Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Friday, April 16, 2021

What Xamarin.Forms taught me about data bindings

I’ve spent about a year working on an app for a group in the University where I work, that needed to be available on both Android and iOS. I’ve got a bit of experience working with the Apple-supplied SDKs on iOS, and a teensy amount of experience working with the Google-supplied SDKs on Android. Writing two apps is obviously an option, but not one I took very seriously. The other thing I’ve reached for before in this situation is React Native, where I’ve got a little experience but quite a bit of understanding having worked with React some.

Anyway, this project was a mobile companion for a desktop app written in C# and Windows Forms, and the client was going to have to pick up development at the end of my engagement. So I decided that the best approach for the client was to learn how to do it in Xamarin.Forms, and give them a C# project they could understand at the end. I also hoped there’d be an opportunity to share some code from the desktop software in the mobile project, though this didn’t pan out in the end.

It took a while to understand the centrality of the Model-View-ViewModel idea and how to get it to work with the code I was writing, rather than bludgeoning it in to what I was trying to do. Ultimately lots of X.F works with data bindings, where you say “this thing and that thing are connected” and so your view needs a that thing so it can display this thing. If the that thing isn’t in the right shape, is derived somehow, or shouldn’t be committed to the model until some other things are done, the ViewModel sits in the middle and separates the two.

I’m used to this model in a couple of contexts, and I’ll give Objective-C examples of each because that’s how old I am. In web applications, you can use data bindings to fill in parts of an HTML document based on values from a server-side object. WebObjects works this way (Rails doesn’t, it uses code to fill in parts of etc). The difference between web app data bindings and mobile app data bindings is one of lifecycle. Your value needs to be read once when the page (or XHR) is rendered, and stored once when the user posts the changes. This is so simple that you can use straightforward accessor methods for it. It also happens at a time when loading new content is happening, so any timing constraints are likely to come from elsewhere.

You can also do it in what, because I’m that old, I’ll call rich client applications, like Xamarin.Forms mobile apps or Cocoa Bindings desktop apps. Here, anything could be happening at any time: a worker thread could be updating the model, and the user could interact with the UI, all at the same time, potentially multiple times while a UI element is live. So you can’t just wait until the Submit button is pressed to update everything, you need to track and reflect updates when they happen.

Given a dynamic language like Objective-C, you can say “bind this thing to that thing with these options” and the binding library can rewrite your accessors for this thing and that thing to update the other when changes happen, and avoid circular updates. You can’t do that in C# because apparently more typing is easier to reason about, so you end up replicating the below pattern rather a lot.

public class MyThingViewModel : INotifyPropertyChanged
{
  public event PropertyChangedEventHandler PropertyChanged;
  // ...
  private string _value;
  public string Value
  {
    get => _value;
    set
    {
      _value = value;
      PropertyChanged?.Invoke(this, new PropertyChangedEventArgs(nameof(Value)));
    }
  }
}

And when I say “rather a lot”, I mean in this one app that boilerplate appears at least 126 times, this undercounts because despite being public, the PropertyChanged event can only be invoked by instances of the declaring class so if a subclass adds any properties or any change points, you’re going to write protected helper methods to be able to invoke the event from the subclass.

Let’s pivot to investigating another question: why is Cocoa Bindings a desktop-only thing from Apple? I’ve encountered two problems in using it on Xamarin: thread confinement and performance. Thread confinement is a problem anywhere but the performance things are more sensitive on mobile, particularly on 2007-era mobile when this decision was made, and I can imagine a choice was made between “give developers the tools to identify and fix this issue” and “don’t give developers the chance to encounter this issue” back when UIKit was designed. Neither X.F nor UIKit is wrong in their particular choice, they’ve just chosen differently.

UI updates have to happen on the UI thread, probably because UIKit is Cocoa, Cocoa is appkit, and appkit ran on an OS that didn’t give you an easy way to do multiple threads per task. But this has to happen on Android too. And also performance. Anyway, theoretically any of those 126 invocations of PropertyChanged that could be bound to a view (so all of them, because separation of concerns) should be MainThread.BeginInvokeOnMainThread(() => {PropertyChanged?.Invoke(...)}); because what if the value is updated in an async method or a Task. Otherwise, something between a crash and unexpected behaviour will happen.

The performance problem is this: any change to a property can easily cause an unknown amount of code to run, quite often on the UI thread. For example, my app has a data grid (i.e. spreadsheet-like table view) with a “selection” column containing switches. There’s a “select all” button, and a report of the number of selected objects, outside the grid. Pressing “select all” selects all of the objects. Each one notifies observers that its IsSelected property has changed, which is watched by the list view model to update the selection count, and by the data grid to update the switches. So if there’s one row in the grid, selecting all causes two main-thread UI updates. If there are 500 rows, then 1000 updates need to run on the main thread in response to that one button action.

That can get slow :). Before I understood how to fix this, some UI actions would block the UI for tens of seconds as they computed the update. I asked about this in some forums and was told the answer is “your users shouldn’t have that much data in a mobile app, design an app with less data” which is not that helpful. But luckily the folks over at SyncFusion were much more empathetic, and told me the real solution is to design your views and view models such that you can turn off updates while you’re doing some big change, then turn them back on and recalculate the state at the end.

Like I say, it’s likely that someone at Apple already knew this from the Cocoa Bindings times and decided “here’s a great technology, and here’s how to turn it off because it will get in your way” wasn’t a cool story.

posted by Graham at 09:08  

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Whoever “wins”, software freedom loses

I’d like to start by recapping the three distinct categories of interest in software freedom. This is definitely my categorisation, though only the third is novel and the first two have long histories of common recognition so this is hardly Humpty-Dumptyism on my part.

Free Software
The extension of freedoms of expression and engagement into the digital space. Free Software, sometimes “Libre Software” because of the confusion over the word “Free”‘s multiple definitions, is based on the ideas that a computer is property like any other artefact and that working with, playing with, and socialising via computers are personal pursuits like any other pursuits, and that the freedom from external interference with those enjoyments should be the same as in non-computer interests.
Open Source
The rephrasing of the ideas of Free Software to improve acceptance in (particularly American) business circles. Open Source as described is almost identical to the Debian project’s ideas of Free Software, but with the words “Open Source” instead of “Free Software” and the words “Debian software component” removed. The first reason for the rename is that Freedom implies either zero cost, which mid-1990s American business didn’t like, or social good, same. The second reason is that mid-1990s American businesses had come around to ideas of interoperability under the banner Open Systems, and Open Source sounds sort of like that a bit.
Open Sores
The co-opting of the technical aspects of Open Source (or, nearly equivalently, Free Software) without any of the freedom benefits, typically with the goal of providing zero-cost software development and associated professional services to for-profit companies. When a company CTO says “we love open source”, they typically mean that they love open sores: that they love how skilled developers from across the world will gladly sign CLAs transferring rights to exploit their creations to the company in return for a lighter green square on the proprietary software-as-a-service platform Github.

This is all pre-amble to a discussion of #uninstallman, the internet pressure mob removing the leadership of the Free Software Foundation over objectionable statements made by its founder, former president, and recently-surprise-reinstated board member, Richard M. Stallman (rms).

Let’s start with the obvious: the Free Software Foundation has not demonstrated good leadership over this matter. Clearly rms’s statements have distracted the conversation away from software freedom, and the FSF have not taken enough steps with enough publicity to resolve this issue and to get people talking about software freedom again[*]. The FSF has not even given clear enough separation between their policy and rms’s personal views for it to be obvious that anyone else on their board has any views, or control over policy.

It is right that the FSF take a critical look at their management, and ask whether the people who are leading the Foundation are the best people to promote the idea of software freedom.

Unfortunately, we are now at the point where whatever the outcome, software freedom has lost and Open Sores will fill the ideological vacuum. Because if software freedom is about the extension of existing freedoms into the online space, and the baying mob are calling for the blood of someone who said a thing questioning the definitions of words related to the actions of someone who was associated with someone who did known bad things, and for the blood of any other people who are associated with that person, it is easy to argue that the whole software freedom movement is hypocritical. You claim to support freedom of expression, and yet you actually deny the right for anyone to express views that disagree with your own? Where’s the unity of purpose?

Bradley Kuhn, policy fellow at the Software Freedom Conservancy, has talked about the damaging impact of rms’s personal views on the software freedom movement back in 2019, when this controversy was fresh; and in 2018 which is arguably where it started (to become public). He has also talked about the need to maintain a big tent; that being principled on your core issue gives you the legitimacy to take principled stands on other issues.

Taking an authoritarian, only-say-what-I-permit line on expression doesn’t leave any legitimacy to support freedom of expression in the software field. Unfortunately, if the FSF and more generally the software freedom community is unable to maintain principle on this argument, it will lose the right to be taken seriously on matters of software freedom. And then, the organisations who take the Open Sores line on software licensing will step up to fill the leadership vacuum. The business interest “Foundations” who think that software freedom means the freedom for big businesses to control the revenue stream while everybody gets to build their products for free. And then it may be decades before there is another software freedom movement with any legitimacy, and they may have to start from scratch.

[*] Arguably the software freedom movement was already in a difficult state, because the freedoms proposed were only really adopted by a small community with a technical interest in the details relating to those freedoms: a few tens of thousands of technologists, some intellectual property lawyers, and a small number of others. But that’s more about the difficulty of developing a mass movement and of translating the theory into activism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on the characters or actions of any of the leaders in the movement.

posted by Graham at 22:43  

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