The Case For Light-Weight UI Toolkits

This post is motivated by a recent Reddit thread where someone posted an announcement about the 1.0 release of Codename One, a toolkit for building cross-platform mobile applications. I was quite surprised by the stream of negativity in the responses from developers who had never tried the framework, but who mistakenly assumed that they knew everything about it because they have tried other cross-platform toolkits in the past.

Before I discuss the thread itself, I just want to take a minute to talk about light-weight UIs and why they are important.

Light-Weight UI vs Heavy-Weight UI

When people refer to a light-weight user interface toolkit, they are generally referring to a toolkit where all of the widgets and components are drawn using graphics primitives using the toolkit itself. A heavy-weight user interface, on the other hand, is one where the components from the underlying platform are just placed in the user interface, and aren’t drawn manually. Swing, JavaFX, HTML5, QT, and Codename One are examples of light-weight UI toolkits. AWT, SWT, and Appcelerator Titanium are examples of heavy-weight UI toolkits.

Why Are Light-Weight UI Toolkits Important for Cross-Platform Development?

When you are developing for multiple platforms, then a heavy-weight UI will be one that addresses the lowest common denominator. If every platform has a “Text box” widget, then you can safely add a text box to your UI, and the correct widget will be shown on the current platform. But if one of the platforms doesn’t have a text box widget, you need to either say that “text boxes aren’t supported on platform X”, or you have to come up with an alternative for that platform.

With a light-weight UI, every platform can have a text box because you don’t depend on the underlying platform for the actual widget. This opens quite a bit of flexibility.

It is kind of like the difference between creating art work with stickers vs painting the art directly onto canvas. Imagine you are teaching an art class via a webcast and you have 5 different art students each with their own toolkit. These toolkits consist of a set of stickers and stamps that they have brought from their own collection, and a paint set. For the “heavy-weight” portion of the class, you would be instructing the students to place stickers onto the canvas. E.g. You might say “Now place a sticker of a dog in the top right corner”. But what if some of the students don’t have a sticker of a dog? Then you might say, “If you don’t have a dog, just use a cat. And if you don’t have a cat, then just leave the space blank”.

At the end of the lesson, the art work produced by each student would be radically different. The stickers would be different, might be different sizes, and some canvases might be completely blank if the student didn’t have the appropriate sticker.

The alternative “light-weight” lesson would just involve some paint brushes and paints. Imagine that students were able to replicate your painting perfectly. So if you paint a dog in the top corner, they will be able to paint an identical dog in the top corner of their canvas.

At the end of the lesson, then, every canvas will look more-or-less identical. At some point, you might actually tell the students to draw something different in a section that reflects their local culture. This would be fine also, and the variation would be reflected in the finished product.

This is basically the difference between a heavy-weight and a light-weight UI toolkit.

The mobile development space is getting very fragmented and form factors vary greatly. If any space needs a good platform for lightweight UI development, it is the mobile space.

Back to the Reddit Post

Responses were full of hate for Java, light-weight user interfaces, and the concept of cross-platform toolkits in general. One pervasive, yet misinformed, line of reasoning the came through in some of the frequent posters’ comments was as follows:

  1. Cross platform toolkits result in “lowest common denominator” applications that don’t take advantage of the features of any particular platform.

  2. Lightweight UIs won’t look or behave like a native on any platform so it is much better to use a heavyweight UI (i.e. wrap native components) so that the app at least looks and behaves natively.

  3. Lightweight UIs are slow! There are a million HTML5 solutions out there, but they are all laggy. It is better to just use a heavyweight UI.

  4. Cross-platform toolkits sound good at the start, but, inevitably you will hit a road block that will prevent you from achieving your goal, and have to resort to building native applications for each target platform, wasting, perhaps, a year or more of the time that you spent trying to use the cross-platform framework.

This line of reasoning appears to make sense if you don’t dig into some of the embedded assumptions. For example, #1 and #4 only hold true for heavy-weight toolkits, and #2 and #3 simply aren’t true. Let me address all of these points individually.

Do Cross-Platform Toolkits Result in a Lowest Common Denominator App?

If you develop a lightweight UI, then there is no reason why the resulting application should be the lowest common denominator of all platforms. This is because, in a lightweight UI, you are not dependent on the native widgets. You can embed native components in cases where it makes sense, but you are not limited by this. Any component in a lightweight UI can be used across all platforms, and configured to behave differently on each platform if it makes sense. Components can be created on top of a lightweight UI that don’t even exist in any of the underlying platforms. This adds a tremendous amount of flexibility and offers enormous potential.

Take, for example, the JFXtras project, which is built upon JavaFX, a light-weight UI framework for the desktop. It is a collection of components and widgets that are all light-weight (so they are truly cross platform) and they look and feel fantastic. If you wanted to develop this set of widgets using a heavyweight toolkit it would be 5 times the work, and would be impossible to maintain.

Are lightweight UIs doomed to look “un-native”?

While lightweight UIs give you the flexibility to create an app that doesn’t look native, you can come very close to a native look, if that is what you are trying to achieve. Light-weight UIs that are well designed enable you to develop themes that look and behave just like the native platform. The Swing has been doing this for years on the desktop and, while you may think that you can spot a Swing application a mile away, I am willing to bet that you have probably used many Swing applications without knowing it. Of course you can spot the ones that don’t look native – where the author didn’t place a priority on following native UI guidelines. But if you ran across one that did follow the guidelines, you would be none the wiser.

In my opinion, the Codename One folks have done a fantastic job of developing native looking themes for all of the main mobile platforms. I showed an app with the iOS theme to quite a number of savvy users and none of them could tell, at all, that it wasn’t actually using native widgets. All of the buttons look the same, and it behaved the same. This is a testament to the design acumen of their team.

And if you don’t like the look and feel, that is no problem. It is light-weight. You can override the look and behaviour of any component to conform to your preferences, if you like. Apply these changes across all platforms or only specific ones.

So, lightweight UIs certainly are not doomed to look un-native.

Are Lightweight UIs Slow?

Well, they can be, but so can heavyweight UIs. Performance depends on many factors, and if you have tried any of the HTML5 toolkits out there for building mobile apps you have probably noticed that these apps are indeed sluggish. So you might be tempted to apply the logic that since HTML5 apps are slow, and HTML5 is a lightweight UI toolkit, that all lightweight UI toolkits are slow. This is certainly incorrect. HTML5 requires very complex layout rules, and it relies on Javascript as its language that is quite a bit slower than a native executable would be. This is very hard for low-powered mobile devices to handle in a performant way. Ultimately as device performance improves (maybe in a couple years), the HTML5 performance problems will dissipate.

Codename One uses a different strategy that is much more similar to Swing than to HTML. It uses 2D drawing technology of the host platform to build its components (OpenGL on iOS, etc..) which is very fast and flexible. This allows for the creation of complex user interfaces without barely any performance hit.

So, no, lightweight UIs don’t have to be slow, and in Codename One’s case, it is not slow.

Are You Destined to Hit a Wall If You Use a Cross-Platform Framework?

I have been burned. You have probably been burned. I think everyone has been burned once or twice when they start a project with a toolkit, then sometime later, they hit a wall and the toolkit just can’t be used to take the next step. Is this inevitable with a Cross-Platform framework?

The answer is, maybe. But if you choose your framework carefully, they you shouldn’t have a problem. Some key items to look for would include:

  1. Is it open source? If it isn’t open source, then the chances are you will get stuck at some point and have to abandon it.

  2. Can you access native APIs if necessary? If you can’t access native APIs, then you will likely have to abandon it at some point.

  3. Is it built on a strong, robust, and fast foundation? If it isn’t, then you’ll likely have to abandon it at some point.

If the framework hits all three of these points, then you should be OK. If you need to access a new API on a particular platform, you can just write a native plugin for that. If you run into a bug or a limitation, you can fix it yourself, as long as it is open source. And as long as the core of the framework is strong and fast, you can build your own component libraries as time goes on to extend the platform, without worrying about breaking the platform.

Most HTML5/Javascript frameworks will fail on #3. HTML5 and Javascript just aren’t robust. There are many commercial cross-platform frameworks out there also. I would be careful with those.

In the few months that I have been working with Codename One, I have found the platform to be open and robust. If I find something that it doesn’t do, it is usually quite easy for me to add it myself. The fact that they allow you to write native plugins, wrap native components when necessary (to add to the UI), and develop my own libraries and components that run on top of it, give me confidence that there is no “wall” that I could hit in the future that would be a show-stopper.