Swing programming not much fun either

In one of my first blog entries (Web programming == No
) I moaned about the relative painfulness of creating a
web-based user interface compared to doing the same thing in a desktop UI
framework such as Java Swing (which I was most used to at the time).

Now, a few years (but not that many blog entries) later I find myself in the
opposite situation. I’ve spent most of the intervening years building web
applications in Java, Javascript and PHP and I found myself needing to dust of
my desktop-UI skills again for some work I was doing on my Hexapod

I’m now at the stage where the appeal of typing commands to the servo
controller using a terminal emulation and a serial link has worn off somewhat.
Yes, I can make the robot twitch a bit and the mechanics seem to be working
but some more interesting behaviour would be a definite plus. It seemed like a
good idea to write some software I could run on my PC to configure and control
the robot so I could learn how to program interesting behaviours without
having to learn a new embedded programming environment at the same time. It
wasn’t long before I decided I needed a file format to store the robot
configuration in - things like mapping meaningful names to the numeric IDs
used by the servo controller and storing the min and max joint angles for each
servo etc. After messing about for a while with a terminal emulator and the
robot I decided that I needed some form of interactive interface which would
let me easily set up a configuration and manipulate the robot to find the
correct servo settings.

Without a great deal of thought I picked Java (could have been C++ or ruby but
I kind just settled with Java out of habit) and Swing (AWT is a UI toolkit
that should never, IMHO, have seen the the light of day and I’ve no experience
with SWT).

Putting on my rose tinted glasses and remembering how much I used to enjoy
Swing programming I fired up eclipse and had a bit of a shock - somehow Swing
programming didn’t seem nearly as much fun as I’d remembered. Having gotten
used to layout out my user interfaces with HTML and CSS using Swing layout
managers, for example, seemed like an exercise in masochism.

So what has happened? Why the shock? Well, firstly (and most obviously)
whatever we are most used to often feels easiest (duh!). When I wrote Web
programming == No Fun
I was still pretty new to Java web
development, especially STRUTS and had recently developed a fairly complex
Swing application. Now I’ve had a few years to forget a lot of my Swing
knowledge and am a more experienced web developer.

I think there’s more to it then just familiarity though. Web development has
changed quite a bit for me in the last few years. Although I started out with
STRUTS more recently I’ve used Spring MVC (and a proprietary framework at
Ecube Ltd, where I’m presently employed). I would
argue that STRUTS, at least the version I was using back in 2005, is painful
and involves the creation of far too many pointless ActionForm classes and XML
configuration [2]. Personally, I find SpringMVC far better suited to the way I
want to write code.

Libraries such as prototype,
scriptaculous and
YUI and so on have made it a lot easier to
incorporate more complex user interface widgets in web applications. Also, the
event based nature of AJAX programming it’s not that different from the event
based programming you’d do for a Swing application. Sure, the actual events
are different but it’s a not the same as spending your time building a UI in
which you have to (re)build the complete page as a response to every
significant user action.

I think Swing [3] is badly lacking the ability to separate structure from
appearance that you gain with HTML, Javascript & CSS. Actually getting things
to look good and appear where you want them to can be painful with both Swing
and HTML/CSS but at least with HTML it’s easy to knock up a functional UI and
tweak the appearance without having to rewrite too much of the code that
actually generates the UI. With Swing how things look is too closely bound
with the code that creates the widgets.

Swing does perhaps have the edge when it comes to complex widgets such as
collapsible trees which are updated when the underlying developer-supplied
model changes but that also brings additional complexity and I spent a good
few hours wrestling with JTree and the associated TreeModel and events before
I got things working the way I wanted.

I suppose I could have used a GUI builder when writing my little configuration
app but I’m suspicious of such tools and find that, at best, they are good for
producing a first cut of the UI after which you usually end up tweaking some
fairly opaque and/or verbose code by hand. In the same way I code HTML & CSS
by hand also - it may be more painful at times but at least I remain in

BTW if you want a look at the little app that inspired these ramblings have a
look at Robot Configuration - it’s still somewhat
krappy and incomplete but it’s progress of a sort anyway.

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