I'm afraid this post is gonna be quite long. (Holy crap - no blogging for ages and then two big posts in a week!) - first some background...
Programming Rich Java Applications Is Sucky
Imagine the scene. You're part of a team of Java developers; you're tasked to write a rich application. It might be a commerical app or some intranet enterprisey thing, or some rich application to improve the user experience of some web app (like the iphone versions of facebook/twitter/gmail etc) - whatever. So what do you do?
You've a mindnumbingly broad choice to choose from - here's just a few options...
Write once and run everywhere - except if your application has any kind of user interface.
This is maybe why so many Java folks like writing server side apps; as the client side in the Java ecosystem is such a mess.
Helping Swing Developers
Lets imagine you pick Swing to develop rich applications. In its day, Swing was a good piece of work by Sun. However that day was in the nineties :)
I've done a fair bit of Swing in my time and worked on Swing projects; in my experience you can spend years trying to tart up a swing app and it still looks - well like Swing. You can get a day of a good web designers time and make any web application look stunning via HTML/CSS/images. It just seems so much easier to hack up HTML/CSS to look great. Just compare some great web 2.0 applications out there to your typical Swing UI. As an end user which would you rather use?
As a developer one of the big PITAs with Swing is layouts, styling and working with images and links. The standard layout managers suck. (GridBagLayout anyone?). Yes I know there's a zillion layout manager implementations out there - all doing different things well with different results & rendering bugs - and which one do you choose?
Swing developers should be using HTML/CSS for this - its great at it. The web browser is the best layout manager we have - and HTML/CSS is the best standard for laying out widgets. With HTML/CSS there's a ton of tooling out there too for viewing/editing/styling. You can then pass the HTML/CSS to your web designer while the Java Swing hacker focusses on the business logic or the complex widgets.
Plus any time you spend hacking HTML/CSS - being a simple, standard text format used inside web browsers means you can reuse your work in web applications as well as rich applications. You don't spend your time hacking up some Swing Java code thats only useful inside a Swing application.
So my proposal is, in Java 7 we integrate WebKit into the JVM. Why WebKit? Well its smaller and easier to integrate than Gecko; Apple chose it for Safari & iTunes and the iPhone and Google chose it for Chrome and Android. If its good enough for a cell phone surely we can fit it into a JDK/JRE for a rich desktop application?
If Sun wanted to get clever, the browser engine could be pluggable; letting folks pick different versions of WebKit or FireFox/Opera/IE - but lets not go there right now - lets just assume a recent WebKit version is baked into the JRE/JDK.
Some would argue it should be optional; but then given the size of the JDK/JRE there's a ton of not-that-useful stuff in there; I'd rather include it by default over loads of whats there :) But then the JDK/JRE is getting more modular right - so lets leave the optional nature of WebKit for when the JDK/JRE is truly modular - right now its huge; so if a cell phone can include it, so can a JDK/JRE :)
Next we have a standard Java API for creating a BrowserPanel which can be hosted inside any AWT/Swing/SWT/JFace based UI. So a browser window becomes a standard embeddable widget in Swing and SWT/JFace/Eclipse. There should also be an API for controlling the browser (loading/saving URLs and interacting with the DOM).
Finally I'd like any AWT/Swing/SWT/JFace/JavaFX component to be usable within the DOM of WebKit. So I could create a nice HTML page with nicely formatted and CSS'd text, images, tables but then include, say, a JTable and JTree in the middle somewhere; letting the browser do the layout stuff.
This last requirement might seem complex but thats exactly what Flash and JavaFX are already; plugins which create custom UI widgets within the DOM.
For those that are aware of GWT Hosted Mode; this proposal is very similar - embedding a web brower inside the JVM as a single process. The main differences are
- we need a standard API to spin up browser windows and embed them inside any Panel and to be able to bind any UI Panel inside the DOM easily (e.g. finding a div by ID and binding it to a JTable)
Swing would instantly get an awesome, standards based layout engine capable of easily rendering styled text, images and widgets while dealing with other kinds of media. Through the use of CSS Swing applications would be easily styled using all the existing HTML/CSS tooling.
Swing developers would then have the best of both worlds; their Swing widgets still working when they want to use them - but having the great power of the browser window around the widgets to make the layout easy, powerful and great looking.
Benefits for Web Developers
So how will this move - aimed at helping Swing developers help Web developers? The common PITA for web folks is often the browser imposes restrictions (for good reason) such as
- only being able to interact nicely with the single domain that serves the web page
- not able to interact with the file system
- only having 2 threads for communication
- limited connectivity (kinda hard to use native sockets, Java web stacks, JMS, native JDBC etc)
- unable to use things like Java2D/3D without via plugins
Now if you're making a public application; you're probably gonna have to deal with this (though now we're seeing custom apps for the iphone and android - maybe rich applications for public web sites are gonna be more common?). However loads of folks build web applications when they are really building internal, intranet applications.
So why not turn that web application into a desktop application making it run in a JVM? You can then package up your application with the exact, known browser you use and test with - and have access to all the features of the Java platform in your UI; whether its Java2D/3D, Swing/JFace, JavaFX or JMS/JDBC/JAX-WS etc
How this application is then made available to your users could come in different flavours; an application they install, Java Web Start (which might become cool again) or maybe even via JavaFX inside a browser?
So this could give a big safety net to folks building web applications. If you hit a browser limitation such as (say) a Canvas limitation? Just provide a Java2D version and ship a desktop application or Java WebStart it? It could end up that the JVM turns out to be the best place to host a web application reusing HotSpot?
Benefits for UI Developers
This single act of unifying the browser with Swing (and SWT/JFace) would provide a massive unification of standards based technologies for most UI development. More of the time spent building UIs would lead to creating more reusable standard artefacts (e.g. HTML and CSS) which are reusable in other contexts (e.g. transform HTML into PDFs or reuse the embedded microformats etc).
In these days of Dependency Injection; we're used to having a single code base then switching component implementations in different circumstances and environments; so we can start building more UIs which can be both web application and rich UI with each UI making the best use of its platform (zero install for web app, no limitations for desktop app).
Previously changing an application from a web application to a desktop application or vice versa was a massive undertaking (near total rewrite). Now it'll be pretty trivial to switch from one to the other as your requirements change. Applications will no longer be locked into one UI technology unable to move. UI code will become more aligned with the Write Once Run Anywhere mantra.
If folks create rich applications and web applications - there could be massive code reuse. While a web application and a Swing/JFace application are clearly going to have differences; they may use different views, components and features - there could be a huge amout of reuse of code. Even if the code reuse is only 30-50% its is big a saving; and we all need to do more with less these days. Though I can see - as UI frameworks improve, more and more chance of better code reuse across both.
Benefits for Sun
Folks have often said things in the past about Sun like
- Sun doesn't get the desktop, its not its core business
- Sun can't compete with Microsoft in its back yard (the desktop)
i.e. the Java platform would then become a cool place to develop applications for (removing all the limiations with web browsers) with loads of buzz -and Sun doesn't really have to do much other than take all the credit :)
Heck they could even brand the WebKit-in-JVM as part of the JavaFX brand; so JavaFX doesn't have to beat Flash/Flex & Silverlight in the market to avoid looking like a turkey. JavaFX Platform (or whatever we call it - basically Java7 + WebKit) could turn into an instant success (anyone doing Swing or JFace would probably start using the embedded browser for better layouts & rendering) and if that helped the JavaFX Plugin (the JavaFX-as-browser-plugin) make some inroads to Flash/Silverlight its an added bonus. (Whereas right now JavaFX as just a browser plugin looks setup for failure to be honest, I don't see it ever eclipsing Flash).
Note its worth mentioning that there's similar moves to DOMs and whatnot being experimented with in the Eclipse ecosystem; who knows we could maybe finally unify on a single DOM?
Benefits for the Java Platform
Being able to build rich desktop and web applications in any language - without any browser limitations would be a massive boost to the Java platform; allowing folks to reuse all the good stuff from the OpenWeb and the Java platform (language diversity, IDEs and tooling, connectivity, Java2D/3D and even JavaFX).
We'd also hopefully see significant cross-pollination of the Swing / JFace folks and web folks to help UI innovation (which Sun doesn't have to try do itself).
If nothing else hopefully it will encourage more folks to write web applications and desktop applications to take advantage of both environments to provide better user interfaces for our users and customers for less effort.
Sounds like a win win for everyone doesn't it?
Update - JWebPane
So I should probably pay more attention to the JavaFX stuff :)
It seems that there is such a thing called JWebPane (see page 27 onwards of this presentation) which has been announced - so maybe this is gonna actually happen soon! :).
IMHO JWebPane sounds way more important to the Java ecosystem than JavaFX - I really hope it gets enough backing and funding from Sun to get completed and released real soon! Its not good to see nothing at all being released to the community despite it being announced about 7-8 months ago - so fingers crossed that whatever the legal/licensing issues are holding it back get resolved really soon.
We've just gotta lobby Sun to release it ASAP - then include it in Java 7... :-)