Monday, July 12, 2010

Where are those mobile Qt apps ? (Part 2, Adoption)

After my last blog post that discussed the Qt toolkit's history, present and future in the Nokia ecosystem, in this second part of my blog series I will talk about the problems of Qt adoption among developers so far and the effects these problems had on (the lack of) mobile Qt applications today.

This will not be an article about the flaws of C++, bloatedness of frameworks and similar issues. Sure, some people prefer other languages, other frameworks, or have a personal beef with Qt, but that is a different story. Here, I will talk about the WAY things happened, are happening and what could have been better handled - albeit from a Qt angle.


Are we there yet ?

Qt was originally a desktop application framework, but has been dabbling with embedded applications way before Nokia took over. However, the focus shifted dramatically and Qt (and derived technologies) went to overdrive, introducing new (and exciting !) technologies and approaches by the boatload (see MeeGo Touch, QML, etc). This not unlike what Android was/is doing - a forced growth where the race is on to pump R&D *before* the large footprint of deployed tech becomes a maintenance nightmare. On the flip side, this makes developers reluctant to write for *current* stable releases as stable is a mostly-working-kind-of-stable and they know not only there is something new and shiny coming up (it always is), but that it is coming *soon*.


Desktop vs Mobile

The long and successful history of Qt means there are (tens of) thousands of developers fairly familiar with Qt. However, this does not translate to mobile applications galore for several reasons. First of all, those people need to be motivated to write high quality mobile apps. They will not start to develop for mobile devices just because they are there, not any more than an enterprise Java developer would drop everything to make midlets. Sure, if someone is already familiar with a technology, that person will likely use it in it’s hobbies too - and that’s it, "desktop Qt people" are NOT the base that will spawn the bulk of serious mobile Qt developers/companies - those people will come from people with existing mobile background or interests. This seems to be slowly being realized now, as porting tutorials for Android and iPhone started appearing on Forum Nokia. This is an important shift, and while might be characterized as aggressive, it’s exactly those developers that need to be targeted to get the Qt ecosystem on the mobile industry radar.


The big GTK+ migration

Since July 2009, it has been known Qt will take the place of GTK+ in Maemo/MeeGo. To be precise, this is not as much about GTK+ itself, but about the GTK+ based Hildon application framework, initially developed by Nokia. It is understandable that such a major change touches on many existing developers and that such transitions are always difficult to manage. However, there were a lot of indecision and mixed signals from both Nokia and the community as to what exactly should be done "for now" and "for the future", what is or isn’t available in Qt and just how important it is for Qt to mimic/fit in the existing, but deprecated Hildon environment. In retrospect, once the strategic choice of going Qt was made, the push for Qt should have been much stronger, helped with migration plans/tutorials for existing developers.

 The big Symbian migration

Almost literally the same applies to Symbian people. While nowadays it will be hard to find large gangs of fierce AVKON supporters and the public/private API approach of Symbian, there is still a significant "why do we need Qt" notion. It has to be made clear AVKON is dead and, again, just as with GTK, handing out Qt tutorials that start from scratch will not help as much as good, targeted migration plans/tutorials for Symbian people. Just putting Qt on a Symbian handset preinstalled will NOT be a sufficient motivator for existing developers.


New vs existing developers 

As seen from my stance in the "desktop vs mobile" section, it is clear why I think people already doing or interested in apps for mobile devices are important, and there has simply not been a widely successful effort (yet) to help ease people into Qt’s way of doing things. This is well illustrated in the experience with Maemo - most Qt apps were written by people who came to Maemo *first* and *then* started doing Qt.

You have Python - use it. 

There are two Python binding projects available for Qt, both open source but neither have the status of being an "official" Nokia binding and Ovi not supporting Python apps at all. Again, from Maemo experience we see that there is a huge interest in these because even with the limited documentation and support available the number of Python apps is comparable to the number of pure C++ Qt apps due to the low entry barrier of Python.

TIMTOWDI*

Some people will snarl at this, but.. there are simply too many ways to do things. Or, rather, there aren't (sufficiently) recommended ways of doing things. Quality training material is starting to appear, but any time somebody asks how do I do a GUI there needs to be a longish discussion as to what version is being targeted, what tools are acceptable, etc, etc. If there are 5 ways of popping up a Hello World dialog (many of them quite 'old school'), know that people WILL get lost or at least discouraged when they try do merge docs from all over the net.


Show me the money

As seen/heard from many professional (as in for-money) developers on various Maemo forums, they do not really care about Qt. Sure, it’s cool and a lot friendlier than some previous approaches, but the ultimate test for them is the market. If a super-appstore existed and it required you to code in assembler, it wouldn’t matter much, these guys would just bite the bullet and do it that way. The morale ? Technical merit seems to influence adoption rate a lot less that many believe and the primary aspect are really cost and perceived benefit. Let me emphasize - this only applies to large-scale commercial development, FOSS and hobby coders *will* be affected a lot more. And while we are talking about money...

The closed door

One of the lures of application stores is that they are simple to use, accessible to one-man-show developers, and, well, 'just work'. Unfortunately, Ovi was not really ready for the Qt apps (or the N900) in the planned 'end of 2009' timeframe - whether they had more important things to do or more important holes to fix, I wouldn’t know. In any case it took a hefty extra 6 months until you could actually submit Qt applications to Ovi, and the Ovi QA process for these is still trailing the community QA process in many ways.

Chuck Norris releases PR1.2

Well, at least for onlookers it felt like it would take Chuck Norris' superpowers to get the infamous PR1.2 firmware released for the N900. This alone was not a problem, firmware delays happen, but the bundled nature of firmwares meant that Qt4.6 that was ready at the end of March could not be distributed until the end of May, a 2 month delay for no reason at all. On a side note, due to bad communications, this issue caused an outage of several weeks for community developers unlucky enough to depend on packages that have been changed in the update. While this particular incident was Maemo-specific, the Symbian counterparts are not immune to such risks.


So, does all this mean Qt is doomed, the future is grim and is all hope lost ? Not at all, as you might have noticed, many of the issues are growing pains, have already been resolved, or are at least in the phase of being taken care of. The change that is going on is really huge, a lot bigger than a lot of people realize, however, it would be not be sincere to say all will be peachy from here on. Even though the time for reaping the benefits is finally closing in, there are a few points that need to be addressed before Qt becomes a no-brainer for both commercial and community development and all those apps start pouring in. Tune in for for the final, third part of this series to see what these are.

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. I agree that supporting clearly an official framework like Qt is mandatory to bring developers which are outside the FOSS ecosystem.
    However, you should be careful about the communication around other frameworks. Because it's no more officially supported by Nokia doesn't mean a framework is "dead" (I especially think about GTK+/Clutter in this case). The more thing the platform supports, the more software it will be able to run.

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  3. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I must say that I'm not against GTK+ or running GTK+ apps on MeeGo (or Symbian, if that ever happens - heck, I have GTK+ apps of my own in Extras). I want to emphasize *focus*. When people came to Maemo and said 'hey, I want to write an app, how do I go about that', they got super-generic you-can-do-it-in-a-hundred-ways responses, because everybody wanted to be nice to the 'other' camp. It really is/was a curse of plenty, as people simply got lost among the many roads they could take (especially if in the end they picked one that wasn't right for them and then got disappointed for all the wrong reasons).

    As for more things supported, I don't think that really applies in today's mobile tech world. I don't really see a cause-and-effect relation in amount of (properly ported) software and libs/frameworks supported. You don't want to be a 'well if it's easy I'll make a version for it, too' platform - you want to be the platform the devs work on as a base (do the draconian terms of the Apple license limit the number of apps available in the AppStore ? No, people decide they want to code for the iPhone first, and *then* look at the available technologies).

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  4. I understand your point of view.
    And I know the mobile tech world doesn't really care about the other frameworks.
    I just want to point out the main difference between Maemo/Meego against other mobile platforms, the freedom.
    I mean developers can port their apps using their already made code, without the need to rewrite for a specific framework, just because their framework of choice is able to run on the device, and that's what makes Maemo/Meego a great platform as well as a "game changer" in the mobile tech world.

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  5. nice post。 waiting for the final one. I am just the guy you said in you blog. New to both meego and qt and want to have a try. But I prefer symbian to meego at the moment, as symbian is much more well spreaded all over the world. I have tried N900, but I find it not a typical phone but much more like an linux PC. =.= Although I like linux but I do not think common people would get used to doing staffs in an x-term. Will you?

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  6. I think terminal mode should be handled as a bonus feature, not as a necessity. If you are an application programmer, and you require your users to go to the terminal, you're doing it wrong :) As for MeeGo and Symbian, the good news is that you don't have to prefer any of them, if you stick to Qt you're good for both (well, if the UIEmo/MTF question resolves itself, anyway).

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  7. I am a developer and I am with you 100% on allowing Python. Will allow for much faster solutions to common problems.

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  8. Hello,
    The scope of the mobile phone is growing by leaps and bounds every day. The iPhones and the BlackBerries have changed the way people use the mobile.
    mobile application development

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