SWT vs Swing

When we started on the PathVisio project more than a year ago, I had to choose which GUI toolkit we were going to use. I chose the SWT toolkit instead of the more commonly used Swing toolkit.

At the time I had a bit of experience with Swing interfaces, and I knew how ugly they can be. One of the first things you learn to do in Swing is to enable the “system look and feel”, to at least have the illusion of integration with the rest of the operating system.

Swing was touted by Sun as enabling a “cross-platform look and feel” meaning that the program would have the same look, whether you use it on Solaris, Windows or the Mac. I think this is a silly feature. Most people never run a program on different platforms. The only people who do that are either the application developers themselves, or they work at Sun, where people are blind to subtleties of modern desktops. The consequence, of course, is that you can recognize Swing apps a mile away because of the look of the GUI

SWT was supposed to fix that. SWT lets you create a GUI that is much more integrated with the rest of the operating system. Since the PathVisio project is heavily focused on usability, this sounded like a good match. But, as I found out over time, SWT is not without its problems either.

  • You always have to package a huge extra library, including native libs for each target platform.
  • SWT, Webstart, Mac OS X: Pick only two. You simply cannot have all three.
  • SWT is relatively new and hence relatively buggy. We’ve hit a number of SWT bugs during PathVisio development. Luckily, some get fixed with each new version.
  • And not least of all, the choice for SWT has prevented us from integrating PathVisio with other applications, most notably Cytoscape.

But we can get the best of both worlds by factoring out the SWT dependent code and creating a toolkit-independent layer. Luckily such a toolkit-independent layer already exists: it is called Graphics2D and is officially part of Java. There is no Graphics2D implementation as part of SWT, but if you search around you can find other open source projects that ran into the same problem and already provide a partial solution.

Integrating this idea into PathVisio will in fact be the first step of the project of Thomas Kelder, another GSOC student working for GenMAPP. I really hope it works out as planned because this is going to open a whole new set of possibilities.

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3 Responses to “SWT vs Swing”

  1. […] I wrote before, Thomas’ project is to make PathVisio toolkit-independent so we can draw Pathways to an SWT […]

  2. WilliamChen says:

    Although most people never run a program on different platforms, most programmers have to develop it to run on different platforms. Every user may only work on one platform, but not all of the them work on the same platform. Only all of the end users work on the same platform, can you forget about platform difference.

  3. Of course, in this case we’re testing PathVisio on Windows and Linux. We’d like to support Mac OS X as well, although that’s a bit more problematic for us.