November 17, 2009

Recent advances in WWW technologies and the new generation of user interfaces

Many new technologies for the web have emerged during the year 2009. Google Wave, HTML5 and the increasing importance of JavaScript are the driving on the internet, but the mobile device is a growing market where Qt and Android look to provide the best SDKs for iPhone competition. JavaScript engines have been making significant improvements in performance, and V8 makes the Chrome browser a playground of innovation.

I have been silently learning Python with PyQt4 that along with QtDesigner make a good combination of tools for cross-platform GUI development. PyQt4 on the other hand did not agree on new licensing with Nokia, and now there is a new Python Qt4 library emerging: PySide. PySide is an important effort and Python -the language- is looking very promising for a number of reasons.

This exciting iframe below presents Your World of Text, a co-editor which is a prime example of what is possible with modern technology, but this is just a sneak preview of the possibilities that are opening up for developers. Not just on the web but also on the desktop. This demo is produced by Andrew Badr using jQuery, a few lines of custom JavaScript and Django, the Python framework.

In 10 years we may have an Ajax X-server.

The Google Wave videos (check also the playlist) are also inspiring. Google Wave provides a same kind of technology as the demo above, but the codebase is not the same.

The "Wave" that Google presented is under the hood essentially an XML document. The Google Wave Federation Protocol defines the operational transformation layer for sharing the document and mitigating live updates between all wave providers. This works not unlike Git, and all geeks agree how fabulous Git is. As an analogue, Wave provides to non-techie fellow humans (communicate, share) what Git does for code hackers (code, share). Just in a very cool way that code hackers too can appreciate. The protocol is open to contributions by the broader community with the goal to continue to improve how humans share information, together. Even across language barriers!

So in the very near future, we can have live co-editing in multimedia documents with indesign publication / forking / remixing mechanism. The environment, then .. will it be only the web?

The trio: HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript, has matured and provides a solid base for new generation of dynamic user interfaces. The Amiga Workbench Emulator is a showcase of JavaScript UI and Qt Labs demonstrates the power of HTML5+CSS3 that only works on WebKit browsers (Safari, Konqueror, Chrome). There is no particular Javascript code that switches the items, everything is done by CSS.

Any defences for the plain old desktop apps? Other than terminals, text/video/etc editors, games, mission-critical tasks, CPU/GPU-intensive 3D apps, ... Oh yes. I for one find it somehow silly to overload a web browser with all of this. One of the reasons why web apps got widly popular at some stage is that they are not locked into one physical computer and that the user can change from operating system to another. Reality hits back in the form of browser inconsistencies and especially by the well-known fact that the single most used browser is completely incapacitated by todays standards (IE6 - 23,4% of all browsers in October 2009).

When I started using QtDesigner and Python I was fairly delighted how well they work together. Nice IDE to design the GUI and the UI widgets can be imported and instantiated in my Python code. This is a win for the Qt app. Qt implements the concept of signals and slots, which provide a way to connect asynchronous events (signal) to call a method (slot). For a web app, this would be possible with JavaScript XHR, but there is no "API", since this concept is a bit foreign in the web world. This is a win for the Qt app. The layout of a QFrame is very rigid, unlike HTML+CSS which can be extremely fluid. This is a win for the web app. It also is quite sensible to use accessor objects for inserting data onto a table, but I have to say it feels a bit silly to write 10-20 lines of boilerblate code instead of just iterating over an array and setting a few CSS classes to ones liking? This is a win for the web app. Σ: Qt web = 2. Both have unique strengths.

Indeed, the web hosts many exotic UIs without overall consistency, whereas the desktop look and feel is pretty much standard with a limited set of widgets, uniform in appearance and function across all applications. That is user-friendly. In some sense it is nice to provide the administrator a single install file and the user an icon on the desktop (or Dock) to click on to access the application. A desktop application may also have access to the hardware and external devices such as USB cameras. An everyday internet browser, enhanced for secure anonymous browsing, should never have these privileges.

Mozilla Prism is a small independent browser window and it already is my favourite way to read GMail and Facebook, but the full potential of desktop integration is not used. Prism uses the Gecko engine, whereas Qt4 provides a QtWebKit module that is capable of loading and rendering web pages with the help of the WebKit browser engine.

I will continue in part #2 on my ideas how desktop and web technologies could build on top of each other's strengths.

November 15, 2009

Chrome Experiments paint the canvas with the future

This is one of my favourites from the Chrome Experiments. Colorscube by Dean McNamee. Best run on the Chrome browser.

It reminds me of the movie Cube. In this demo you can't actually zoom into the cube, but the controls make possible to rotate the cube on the canvas element.

The user interface on this demo, for example, show the power of HTML5 and modern JavaScript technologies. The user experience in the Chrome Experiments is good also on modern touchpads.

This will open up new technologies for developers also on the desktop - and today the most promising tech looks to be Qt. The desktop is a tremendous playground, not just the browser where the drag is one de-facto breed of browsers.