A History of Java User Interface Toolkits

When Java 1.0 was introduced, it contained a class library, called the Abstract Window Toolkit (AWT), for basic GUI programming. The basic AWT library

deals with user interface elements by delegating their creation and behavior to the native GUI toolkit on each target platform (Windows, Linux, Macintosh, and so on). For example, if you used the original AWT to put a text box on a Java window, an underlying “peer” text box actually handled the text input. The resulting program could then, in theory, run on any of these platforms, with the “look-and-feel” of the target platform.

The peer-based approach worked well for simple applications, but it soon became apparent that it was fiendishly difficult to write a high-quality portable graphics library depending on native user interface elements. User interface elements such as menus, scrollbars, and text fields can have subtle differences in behavior on different platforms. It was hard, therefore, to give users a consistent and predictable experience with this approach. Moreover, some graphical environments (such as X11/Motif) do not have as rich a collection of user interface components as does Windows or the Macintosh. This further limits a portable library based on a “lowest common denominator” approach. As a result, GUI applications built with the AWT simply did not look as nice as native Windows or Macintosh applications, nor did they have the kind of functionality that users of those platforms had come to expect. More depress­ingly, there were different bugs in the AWT user interface library on the differ­ent platforms. Developers complained that they had to test their applications on each platform—a practice derisively called “write once, debug everywhere.”

In 1996, Netscape created a GUI library they called the IFC (Internet Founda­tion Classes) that used an entirely different approach. User interface elements, such as buttons, menus, and so on, were painted onto blank windows. The only functionality required from the underlying windowing system was a way to put up a window and to paint on it. Thus, Netscape’s IFC widgets looked and behaved the same no matter which platform the program ran on. Sun Microsystems worked with Netscape to perfect this approach, creating a user interface library with the code name “Swing.” Swing was available as an extension to Java 1.1 and became a part of the standard library in Java 1.2.

Swing is now the official name for the non-peer-based GUI toolkit.

Swing has to work hard painting every pixel of the user interface. When Swing was first released, users complained that it was slow. (You can still get a feel for the problem if you run Swing applications on hardware such as a Raspberry Pi.) After a while, desktop computers got faster, and users com­plained that Swing was ugly—indeed, it had fallen behind the native widgets that had been spruced up with animations and fancy effects. More ominously, Adobe Flash was increasingly used to create user interfaces with even flashier effects that didn’t use the native controls at all.

In 2007, Sun Microsystems introduced an entirely different user interface toolkit, called JavaFX, as a competitor to Flash. It ran on the Java VM but had its own programming language, called JavaFX Script. The language was opti­mized for programming animations and fancy effects. Programmers complained about the need to learn a new language, and they stayed away in droves. In 2011, Oracle released a new version, JavaFX 2.0, that had a Java API and no longer needed a separate programming language. Starting with Java 7 update 6, JavaFX has been bundled with the JDK and JRE. However, as this book is being written, Oracle has declared that JavaFX will no longer be bundled with Java, starting with version 11.

Since this is a book about the core Java language and APIs, we will focus on Swing for user interface programming.

Source: Horstmann Cay S. (2019), Core Java. Volume I – Fundamentals, Pearson; 11th edition.

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