The status of Swing in 2011

I always have been a Web developer in my career – well, most of the time, as since the iPad was released I have been doing some heavy development on iOS, specially in the field of digital readers. Nevertheless, is the Web platform that I am most familiar with. Being a solution centric professional, it was not surprise that last month I was requested to develop a new tool that could run on Mac and Windows desktops, in order to allow newspaper and magazine publishers to create rich content issues for mobile devices and possible web readers.

The company I work for was a long time user of Microsoft solutions (only because that when they started over 11 years ago, it was easier to find Action Script developers that could do some ASP coding, thus the migration to the .NET platform was some kind of natural for them), but for the past couple of years the transition to Rails and now Java is taking place over .NET (which is something to be discussed another time), and using Java for the new tool seemed the best way to go through, as Java is a very mature platform, with plenty of developers and documentation available, and not to have to maintain totally different base codes of Mac and Windows was a very good argument.

However, I didn’t have so many good opinions about Swing (the Java GUI Toolkit), even though it is the standard approach to do desktop programming with Java. Sure that there are other toolkits out there, like SWT and QT, but I had to consider that other people would be working on the software later, doing bug fixing and general improvements, thus if it required extra training it could be a problem.

All my experience with Swing was limited to some small programs or books I read, but it was enough to let me know that:
- I’d need to deal with layout managers
- That layout managers can get quite complex or verbose very easily (or both)
- That Swing didn’t have any major upgrade for years (if any)
- I had a clue that there weren’t so many third party components
- And definitely that I wasn’t willing to do hand coding of the GUIs. A GUI designer was vital.

I have mixed feelings about layout managers. I understand why they were created, but you had to know them all in order to make a fairly complex program, as each one of them accomplish a very specific task. Also, any documentation (including books) date back to 2004 or 2005 at most, which leads one to think that it was abandoned, but this feeling goes away after some time, as Swing has almost all (if not all) major components one may need to create any program, and it is possible to create your own components if needed. Swing is mature as well, and the fact it does not get a major upgrade in years may only means that there isn’t that many stuff to have.

Ok, I may being a little too optimistic here, as certainly the API could be improved a lot and more components could be available by default, but Sun was never good at designing easy to use APIs, far from that, and the failed Java FX thing only proves that the guys over there had no clue at all of what to do.

When searching for documentation, you often will find articles dated back to ’98, ’02. This frequently helps to keep alive that feeling that you are dealing with a dinosaur and using something that will die soon – even it will not (I hope). Sure that any example code that it’s not for Java 1.1 is very welcome when you know nothing.

The complexity of doing even simple things is something you will face constantly. The Java API was never known for its friendliness – it appears that very different teams at Sun, that did not talk to each other, were developing the base class library, thus creating a lot of inconsistency across the API -, but Swing goes a step further to make your life harder. Maybe it’s because I am more confortable with web programming, but I have done a lot of WinForms and Silverlight (.NET) coding, and by far Swing is harder. Take for example Drag and Drop over a JList or (worst) a JTree: it is insanely hard to make it work, even after reading hundreds of source code lines from open source projects and discussion forums. The event dispatching system is another thing that the more I read the less I understand, and many times I found myself doing some sort of implementation of the observer pattern instead of sticking with Swing’s own classes (I ended with a somewhat simple but very effective ‘EventCentral’ class).

As for third party components, there are some, but not many, not to mention those that does not work very well. Conversely, the WinForms API of .NET (here I go again, sorry) still get plenty of stuff today, although not as many as it did once, and you can’t stop thinking about it occasionally.

In conclusion, at the end of the day Swing it’s the only choice you have if you are going to use Java for desktop development, and albeit it has a lot of bugs and a weak, non-active community, it gets the job done. I have looked at SWT and JavaFX, but the former it still even more restricted, and the latter’s first release was a fiasco, but apparently Oracle is trying to respawn it with a 2.0 version.

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