XAML and C#, or HTML and WinJS for Windows Store, Universal and cross platform apps?

Microsoft designed the Windows Runtime (WinRT, the engine behind the controversial touch-friendly “Metro” user interface in Windows 8) to support three development platforms. These are C++ with XAML (for most GUI apps) or DirectX (for fast games); or C# and XAML; or HTML and JavaScript using the WinJS library for access to Windows-specific functions.

Microsoft’s line is that all three approaches are fine to use, with little performance difference other than that C++ avoids an interop layer. Of course if you have any arbitrary code that runs faster in C++ than in C#, then you will still see that difference in the WinRT environment.

It is also obvious that if you are an HTML and JavaScript expert but know nothing of C# or XAML, you should use WinJS; similarly if you have a lot of C# code to port and know nothing of HTML or JavaScript, C# and XAML chooses itself.

But what if you approach the decision from a neutral perspective. I am going to leave aside the C++ option for the moment as it is more of a leap than C# versus JavaScript. Which is best?

On the WinJS side, a common misconception is that this library is only for Windows. At Build 2014 Microsoft announced that WinJS is now open source, and works on other browsers and devices:

The library has been extended to smaller and more mobile devices with the release of WinJS 2.1 for Windows Phone 8.1, which was announced today at //build. Now that WinJS is available for building apps across Microsoft platforms and devices, it is ready to extend to web apps and sites on other browsers and devices including Chrome, Firefox, iOS, and Android.

In order to sample this, I went along to try.buildwinjs.com on an iPad. All the things I tried quickly worked fine on iOS.

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If you used WinJS to build an app, you could use PhoneGap or Cordova to package it as a native application for the iOS or Android app stores.

A further reflection on this is that some of the WinJS controls which you might have assumed are native WinRT controls instantiated from JavaScript are in fact implemented in CSS and JavaScript. That is an advantage for cross-platform, but does suggest that Microsoft has been busy duplicating the look and feel of XAML controls in HTML and JavaScript, which seems a lot of work and an approach which is bound to result in inconsistencies.

Another snag with this approach – leaving aside the questions of performance and so on which I have not investigated – is that you end up with the distinctive look and feel of a Windows 8 app, which is going to be surprising on these other devices.

C# also has cross-platform potential, thanks to the great work of Xamarin and not forgetting RemObjects C#. Note though that I wrote C# rather than XAML. There is no cross-platform XAML implementation other than the abandoned cross-platform Silverlight efforts, Silverlight for the Mac and Moonlight for Linux. Xamarin expects you to rewrite your UI code for each platform – which may in fact be a good thing, though more effort.

If you are focused on the Windows platform though, it seems to me that the pendulum is swinging away from WinJS and towards C# and XAML. Wordament is an interesting case. This is one of the better games for Windows 8, and also available for Windows Phone, iOS and Android. Originally this was implemented in HTML and JavaScript. The developers have blogged about the choices they made:

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