Don’t Overuse Variants

At XDC 2019 my session was titled Xojo Design Mistakes (the alternate but way longer title was ‘Thankfully time travel doesn’t exist or my future self might travel back and murder my younger self for the stupid coding mistakes I’ve made’).  These are things that I’ve discovered over the years, both in my own projects and in other peoples projects that are just plain wrong or less than ideal.  This will be an on-going series since I had well over 50 slides and left about 150 out.  So when I get bored I’ll bring these topics up.

Variants are a very powerful datatype in Xojo. It allows you do set it to anything including null. It’s a wonderful thing to use in ListBox row, column, and cell tags where the you, the developer, could be anything into it.

Variants are evil too if you use them in ways you shouldn’t. Take the example below:

This is truly a made up example but it shows how subtle Variants can stab you in the back. Just adding the three Variants together where one is a string, the other an integer, and the other a double, can change depending on the order they’re used. Frankly, I don’t care how the compiler came up with the value because in both cases it’s ‘wrong’. Wrong in the sense that it depends on order and no programmer should have to depend on order.

How did we get here? Variants have implicit conversion. So if you try to add a variant to an integer it attempts to convert it to an integer. If you try to add it to a string it converts it to a string. What happens if you have a number inside the string and it really should be a string? The answer is that it depends.

That’s just a poor use of the language, in my opinion. Xojo is a strongly typed language and I like that it won’t let me willingly add an integer to a string. I like that I have to explicitly convert from one datatype to another. Variants break that rule in that they’ll implicitly convert from one to the other and the compiler will never tell you.

The variant datatype allows the Xojo developer to query what it is. For example you can use the Type method to see what variable type is it. You can see if it’s an array using the IsArray method. You can see if it’s a Numeric value using IsNumeric but you get into the same problem where assigning an integer 8 and a string “8” will both return true from IsNumeric. So it’s a bit of a problem because it could be either. We should rename it Schrödinger’s datatype because it could either either value until the compiler asks for it.

Auto was introduced in the Xojo framework (deprecated now?) to replace Variant. It didn’t do any implicit conversion for you. In fact, it wouldn’t even tell you what datatype was in it and the only way to do was to use Introspection. It certainly solved the problem of implicit data conversion but replaced it with a harder to use datatype. For what it’s worth I didn’t think it was hard to come up with your own “what is your type” methods using the extends keyword but it was something that many Xojo developers weren’t comfortable doing and frankly seemed silly to rely on Introspection to do that work.

I turned down a project many years ago because the original developer had used Variants for everything. Didn’t matter what (local, object, global), they used variants and they wanted me to tell them why their project wasn’t working right. When I told them I wouldn’t do it and asked why they had used variants for everything they simply said, “Because they could be anything. Why not use them?”

I know that many languages are not as strictly typed as Xojo and perhaps that’s where they came up with that mentality. I find some comfort in knowing that if I try to put a string into a numeric value the compiler won’t let me unless I explicitly convert it. I like the certainty of knowing that my data can’t change on my unless I tell it too.

Variants are good for storing things temporarily. Stashing values and objects in a Tag for use later is convenient and useful and a good use for them. For everything else it makes sense to use a datatype. If you finding yourself using a lot variants you should rethink what you’re doing because they can subtly make your calculations change in ways you don’t expect.

2018 Was a Weird Year

I hope everyone’s holiday season was good.  We’re approaching the end of 2018 and I find it nice to reflect on what’s happened and what we’ve accomplished this year.

Looking Back

Let’s start off with the blog posts.  I did 41 (well now 42) blog posts in 2018.  Five were about Xojo releases.  Four were BKeeney Software product releases.  Four posts were about the Xojo Developers Conference.  The rest were a variety of Xojo related topics.

The most highly commented blog post was from June called Chasing Xojo where I lamented that Xojo, at least until that point, seemed to be a less stable when it came to Windows and Linux due to major revamping of the drawing systems on both platforms.  In Windows, Xojo doesn’t flicker as much but the struggle to get speed was a concern for all of 2018.  In Linux, the switch to GTK 3 wasn’t as smooth as we could have hoped.

The most viewed blog post was from August called Xojo 2018 Release 2 where I did my usual review of the most recent release of Xojo.  I heavily criticized Xojo for their poor documentation in that release.  I received plenty of blowback on that one.  But I think the end result is that R3 and R4 documentation was much better.

We released two new products with BKS Report Studio and BKS Tab Control.  Report Studio is our reporting utility meant for end-users for macOS and Windows and it was built using the award winning Shorts reporting classes (also a blog post).  The Tab Control is a canvas subclass that replaces, and extends, the built-in Xojo tab control in many ways and was our attempt at replaced the old CustomTabControl that many use but is unusable for HiDPI apps.

The other major release of the year was ARGen 3.0.  ARGen is our utility to create Xojo projects that creates ActiveRecord objects.  Among the many changes was the ability to generate ActiveRecord objects for iOS projects, supporting GUID primary keys, and the ability to include Audit Trail, Localization, and Database Update modules that help in many products.  We use ActiveRecord in practically every project and having the ability to generate some basic desktop and web UI is a huge time saver.

2018 sure seemed like a mixed bag for Xojo.  The Windows drawing issues took up a good chunk of the year and I think R4 was the first solid Windows release (although I still have 2 client apps that won’t remote debug in R4).  I can’t imagine the amount of effort that Xojo and the community put into getting Windows drawing fixed.

64-bit remote debugging became a reality for all targets this year.  64-bit compiling isn’t the huge gain that many in the community hoped for but then we always want more.  We just have to remember that 64-bit doesn’t necessarily mean ‘faster’.  At least the debugger works and that’s not nothing.

Dark Mode came soon after the release of Mojave.  The IDE works in Dark Mode and we were given many of the tools to implement it in our own projects.  Dark Mode only works in MacOS but some are already clamoring for it in Windows too.  It’s still to early to tell if Dark Mode is a hit on Mojave much less in xojo.

Looking Forward

What is 2019 going to bring us?  For one, we’re almost finished with a fairly significant update to Formatted Text Control and after that’s released we’ll start with an even bigger version 4 update to the venerable word processing control to bring it up to date and extend its capabilities to make it even more powerful.

We have a number of large consulting projects that have been in gestation for many months and years.  It will be nice to have a big project or two to keep us busy.

With the release of Web 2.0 I will redo all of our Xojo training videos related to web.  They’ve been outdated for a while but it’s not worth redoing the videos until Xojo releases Web 2.0.  If they release Android I’ll start on at least some intro videos for that too.  This might finally be the year that I redo the remaining Real Studio videos.  No doubt I’ll redo them just before a major IDE change.  🙂

What do I expect from Xojo?  That’s a tough question to answer since they’re so damn secretive now.  I expect Web 2.0 to show up in time for XDC (so maybe release 2?).  I think it will be pretty solid in the first release but it wouldn’t expect it to be good until the following release.

I also think that at XDC we’ll get an alpha of InterOps but not anything other than another dog and pony show for Android.  Targeting another platform is long and tedious process and involves some serious IDE work.  How much of the iOS editors can they use?  I can only guess but at first blush I say not much.

Some of Android’s success may hinge on getting iOS to use the global framework and away from the Xojo Framework.  Nothing like rewriting an entire framework while keeping backwards compatibility.  The more I think about it the more I think the iOS rework is put on hold until Android is released.  

Which leads to API 2.0 in general.  We’ve already seen some of the first new controls to use API 2.0.  URLConnection was introduced in 2018 R4 with mixed success.  I would expect more API 2.0 controls to show up.

So what do you think?  Was 2018 a successful year for Xojo?  What do you see happening in 2019?

Good Bug Reports

Bugs happen.  It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, or how much you test your code, a user will do something that you didn’t expect and your application behaves improperly.  Perhaps it throws an exception and reports it to the user and continues working.  Maybe your application quits on exceptions.  Either way, you have an unhappy customer that is reporting back to you.

“It’s crashing,” is a common phrase I hear in the Xojo forums and from our own users.  So the first question I usually have is “is it really crashing or is the application reporting an exception?”  The difference being, of course, one is controlled by me and the other is the application goes *poof* and there’s nothing controlled about it.  With the former I usually have some data that can help me figure out what’s going on and the second is a bad sign that it might be a plugin or library issue that I’ll have to track down.

What is their operating system and version?  

It’s important to know if they are running on Mac, Windows, or Linux and what version it is.  For Windows and Linux it’s important to know if it’s 32-bit or 64-bit.  You may end up having to send them instructions to determine what version they’re running depending on the end-users skill level.

What version of the Application/Library/Control are they using?

Applications are relatively easy to get version numbers from since the user can get this from multiple locations (usually).  Controls and libraries are a different matter and you, as the developer, should make this easy to find with documentation and constants in the code.

We’ve all had an email where a disgruntled customer says, “It doesn’t work!”  If you have multiple products this makes for an awkward return email asking which product they’re actually talking about.

Can they replicate the problem?  If so, what are the steps?

Customers often think that simply telling you about a problem is good enough.  Sometimes it is but usually I need more information.  The more detail the better.  If it’s a sequence issue I will sometimes ask for a video showing it in action.

Can they send you the error log?

If you create error logs it is helpful to get those.  To get the error Stack of an exception is useful and can sometimes tell you exactly what to fix if you’re lucky (especially with small/short methods!).

You may have to tell the user not only where they are but how to get the location.  Getting to the Application Support folder on Mac and Windows isn’t hard but it’s also not easy.  On MacOS the users Library folder is invisible by default.  On Windows this location is buried multiple layers deep.

Can they send you an example project or file?

With developer products it’s handy to get a small example project demonstrating the issue.  I can’t tell you how often simply asking for this solves the problem because they find their own mistake.  Even if it doesn’t you now have a good example project demonstrating an issue you didn’t know about!

With applications and utilities getting their data file is good.  There is nothing like working with real data to discover issues.

Users aren’t often helpful when it comes to asking for help with your products.  What other things do you ask customers when dealing with bugs?

ARGen 3.0

BKeeney Software Inc. is proud to announce that ARGen, our ActiveRecord Generator utility for Xojo developers, has a new major update.  Version 3.0 includes a host of new features including the ability to generate ActiveRecord classes for Xojo iOS projects, the ability to use GUID primary keys, the option to include a database update module, include an audit trail module, and include a UI localization module.  There are also new ways to arrange your user interface layouts that can save you even more time when initially creating a project.  In addition to these major new features, ARGen fixes a number of bugs and provides more enhancements.

ARGen has versions for macOS and Windows.  It costs $99.95 but can be used in limited mode at no cost.  Existing version 2.x users will be provided an upgrade opportunity with a 50% discount or they contact us at support at bkeeney dot com to get an upgrade coupon.

Pricing, examples, and more details can be found at the project homepage at https://www.bkeeney.com/allproducts/argen/

3.0 Release Notes:

New:

* iOS ActiveRecord!

* Reorder fields in the order they should be displayed. This would work both on List and Edit forms.

* Name labels for generated UI elements

* Switch between horizontal and vertical alignment for UI fields and labels

* Projects can now have individual Namespaces

* GUID support (except for ODBC connections)

* Can now include a Database Update module

* Can now include an Audit Trail module

* Can now include a Localization module

* Warnings for aggregates that conflict with Xojo (note below)

* New database connection window

* New app icon

 

Removed:

* Oracle databases are no longer supported

 

Fixed:

* Add / Edit dialog now shows in web version (#3556)

* Icon now displays properly in alerts (#3474)

* PostgreSQL Views now working

* Control init on add and edit windows

* Preferences now correctly handles prefix and suffix settings

* Selecting suffix no longer causes a compile error

* Confirmation dialogs are now set up properly (#3643)

* MenuBarVisible is no longer false on any template windows (#3475)

* Rescan Schema works again

 

Changed:

* Database specific PreparedStatements

* Instances of MsgBox replaced with MessageBox (#3474)

* Enhanced Save() on add and edit windows

* Listbox.Open() now has a ColumnWidths placeholder for convinience

* Desktop projects now created with HiDPI on

* Desktop projects now default to 64 bit for Mac

* Opening a SQLite project automatically attempts to connect (#3596)

* Auto-Generate UI step is now easier to understand

Aggregates Note:

When using aggregate like Count(), Max(), Min() some DBs will return the aggregate as the field name.

Added code to warn on open project that there is invalid for xojo field names, and fail generate. 

RAD Still Means You Have to Learn the Language

Xojo is a great development tool that is a Rapid Application Development (RAD) environment.  That’s marketing speak for you can get stuff done quickly.  The marketing speak isn’t wrong but for many people they think this means that Xojo is ‘easy’ and the learning curve is next to nothing.  I hate to break it to those developers, but it just isn’t true.  Xojo, like any development language has a learning curve.  It might be a lot less than others but there is definitely one.

The truth is that Xojo is RAD once you learn how it works.  This means you have to learn the basics of the IDE, the language, and the debugger.  And only after understanding the basics of Xojo can you start taking advantage of the RAD part.

There are parts of Xojo that aren’t so RAD.  One of those, in my opinion, is database coding.  You still need to know SQL, and use the basic database classes to read and write data into your application.  In fact, it’s so low level that the IDE does not help you, in any way, which may lead to database errors.  The IDE will happily let you try to put a string into a numeric field in the database.  What worse is that depending upon which database is used (looking at you, SQLite) it won’t complain when you do so (thankfully this is not true of all databases).

Putting data into a database using the database classes is a two step process.  One, you have to query the database knowing what the field names and datatypes are as there is no autocomplete for them.  Xojo will happily let you (try at least) put a date value into an integer at design time.  It’s not until you try all this at runtime that things fall apart.  The same is true for updating and inserting data.  These are the reasons why we came up with ActiveRecord – our database classes for Xojo.

ActiveRecord is our way of making the Xojo compiler a little bit smarter.  It maps each table to a class and the properties in that class map to the database fields.  ActiveRecord checks to make sure that all of the fields in the table are represented in the class.  If not it flags the developer.  (It does way more but this post isn’t really about ActiveRecord.)

From our experience, jumping straight into ActiveRecord isn’t all that helpful for new Xojo users.  It’s a shortcut and you’re depending on our code without understanding it and I strongly discourage it until you’ve gone through the pain and tedium of using the standard Xojo classes.  In fact, when we train new developers we ALWAYS have them do a small project using the standard Xojo database classes.

Then we train them in how to use ActiveRecord.  The setup is a bit more involved and it’s not a perfect system, but once they start using the Table/Field autocomplete and having the compiler warn about mismatched datatypes they start to understand how much faster they can code database applications.  We are consultants, after all, and time is money.

Rapid Application Development systems do NOT mean quick to learn and being able to create an application with no experience.  RAD means that AFTER you’ve learned how it works it can be incredibly fast.  Once you learn Xojo is *can* be very fast to develop applications.

Anyone disagree with this?  What is the best method of learning Xojo?  Online documents?  Webinars?  Videos?

Serial Devices as Keyboards – Yuck!

We’ve recently had a number of projects that required the use of a serial devices in desktop applications.  In all cases the clients said the devices are, “easy to use,”  since they act just like a keyboard.  If our experience is typical then I’d hazard a guess that many Xojo developers are frustrated with them.

Several projects required the use of barcode scanner.  Having a barcode scanner work as a keyboard makes sense, I guess.  It means that it can work with literally any application, anywhere, any time.  All it needs is focus on a text field and whatever the scanner sees it puts into the control.

In another project we had an ultrasonic sensor that would take the application out of idle mode and present the user with purchasing information.  Again, it acted just like a keyboard which means it works with any application as long as you had focus in a text field.

If you happen to know WHEN this information is going to come in it’s not so bad as you can plan for it.  Putting the focus in a field and waiting for information is easy.  It’s not so easy when that information could come at any time.  Of course all of our applications had data that could come in at any time and we had to be prepared to act on it immediately.

If you rely on a TextField or TextArea getting this information the rest of your interface can really suffer.  It means that when your barcode/sensor field loses focus you have to get it back (or you lose information).  Do you do this right away or wait a few seconds?  And if you have a complex user interface how do you deal with tabbing between controls, or even simple things like a user changing a checkbox because the focus is lost on your TextField?  It can be a nightmare to try and figure out and get right.  The differences between Mac and Windows and Linux can be frustrating!

The answer that we ended up implementing was putting the barcode readers into serial mode.  I’ve not run into a barcode scanner yet that couldn’t be used in serial mode.  Every scanner has a gazillion different modes and properties (all set via barcode of course) and one of them is to make it appear as a serial device to the computer.  On Windows this is a COM port and on the Macintosh they tend to show up as a USB Modem.  If I had to guess I’d say it’s harder getting barcode readers that are Mac and Linux compatible.

Once it’s in serial mode it’s almost trivial to create a class that monitors the serial port and reads the data WITHOUT needing the focus in a TextField.  The class then distributes the data to the objects that can consume the data.  What I do is have the window or objects register itself with the class and then when the data comes in the class sends it to all registered objects.  Each of the objects has an Interface with a simple HandleBarcode method.  This is known as the Observer Pattern and there’s an example that ships with Xojo.

My ultrasonic sensor wasn’t so easy to overcome as it couldn’t be put into serial mode.  However, it did come with a Windows-only SDK (thankfully it was a Windows only project) and with a little help with Declares we were able to get it working so we could tell if someone had walked up to the device and when they had walked away.  I’m not sure what we would have done if it had been a Mac or Linux project.

Serial Devices are relatively easy to work with in Xojo (as long as they show up in the serial list).  Having to deal with devices that act as keyboards not so much.  I’d highly recommend trying to get them to work as serial devices and save yourself a ton of grief.

What’s been your experience with serial devices in Xojo?

Coding Habits To Keep You Alive When Time Travel Is Invented

When you’re writing code we all know it’s a great idea to use method, property, class, and variable names that make sense.  It also makes sense to add in comments on code that isn’t clear.  But do you code in such a way that your future self won’t invent a time machine and come back and slap you in the face?  This is how you should be coding.  You really want your future self to appreciate the work your current self is doing.

One of the current projects I’m working on interfaces with multiple devices via serial communications.  Each one of them uses a different protocol (naturally) and some of the code was written by me and some of it by others.  Before I get into the Other Peoples Code (OPC) portion I’ll talk about my experiences with coming in cold to something called ccTalk.  ccTalk is a low speed communications protocol for use with Coin and Bill Accepters.

Had I ever heard of ccTalk?  Nope.  So the first thing I did was Google it.  I found a few helpful blog posts on it (saved the links) and found a few projects in Java and in C# and downloaded what I could.  I studied their code.  I found specification documents for ccTalk and device documentation and all were immediately added to the source code repository.  Why?  Because as soon as I move on to the next project I’ll forget the details.  If the information isn’t relevant in two weeks I’ll most likely forget about it.

In writing this post, I came to the conclusion that I also need to add any required drivers to the repository as well.  From experience I’ll inevitably need them in the field and if I don’t have them on hand I’ll waste time searching for them again.  Were they sent in an email, on the packing CD, or available from the website?  If it’s in the repository I won’t have to worry about it!

In my source code I document the message numbers I’m sending to the device and putting relevant details on the response and what I’m expecting back.  For ccTalk this might be a simple acknowledgement/busy response and depending on the command some additional data.  How much data am I expecting?  Did I get less?   Did I get more?  Does the checksum match my own calculation?  Do I have a way to create a log of the communication stream and is that log in human readable form or in hex?

This might seem like overkill but I’ve had to go back to my own code years later and relearn what I did.  This has involved finding the manuals again and trust me that’s no fun.  I think it best to assume you will not be the programmer on this project in the future.  Perhaps you get hit by a bus tomorrow and your client has to find a new developer.

The OPC portion of this project is using a different serial port to a different device and has exactly 24 comments in it.  Most of the comments don’t help me.  Commenting ‘If Serial1.open then’ doesn’t help me.  There are a few ‘Return //Exit this Routine’ comments that again would be more helpful if I knew why I have to exit the routine because it’s not immediately obvious from the rest of the code.  There are no comments regarding expected data.  No defensive coding techniques to ensure that if something is missing or garbled it can handle it gracefully instead of just crashing.  Of course there was no documentation for the hardware either so I’m not even entire sure I have the darn thing hooked up properly – all I can do is assume that I did until I get that documentation.  All-in-all I want to jump through the screen and scream at the other developer to a) put in useful comments; b) include the documentation with the source code; and c) include drivers and utilities that a newbie would need!

I try to make sure, in my code, that the developer that looks at my code in six months doesn’t curse me.  I say enough bad things about myself as it is.

What sorts of things do you do to ensure future you doesn’t curse your current self?

Iconographer Review

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If you’ve spent any amount of time making cross-platform applications in Xojo you probably hate icons as much as I do.  I’m no graphic artist and because of this I’ve paid good money for several icon sets.  These icon set are fine but they’re pretty basic/generic and don’t tend to look right in macOS, Windows 8 and above, or even iOS.  And that’s just for application icons.  Making icons for documents, disks, folders, and the like, are just as big a pain to make.  Each platform has several different styles and getting it right is awful.

Ohanaware introduced Iconographer last week.  This is the tool I’ve been waiting for!  Iconographer lets you easily make icons that are consistent for their target platforms all while keeping the overall identity intact.  Not having to use a high-end graphic tool, like PhotoShop is worth it to a developer geek like me.

Using it is easy.  Simply drag your starting image into the editor window and start manipulating it.  At the top left of the window there is an expanding toolbar, for lack of a better word, that lets you pick the Icon Type:  Application, Folder, Disk, Document, and Web Icon.  Below that you have options for the target.  Depending upon the Icon Type you have the option to pick the Target.  For Application you have macOS, Windows, and iOS but for the Folder Target you only have macOS and Windows.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-7-09-32-pmTo the right of the drawing canvas you can pick the style of the icon.  For macOS you have Blank, Circular, Rounded Rectangle, Tilted, Rounded Square, and Plugin.  For Windows you have Blank, Windows Tile, and Use Different Application Icon.  Similar styles are there for iOS.

Below the Styles is the Layers list that lists the layers in the selected Style.  I will be honest, I had issues figuring out how to manipulate the layers.  You can add layers using the ‘+ Layer’ button where you can add Shapes, Images, and Text.

Adding Text also was problematic for me.  Once I added a Text object I couldn’t always select it until I had rotated it and then reset it to zero.  Then, if I had two text objects I never was able to edit and change the text of the first one.  I chalk this up to possibly not understanding what the shared label is.  At times I also had a weird purple selection rectangle that I was never able to get rid of.
At the bottom of the drawing canvas is, perhaps, one of the more useful features of Iconographer.  The Eye lets you select from a number of environments to preview your icon in an About Window, the macOS dock, and even the Mac App Store, to name a few.  This is a great way to preview your app in an actual environment and lets you make decisions while in the application instead of having to leave and use a graphics application.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-7-09-49-pmOnce you’re done you can build your icons.  It takes the currently selected Icon Type and all of the selected Targets and outputs them into the directory of your choice.  For macOS it will create an icns file and for Windows an ico file.  It really is that easy.  It would be nice to have the ability to export SVG format too.  If you’re creating a suite of icons, say for application, document, and disk, you have to do it in several steps but that I suspect that most developers won’t have an issue with that.

Iconographer is a must have for any cross-platform developer.  It’s ability to make consistent application and document icons for macOS, Windows, web, and iOS easily and quickly make this an invaluable tool.

Iconographer works on macOS X 10.10 and better.  It normally costs $19.99 but Ohanaware has an introductory price of $9.99.  More information can be found at http://ohanaware.com/iconographer/.

To Be or NOT To Be

I’m probably getting into quasi-religious questions here, but I’ve been reading someone elses code in an OPC (Other Peoples Code) project and they use a lot of statements like this:

If Not aBooleanValue then
   
   //do something here

I find this harder to read and much prefer:

If aBooleanValue = false then
   
   //do something here

I understand why people want to use the former but to me it reads backwards.  I have to flip the value in my mind before the variable and then keep that in mind for the eventual comparison later.

And don’t get me going on people that do things like this:

If Not (SomeFunction > 0) then

//do something here

To me, that’s just being too lazy to correct your code.  What should be explicitly clear is now not so clear (granted, this is a super easy example but you get my point).  I like to code for explicitness which means it’s easier to read (by me or someone else) weeks, months, or years from now.

I’m lazy.  I freely admit this.  I prefer to see the test values explicitly called out.  So something like this:

If aBooleanOne = True and aBooleanTwo = False and aBooleanThree = True then
   
   //do something here

is better than:

If aBooleanOne and Not aBooleanTwo and aBooleanThree then
   
   //do something here

For every ‘rule’ of course there’s an exception.  For simple boolean comparisons where I am checking for true I tend to write:

if aBooleanValue then
   
   //do something here

The True check is explicit and there’s only one variable to compare.  As soon as I use a second variable I will change it to be more explicit.

It’s such a little thing but when reading code one seems much easier than the other.  Or perhaps it’s just my OCD shining through.

What do you think?  Am I being overly critical or do you have similar beliefs?

Microsoft Buys Xamarin and SQL Server Goes Cross-Platform

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the cross-platform development world.  First, Microsoft announced that they were purchasing Xamarin.  Xamarin and Microsoft have always been friendly and this move isn’t very surprising.  As a Mac user much of the marketing verbiage doesn’t talk about the Macintosh, just iOS along with Android and Windows Phone and Windows apps.  Xamarin has always seemed to be mobile first and desktop last, so again, this doesn’t seem surprising.

Many people really like Xamarin and there are a number of Xojo developers that have tried it out.  Their opinion of Xamarin isn’t very good:  limited support, expensive, buggy IDE, and slow building of apps are just a few of the major complaints.  In comparison Xojo, they say, is ‘fast and lean’.

This week Microsoft announced that SQL Server, their Windows-only database server will be ported to Linux and be available in 2017.  This seems to be a tacit agreement that their biggest weakness in the server world is Linux.  Linux is extremely popular and since it’s cheaper to deploy than Windows they have to do something to stop the hemorrhaging.  Perhaps they’ll sell a boatload of licenses but it’s tough competing against the free or inexpensive database servers like PostgreSQL.  Again, no where are they talking Macintosh OS X.

This news makes me happy that cross-platform app development is getting some attention.  When the big boys of the world are pumping money into it then there must be something to it.

It also makes me sad since I don’t see Xojo changing their focus.  For many years they have had this hobbyist/part-time developer first mentality.  This has hurt them with professionals looking for a new development tool.  There are many things, I believe, that hurt them in this market.  I’ll list a few here:

  • It’s a BASIC language:  No getting around it.  It’s a modern object oriented language that compiles down to native code, and (mostly) uses native controls doesn’t seem to matter much.  VB6 screwed up many peoples opinions of language for better or worse.  In reality, there are lots of really good VB6 apps out there but many more poor VB6 programmers.
  • The IDE: especially the Code Editor.  It doesn’t let you do bad things and that’s great for beginners.  Usually it’s the first thing people complain about, though.  It’s limiting, and forces you into the Xojo way of doing things.  No other major IDE, that I’m aware of, forces this restriction upon their users.
  • Lack of basic controls:  I’ve been using Xojo for 15 years and have a tool chest of controls and libraries that I use on a daily basis.  But still, the lack of even basic Date/Calendar controls is a turn off for many first-time users.  Add in very poor RTF support, no PDF support, and especially no true grid control and you have a lot of strikes against the tool.  Yes, you can turn to the 3rd party community for some of these (and they are not very expensive) but to not have any of these things hampers adoption.
  • Reporting:  I don’t know of any serious Xojo developer using the built-in reporting tool.  It’s just not robust enough for most peoples needs.  We’ve used several 3rd party tools over the years and in the long run wrote our own (BKS Shorts).
  • Android:  iOS was a big addition to Xojo but without Android it’s not convenient to do a lot of mobile development with Xojo.  To add Android is a huge project and unlike anything they’ve done to date.  I would expect a minimum of eighteen months but probably more like two years of major development work to get it into Xojo even as a beta.  And that’s assuming they announce it.

I use Xojo all day every day and use it for dozens of commercial desktop applications and dozens of Xojo driven web apps.  Xojo is mostly stable and under constant development.  Just in the past year they’ve added iOS and Raspberry Pi development as well as added 64 bit compiling for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux.  Much of the limitations you can overcome by dipping your toes into the 3rd party market – but that market is tiny in comparison to many other development tools.

So my wish is that Xojo would focus more on business needs.  Identify the features that business owners need and implement them.  Include more basic controls and charge more for advanced controls that not every developer will need.  Get reporting cleaned up.  Make database programming smarter and less error prone.

It is my firm belief that if you get the business users you’ll capture the part-time and hobbyist programmers along the way.  Many of the hobbyist and part-timers only care about one platform and that’s only a $99/year investment.  If you want to do cross-platform desktop that’s only that’s $299/year.  For every desktop license you need three single licenses.

A Pro user like myself needs desktop, web, and console apps for sure.  iOS is a nice add-on but not necessary for us at this point.  The Pro license costs $699/year.  You need seven single licenses to make up for it.  My company has four licenses and we renew every year.  So my business is the equivalent of twenty-eight single license users and while I might grumble at writing a check every year for license updates it’s nothing at what we used to pay for VB6 and 3rd party licenses every year.  At one point it was $2,000 per developer per year.  That’s just the price of doing business.

So tell me, which type of customer should Xojo focus on?  What do you think their biggest weakness is in capturing some of this nascent cross-platform market?