Cross-Platform Desktop UIs with C#

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I’ve spent the last 4 weeks traveling Europe for the Xamarin European roadshow, and have had the opportunity to meet a few thousand C# developers who share a passion for cross-platform development.

In almost every city, I’ve been asked to recommend a Xamarin.Forms style library for developing desktop applications. In this blog post I’m going to give an overview of the different options available to desktop developers who wish to target Windows, Mac and Linux.

Traditional Approach

The first approach is what we’ve named at Xamarin the ‘traditional’ approach. You’ve probably seen this approach, but for mobile. The general idea is that you should implement your user interface uniquely for each platform you wish to target. This means on Mac, you would use Cocoa (Xamarin.Mac), Windows would use WPF and Linux would use Gtk (Gtk#). This approach will guarantee that your desktop application looks and behaves as the platform users expect. It also means that your application looks great if Apple, Microsoft or the OpenSource community decide to update the look and feel of the underlying OS. It’s also worth noting that with this approach you gain 100% access to every UI control and API available in the UI libraries, and won’t be limited in your ability to create beautiful experiences for your users.

In case you’re in any doubt, this is the approach I recommend you take when developing your apps. This is actually the approach Xamarin has started to use for our new products. You can see this in action with our Profiler and Android Simulator; both of these use WPF on Windows, and Xamarin.Mac (Cocoa) on OS X.

XWT

Much like Xamarin.Forms, Xwt allows you to use one API that maps to the native widgets of the platform. This means your application when running on Windows will be using WPF widgets, on Mac its Cocoa, and Linux is Gtk. This results in a 100% native user interface on three platforms from one codebase. Much like Xamarin.Forms, because its aim is to create a unified API for all desktop platforms, it only maps to a subset of widgets and properties. It’s worth noting that with Xwt you still have the ability to implement a native widget which isn’t mapped as part of the API.

For all platforms you can use the native engine, or the Gtk engine. If you’re wondering what a Gtk app looks like on Windows and Mac, then I recommend downloading Xamarin Studio. This is primarily built using Gtk, and in areas actually uses Xwt. On Windows the native engine is WPF, on OS X its Cocoa, and on Linux it remains Gtk (using Gtk#).

Webview

One other option you might want to consider, is using a WebView for your user interface whilst maintaining a C# backend. This is the approach that Rdio has taken for their OS X client, and to a novice it’s difficult to spot that it’s not a native app. This approach can produce some great looking applications which can even run in the Cloud, but it would be difficult to claim you’ve created an application when the reality is you’ve packaged up a website.

QtSharp

Although this approach is not yet ready for consumption, I thought I would mention it as it’s a project on GitHub that excites me. Much like Xamarin.Mac is a binding to the Cocoa framework, a group of enterprising .Net developers are aiming to create a .Net binding to the Qt library. Having used Qt in a previous life, I can confirm that the UIs can often be a little hit or miss (because it’s a lowest common denominator approach). That said, if you’re developing an internal application, or willing to take the time to craft the UI for each platform (different layouts for each platform) then it can work really well.

The project is still in its infancy, and many developers have tried and failed at this approach. Its not ready for production as yet (it doesn’t appear to even be close) but its a great start. My fingers are crossed that the developers continue to invest their time in the project, and the .Net community gains access to one of the most widely used cross-platform user interfaces frameworks in existence.

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