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Quartex Media Desktop, new compiler and general progress

September 11, 2019 Leave a comment

It’s been a few weeks since my last update on the project. The reason I dont blog that often about Quartex Media Desktop (QTXMD), is because the official user-group has grown to 2000+ members. So it’s easier for me to post developer updates directly to the audience rather than writing articles about it.

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Quartex Media Desktop ~ a complete environment that runs on every device

If you haven’t bothered digging into the project, let me try to sum it up for you quickly.

Quick recap on Quartex Media Desktop

To understand what makes this project special, first consider the relationship between Microsoft Windows and a desktop program. The operating system, be it Windows, Linux or OSX – provides an infrastructure that makes complex applications possible. The operating-system offers functions and services that programs can rely on.

The most obvious being:

  • A filesystem and the ability to save and load data
  • A windowing toolkit so programs can be displayed and have a UI
  • A message system so programs can communicate with the OS
  • A service stack that takes care of background tasks
  • Authorization and identity management (security)

I have just described what the Quartex Media Desktop is all about. The goal is simple:

to provide for JavaScript what Windows and OS X provides for ordinary programs.

Just stop and think about this. Every “web application” you have ever seen, have all lacked these fundamental features. Sure you have libraries that gives you a windowing environment for Javascript, like Embarcadero Sencha; but im talking about something a bit more elaborate. Creating windows and buttons is easy, but what about ownership? A runtime environment has to keep track of the resources a program allocates, and make sure that security applies at every step.

Target audience and purpose

Take a second and think about how many services you use that have a web interface. In your house you probably have a router, and all routers can be administered via the browser. Sadly, most routers operate with a crude design and that leaves much to be desired.

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Router interfaces for web are typically very limited and plain looking. Imagine what NetGear could do with Quartex Media Desktop instead

If you like to watch movies you probably have a Plex or Kodi system running somewhere in your house; perhaps you access that directly via your TV – or via a modern media system like Playstation 4 or XBox one. Both Plex and Kodi have web-based interfaces.

Netflix is now omnipresent and have practically become an institution in it’s own right. Netflix is often installed as an app – but the app is just a thin wrapper around a web-interface. That way they dont have to code apps for every possible device and OS out there.

If you commute via train in Scandinavia, chances are you buy tickets on a kiosk booth. Most of these booths run embedded software and the interface is again web based. That way they can update the whole interface without manually installing new software on each device.

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Plex is a much loved system. It is based on a mix of web and native technologies

These are just examples of web based interfaces you might know and use; devices that leverage web technology. As a developer, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a system that could be forked, adapted and provide advanced functionality out of the box?

Just imagine a cheap Jensen router with a Quartex Media Desktop interface! It could provide a proper UI interface with applications that run in a windowing environment. They could disable ordinary desktop functionality and run their single application in kiosk mode. Taking full advantage of the underlying functionality without loss of security.

And the same is true for you. If you have a great idea for a web based application, you can fork the system, adjust it to suit your needs – and deploy a cutting edge cloud system in days rather than months!

New compiler?

Up until recently I used Smart Mobile Studio. But since I have left that company, the matter became somewhat pressing. I mean, QTXMD is an open-source system and cant really rely on third-party intellectual property. Eventually I fired up Delphi, forked the latest  DWScript, and used that to roll a new command-line compiler.

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Web technology has reached a level of performance that rivals native applications. You can pretty much retire Photoshop in favour of web based applications these days

But with a new compiler I also need a new RTL. Thankfully I have been coding away on the new RTL for over a year, but there is still a lot of work to do. I essentially have to implement the same functionality from scratch.

There will be more info on the new compiler / codegen when its production ready.

Progress

If I was to list all the work I have done since my last post, this article would be a small book. But to sum up the good stuff:

  • Authentication has been moved into it’s own service
  • The core (the main server) now delegates login messages to said service
  • We no longer rely on the Smart Pascal filesystem drivers, but use the raw node.js functions instead  (faster)
  • The desktop now use the Smart Theme engine. This means that we can style the desktop to whatever we like. The OS4 theme that was hardcoded will be moved into its own proper theme-file. This means the user can select between OS4, iOS, Android and Ubuntu styling. Creating your own theme-files is also possible. The Smart theme-engine will be replaced by a more elaborate system in QTX later
  • Ragnarok (the message api) messages now supports routing. If a routing structure is provided,  the core will relay the message to the process in question (providing security allows said routing for the user)
  • The desktop now checks for .info files when listing a directory. If a file is accompanied by an .info file, the icon is extracted and shown for that file
  • Most of the service layer now relies on the QTX RTL files. We still have some dependencies on the Smart Pascal RTL, but we are making good progress on QTX. Eventually  the whole system will have no dependencies outside QTX – and can thus be compiled without any financial obligations.
  • QTX has it’s own node.js classes, including server and client base-classes
  • Http(s) client and server classes are added to QTX
  • Websocket and WebSocket-Secure are added to QTX
  • TQTXHybridServer unifies http and websocket. Meaning that this server type can handle both orinary http requests – but also websocket connections on the same network socket. This is highly efficient for websocket based services
  • UDP classes for node.js are implemented, both client and server
  • Zero-Config classes are now added. This is used by the core for service discovery. Meaning that the child services hosted on another machine will automatically locate the core without knowing the IP. This is very important for machine clustering (optional, you can define a clear IP in the core preferences file)
  • Fixed a bug where the scrollbars would corrupt widget states
  • Added API functions for setting the scrollbars from hosted applications (so applications can tell the desktop that it needs scrollbar, and set the values)
  • .. and much, much more

I will keep you all posted about the progress — the core (the fundamental system) is set for release in december – so time is of the essence! Im allocating more or less all my free time to this, and it will be ready to rock around xmas.

When the core is out, I can focus solely on the applications. Everything from Notepad to Calculator needs to be there, and more importantly — the developer tools. The CloudForge IDE for developers is set for 2020. With that in place you can write applications for iOS, Android, Windows, OS X and Linux directly from Quartex Media Desktop. Nothing to install, you just need a modern browser and a QTX account.

The system is brilliant for small teams and companies. They can setup their own instance, communicate directly via the server (text chat and video chat is scheduled) and work on their products in concert.

Why move to Windows 10?

September 6, 2019 1 comment

When it comes to Windows editions, Windows 7 is probably the most successful operating-system Microsoft has ever released. When it hit stores back in October of 2009, it replaced Windows Vista (Longhorn) which, truth be told, caused more problems than it solved. The issues surrounding Vista were catastrophic for many reasons, but they were especially severe for developers. I remember buying a brand new laptop with Vista pre-installed, but in less than a week I rolled back to Windows XP.

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In retrospect, Vista was perhaps not as bad as it’s reputation would have it. I honestly feel it’s a very misunderstood edition of Windows, one that brought features common to the NT family into the mainstream. But back then people were still unfamiliar with what exactly that meant; things like “roaming profiles” was alien to users and developers with no background in networking. In my case Vista came at a juncture where I had two product releases on my hand. Time was of the essence, and spending days refactoring my code for the changes could not have come at a worse moment.

Be this as it may, the rejection of Vista forced Microsoft to replace it with something better. Vista was supposed to have a 10 year life-cycle, but Microsoft put Vista out of its misery in 3 years.

Windows 7 retirement plan

Windows 7 has been a wonderful system to work with. I can honestly say that with exception of Windows 10, it’s been the best operating system I have ever used. And i include OS X and Ubuntu in that equation. But as great as it was, Windows 7 is now 10 years old; an eternity in the software business. The needs of consumers and developers are radically different today, and with Windows 10 available as a free upgrade – it’s time to let the system go.

Microsoft actually ended mainstream support back in January of 2015 (!), but due to its popularity and massive adoption, they decided to extend support a few more years. This means that Windows 7, although practically retro in computing terms, still receives driver updates and security patches. But that is about to change sooner than you think.

Come next January (read: over xmas) and Windows 7 has an appointment with the gallows; something that will affect laptops, servers and desktop systems alike. This means there will be no more security patches, no more feature updates and no new virus definitions for Windows Defender. In other words January 14 2020 is the day Microsoft take Windows 7 off life-support.

This retirement also affects tablets, so if you have a Windows 7 based Surface, the time has come to jump ship and get Windows 10 installed. The same is true for Windows 7 Enterprise – it’s already obsolete by half a decade.

Some have stated that the embedded version of Windows 7, used primarily in custom-made products like ATMs, POS and kiosk type products, somehow avoids this retirement; but that’s just it – retirement truly means retirement. January 14 2020 really is the day Microsoft puts Windows 7 in the ground; be it laptop, server, desktop or surface.

The king is dead, long live the king

You might be wondering, since Windows 7 is still so popular, why would Microsoft seek to replace it? Well there are many reasons. First of all Windows 7 is based on the old NT kernel, which by today’s standard is a dinosaur compared to competing operating-systems. NT was constructed around a security scheme that has served humanity well, but it’s poorly equipped to deal with modern threats. Windows 7 also has a considerably larger memory footprint compared to Windows 10 – not to mention that Windows 10 has been optimized from scratch for better performance on all supported devices. So it’s never really been a question of why, but rather when and at which cost.

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Windows 10 comes in many shapes and sizes

You also have to factor in that Windows 10 introduces a host of new features that is unique to that OS. Things like support for touch interfaces (both display and navigation devices) is one of them, but developers will be more affected by the new application model (UWP) and UI framework. Truth be told, UWP was first introduced in Windows 8 as a part of Microsoft’s plan to streamline all versions of their OS (tablet, mobile, desktop and server). The promise of UWP is that, if you follow the guidelines and stick to the APIs – the same application can run on all variations of the same OS; regardless of CPU even (more about that below).

Since this was introduced Microsoft sadly dropped out of the smartphone OS business though. Their Windows for mobile never gained the recognition it deserved, and they retired it in favor of Android. Personally i loved their phones; they somehow managed to take the best features from both Apple iOS and Android, and combine them intuitively and elegantly. Not to mention that they cost 40% of what an iPhone of Samsung Galaxy sold for.

Windows 10 is also the first OS from Microsoft that treats XBox as a first-class citizen, so developing titles for XBox has become easier. DirectX now aims at delivering console level experience for laptop and desktop computers; it’s pretty much been refactored from scratch, with aggressive and radical optimization (read: hand written assembly) to get every last drop of performance out of the hardware.

Unlike previous editions of DirectX, Microsoft has toned down the amount of insulation between your code and the actual hardware. DirectX was always padded left and right with interfaces and abstractions, making raw access to GPU resources impossible (or at least, impractical). Thankfully Microsoft has realized that they took this too far, and trimmed the insulation layers accordingly; meaning that developers can now access resources en-par with AMD Mantle, Apple Metal and Vulcan (Factoid: Vulcan is a replacement for OpenGL. OpenGL originated with Silicon Graphics machines, a graphics workstation that was hugely popular back in the 90s and early 2k’s).

WinRT, ARM and the beyond

While developers who focus on business applications could care less about DirectX and multimedia, the underlying changes to the Windows 10 core are of such a magnitude that all avenues of development will be affected. Some of the UI changes are profoundly linked to the work that makes Windows 10 unique – and Microsoft has made it perfectly clear that all future endeavors is built on the Windows 10 baseline.

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Windows is moving to ARM, and Windows 10 technology is the foundation

Besides purely technical changes, access to the Microsoft Store is one of the features that have a more immediate, financial effect on software development. Marco Cantu actually blogged about this back in 2016, regarding how you can use WDB (Windows Desktop Bridge, a.k.a “project Centennial”) to publish Firemonkey applications to Microsoft store. I mean, any modern developer who makes a living from selling software, having their products available through official channels is pretty essential. And that excludes Windows 7 by default.

And last but not least, there is WinRT, short for Windows Runtime, a sand boxed version of windows that allows applications to be deployed to both x86 and ARM. WinRT involves x86 emulation on ARM SoCs (system on a chip), meaning that you will be able to run applications compiled for x86 on Microsoft’s upcoming Windows for ARM release. But performance wise emulation will obviously not deliver the same level of performance as native ARM code. The emulation layer is meant as an intermediate solution, allowing developers time to evolve compilers that can target ARM directly.

I probably don’t have to outline the business opportunities Windows on ARM represent.

Market adoption

If the features and promise of Windows 10 is not enough to convince you to update immediately, consider the following: There are more than 1 billion Windows users in the world. Windows 7 presently holds 37% of the global market (with Windows 10 at 43%), which means that hundreds of millions of computers will be affected by the now immanent retirement plan.

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ARM is still a hardware platform companies can afford to postpone, but with both Apple and Microsoft being open about their move to ARM in the near future, the risk for developers being left behind is very real. And having to deal with the cost of refactoring your entire portfolio over something as trivial as an update, well – I’m sure you see my point.

There really is zero strategic advantage in sticking with the lowest common denominator, which in this case is the stock WinAPI that has defined Windows since the nineties. Especially not when upgrading to Windows 10 is free of charge.

Reflections

From a personal point of view, I cannot imagine being a developer in 2019 and relying on an operating-system that is retired. I must admit that I do own virtual machines where Windows 7 is used, but those are not instances where I do software development; I use them primarily for stress testing software running in other VMWare instances, which conceptually is not a problem.

Microsoft is still offering a free upgrade plan for Windows 7 users. In other words there is no financial loss in updating your development machines, be they physical or virtual.

I look forward to Microsoft’s next phase, where virtual reality and augmented reality technology is implemented more closely for all supported hardware platforms. As for changes that affect desktop business applications, have a look at the following links: