Report of GUI's death greatly exaggerated

I just finished attending a three day workshop on developing standalone GUI applications with this awesome Java applications framework that you've never heard of. Actually, that's not true. You've heard of it but thought it was an IDE--NetBeans. Unfortunately, the amazing applications framework has been hitched to the NetBeans IDE wagon which, for better or worse, has much less market share than eclipse. (I know how NetBeans users feel because I use Intellij, both of which are swamped by eclipse users.)

I've built a number of applications with Swing, but Swing is just so primitive. Every GUI I build has to reimplement all of the usual application lifecycle and menu stuff. No one uses Swing partly for this reason. Unfortunately, I understand that Sun now Oracle uses the lack of users as a justification to dump it. If you're old enough to remember the birth of Java, you'll recall that all the excitement about it came down to one word: Applets. That is pretty funny because of course no one uses it for applets. Why not? AWT, the windowing library at the time, was terrible. Swing was meant to fix this and, years later after they fixed the speed issues, it's actually okay (though it still pretty low level). The problem was and is that it's not an application framework and we build applications not widgets.

Personally, I greatly prefer using a GUI app sitting on my machine rather than a web app (pretty funny since I'm teaching a graduate course in web systems and algorithms this semester). Anybody who's tried to use google's spreadsheet or document editor online knows what I'm talking about. Anybody try using a web-based development environment? Surely, were not going to dump our IDEs and start typing into web browsers. As Cay Horstmann's JavaOne blog points out

But my feeling is that there is a continued need for the desktop. Information consumers won't care, but information producers do. Someone needs to write code, write books, do art layout, run complex calculations. The desktop has been pretty well optimized for that. Java and JavaFX have the chance to dominate that market while everyone else chases consumer tablets.

There are lots of people still building GUIs, but most of these are internally used by corporations and government organizations that aren't necessarily going to blog about their competitive advantage (e.g., trading software) or give out their software. You can check out some sample applications built with the NetBeans Platform. I notice that lots of those organizations still building GUIs are flush with cash: banks, the military, the government, ...

I understand that all the excitement is about the web and mobile applications. I'm sure if I were 22 again, that's what I would be excited about. Building the very large server 10 years ago pretty much knocked the excitement out of it for me. Next.

Anyway, there also sometimes very good reasons not to build web-based applications. Aside from the difficulty of building rich clients beyond some gee-whiz JavaScript, the first thing I have to do with a web application is come up with a Web server somewhere (and pay for it plus bandwidth). This exposes me to security issues and I have to figure out how to get two computers to communicate with protocols instead of using method calls. It's just one more thing to break and I need to have an active network connection to use my application.

I'm really glad people are out there building cool mobile applications and web applications, but please don't deny desktop applications have their place and please make it easy to build GUIs myself. So here is what I want: Oracle should fork off the applications framework, clean it up, and ship it as a separate product. The NetBeans IDE is already just an application that sits on top of this framework. Come on, folks. Let's put some effort into this application platform, to be named later. (smile)

In closing, let me thank Geertjan Wielenga for giving the NetBeans workshop (an excellent instructor and nice guy) and Andreas Stefik for helping explain more about the NetBeans Platform via his SodBeans IDE for the visually impaired.

Sam Harwell, Colin Bean, Udo Borkowski, Shaoting Cai and I are using NetBeans Platform to build a new ANTLRWorks grammar IDE. More on that later. Here are a few snapshots of the editor for grammars and StringTemplates that Sam got working within a few days: