Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

In my recent blog “Spolsky 1: Scoble 0 – Stegman’s Video, while Great, doesn’t apply to the API war” the most surprising results were in the responses. While many did address the focus of the item (that of API changes), there were a number of responses directly relating to Windows Forms as a technology. Recently, Mike Harsh elaborated on this topic as well. Clearly there is interest in where Windows Forms fit into the greater scheme of things. I think this is worth of further discussion.

It’s possible Mike may be too conservative about the future of Windows forms. Curiously enough, the very issues that Joel brings up with regards to the API war actually work in favor of Windows Forms. You see, even though Windows Forms is a managed wrapper for User32, the key point is that it does wrap User32 – the old Win32 GDI API that every Windows developer in the world is familiar with.

So here comes Avalon – a new approach and new API. Do the features that Avalon promises truly justify the investment in learning this new API? It’s too soon to say. It will likely prove compelling to those developers who really need to take advantage of new UI features, just as the DirectX API is worth learning for those who need that capability, but that may prove to be a minority of Windows developers.

My point is this – you have a huge number of Windows programmers, who grew up and know User32, how it plays with VB6, MFC, ATL and now Windows Forms. Do you really think they’re all going to just jump to Avalon overnight? Over a year? Over 10 years? .NET has compelling advantages over COM, and the transition is proving very slow. There’s every reason to believe that the transition to Longhorn and Avalon (that in my mind are still classified in the category of vaporware) will be as slow or slower. If there is no compelling economic advantage, Windows Forms might be the dominant managed forms package for many years.

Unless, of course, Microsoft abandons Windows Forms, either on purpose, or by implication (say, by failing to make interop work as smoothly as promised on future OS’s).

It’s a tough problem. Technically, I do believe Windows Forms is better than VB6 or MFC. But it suffers from the .NET distribution issue. Even ClickOnce may not change that (a topic I’ll be writing about soon). Avalon will suffer the same runtime distribution issue, plus the additional problems of limited OS support and the need to learn a new API.

I was discussing this earlier today with Christian Gross, and he suggested I take a look at GTK# . I doubt it’s as cool as Avalon, maybe not even as cool as Windows Forms. But I must confess, the idea of a forms package that runs on Windows, OSX and Linux is intriguing. Something to look at… in my copious spare time.