  (Gack)!
  • Bringing other APIs into the .NET fold.  E.g. 3D, video, and audio are now accessible directly from the .NET Framework, instead of having to use APIs like DirectX.
  • Focus on 3D graphics.  All of the above technologies just make it easier to develop stunning 3D graphical user experiences.  Powerful/cheap graphics hardware has led to 3D paradigms like Apple’s “cover flow” showing up more and more often in the average user interface.  (Battleship Grey, you will not be missed))

So where does WPF fit into the rest of the .NET world?  Is WPF a complete replacement for Windows Forms?

Adopting WPF will not be nearly as big a learning curve as adopting .NET was, originally.  WPF is a full-fledged citizen of the .NET world, existing as a series of .NET namespaces.  So .NET continues to be the premiere Microsoft development technology.

WPF is definitely a replacement for Windows Forms.  It is the new presentation layer, meant to be used for creation of new Windows-based applications (thick clients).  Microsoft is probably hesitant to brand WPF purely as a Windows Forms replacement, not wanting to dismay development shops that have invested a lot in learning .NET and Windows Forms.  But it’s clearly the choice for new Windows-based UI development, especially as the number of WPF controls provided by the tools, and shipped by 3rd party vendors, increases.

WPF is also highly relevant to web development (thin clients).  Silverlight 2 allows a web server to deliver browser-based RIAs containing a subset of the widgets found in WPF.  (Silverlight 2 used to be called Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere).  With WPF and Silverlight, Windows and web development are definitely converging.

So we clearly now live in a WPF world.  WPF will rapidly become more widely adopted, as it is used for more and more line-of-business applications, as well as serving as the underlying engine for the new Silverlight 2 RIAs that are starting to appear.  And the best news is that we also still live in a .NET world.  We get all of the .NET goodness that we’ve learned to love, with WPF being the shiniest new tool in our .NET toolbox.

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