Cross-platform Programming: The Details

In the last article, I took a general look at cross-platform programming. From a developer’s point of view, there are a number of ways of programming cross-platform. While maintaining separate source code trees for each platform would make your program “fit in” the most with each platform, it would be almost like maintaining a different program for each platform, a lot of work indeed. One solution is to keep the same source code and use a different compiler to create a different executable for each platform. While this reduces the amount of work you have to do, using this method means that you have to be careful not to use platform-specific methods. And the performance of your program will vary according to the quality of the compiler use.

Probably the simplest solution for a cross-platform developer would be to write in an interpreted language. The upshot is that you can (mostly) forget about dealing with the platform, because the interpreter will be the same irrespective of the platform and you can be pretty confident that your code will run the same on whichever platform you make it work. On the other hand, this method relies heavily on the proper performance of the interpreter. However, if you use one of the more common interpeted languages like Python or Perl, that is unlikely to be a problem. These interpreters have been out there for years and have been thoroughly tested on all of the more common platforms out there.

And now for the Java Virtual Machine. The JVM is just what it sounds like: a sort of pseudo-computer which conveniently lets you ignore the real computer. But there are two important things that make the Java Virtual Machine different from interpreted languages. Firstly, the JVM is independent of the actual Java language. Though Java is the primarily language, there are a number of other languages which can be translated into bytecode that can be run on the JVM. There are also implentations of Python and Ruby for the JVM, though these are considerably less complete than the actual implementations. The second reason will be more appealing to developers focussing on GUI applications: Java has it’s own GUI toolkit called Swing which can provide a consistent look-and-feel across all platforms. Your program not only functions the same across all platforms, it looks the same as well.  Most other interpreted languages require an external GUI toolkit which means that the end user has to make sure that the relevant libraries are installed (or you, as a developer have to package the libraries with your program).

Talking about GUI toolkits, there are a number of toolkits out there for you to choose from. Qt and GTK are probably the more popular ones, but wxWidgets is gaining popularity. GTK and Qt are both non-native toolkits, in that they use their own drawing engines. Qt now uses the drawing API of the platform to give a more native look-and-feel. GTK on the other hand uses a number of different engines some of which emulate the look of native widget sets. wxWidgets however uses the native drawing system of the platform itself and only provides a thin abstraction layer on top of it. This means that your apps will look like native apps because they are effectively using the same set of graphics widgets. GTK is written in C while Qt and wxWidgets are in C++, but bindings for all of them exist in many popular cross-platform languages, so you can pick and choose at will.

Though I’ve presented cross-compiling and interpreted languages as two different solutions, you can take a middle path: writing part of your program in code that will be compiled separately for each platform and part in an interpreted language. The Firefox browser uses this technique. The Gecko layout engine is written in C++, but a large part of the application is made using interpreted scripting languages like XUL, CSS and JavaScript, allowing it to be easily ported. Besides Windows, Mac and Linux,  ports are available for BeOS, SkyOS, FreeBSD and OS/2.

Ultimately it comes down to you as a developer to decide which method and technologies will make your worker easier and the end product. My personal favourite is Java/Swing for heavy projects and Python/wxWidgets for smaller personal work.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

One thought on “Cross-platform Programming: The Details”

  1. I’m not sure that wxWindows uses the platform native drawing, as all wxWindows apps like VLC Player look very ugly in KDE. They don’t look at all like KDE apps. It looks like that wxWindows just uses GTK on Linux 😦

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