Yeh I know I’m going to get a ton of abuse about how this title is just click bait but before you start with the comments, hear me out. Firstly, the title is actually just missing a word
DotNetMaui is Not JUST a XAML Platform
In this post we’ll go through why DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms is/is not a XAML platform and discuss the inclusive approach that the team has taken that allows for the inclusive of approaches such as those proposed by Vincent (C# markup) and James (Comet).
I want to start off by saying that Xamarin.Forms is a great cross-platform technology for rapidly building apps that work across iOS, Android, Windows (UWP), MacOS etc. At Built to Roam we continue to deliver apps for customers using this technology. DotNetMaui will continue this trend and will no doubt be a great platform for developers to build apps that work across various operating systems and devices. This post is in no way supposed to be a criticism, rather an objective look at what DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms is and is not. This is 100% from my perspective and I respect that other developers are entitled to their opinions (feel free to leave a comment!)
XAML as Declarative Markup
Historically, there have been various technologies/frameworks that have used XAML as the markup language. Typically, we think of the UI frameworks such as Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Silverlight, Windows Phone, Windows (UWP) but XAML has been used as the markup language for other non-UI technologies, for example Windows Workflow Foundation. XAML is fundamentally about declarative markup and in the case of UI frameworks it was for describing layout.
For those developers who have built, or are even still building, using Windows Forms, you’ll remember the pain of trying to coerce the designer to behave. The designer was really just a glorified code generator but the frustration came because if you attempted to modify the generated code, when you reopened the designer it would undo or break your changes. With XAML, this shouldn’t happen because, assuming it’s well-formed, it adheres to the schema…. in theory anyhow.
At this point it’s worth pointing out that in some regards XAML is literally just a way of declaring the creation of a hierarchy of objects. In fact, I’ve often added instances of non-UI classes in XAML just so that they’re available as resources that I can reference from XAML or code throughout my application. If you continue down this line of reasoning, it’s no surprise that you can indeed create your UI in markup (a proposition being peddled heavily by Vincent with his contribution to C# markup for Xamarin.Forms).
When developers think about XAML, they often package that together with MVVM and/or data binding. This is not unreasonable since the data binding framework was one of the main selling points that Microsoft would talk about when promoting any XAML technology.
Xamarin.Forms does have great support for data binding. Whilst it doesn’t support the x:Bind syntax introduced in Windows (UWP) which uses code generation to make data binding strongly typed, it does support compiled bindings making XAML quite an efficient technique for defining layout and data binding.
Here’s the question though – if the compiler is just going to convert XAML into compiled code, why don’t we just write it in C# and remove the need to learn the XAML abstraction? (i.e. back to Vincent’s point about C# markup!)
Over the last couple of years there have been a number of new frameworks and technologies that have provided alternative strategies for updating the UI. Web frameworks such as React use a virtual DOM to deliver rendering efficiencies. More recently we’ve seen Flutter take the learnings from building the rendering engine behind Chrome and applying it as an application framework. This has lead to a lot of excitement about MVU (for the moment I’m going to ignore the argument that Flutter, SwiftUI and Comet/DotNetMaui are not MVU as proposed by the Elm architecture).
There have been several spikes on implementing MVU style frameworks for both Xamarin.Forms and Windows/UWP. All of them that I’ve seen focus on replacing XAML with C# code that declares the layout, with some smarts that only push differences to the UI rendering engine.
As Xamarin.Forms evolves to DotNetMaui we’re going to see some changes to the rendering framework. As the work by James Clancey on Comet is integrated there will be changes to the use of platform renderers. Microsoft is taking a gamble that as they make the necessary changes to Xamarin.Forms/Xamarin.iOS/Xamarin.Android/UWP to align with the .NET roadmap, they’ll take this opportunity to address some of the limitations/frustrations felt by developers with the current rendering engine.
There is no proposal to fundamentally change the way that Xamarin.Forms/DotNetMaui uses the native platform controls. The premise is that apps should use the controls that have been provided by the platform. This should encourage developers to build apps that belong on each platform. This thinking is dated, and most customers don’t care about platforms details, they just want their apps to look consistent on every platform.
This lead the team to add the Visual attribute and subsequently the Material Visual. If you’re looking to build a great looking app out of the gate, using the Material Visual is the way to go. However, you do have to ask yourself why did they need to introduce the concept of a Visual when we have styles? and can’t we just change the template of controls to change how they look?
Lookless Controls make a XAML Platform
I’ve conceded early in this post that a XAML platform is really any technology that uses XAML as a markup; thus DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms is indeed a XAML platform. However, when we consider what we mean by a XAML platform we typically associate it with a number of capabilities (in no particular order, and I’m sure there are other things that I’ve left off the list):
- Styles and Resources
- Data binding
- Data Templates
- Visual States
- Control Templates
Further more I would go so far to say that one of the core principles of a XAML platform is that of Lookless Controls (this term seems to have been lost to history somewhat but was heavily used in the context of WPF and the way controls were templated). This is the ability to completely re-template a control without losing the basic functionality. This is something that has never been adopted by Xamarin.Forms and isn’t likely to emerge in DotNetMaui. In order for a platform to support the concept of Lookless Controls, each control needs to have a ControlTemplate that can be used to define both the static look and feel of the control but also the various Visual States (and transitions) of the control.
Developers considering different cross platform technologies might ask what the difference is between the DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms approach and that taken by the Uno Platform. Without listing all the differences, one of the core differences is the support for Lookless Controls and control templating. As ControlTemplates and Visual States are fundamental to the delivery of Lookless Controls on the Windows (UWP/WinUI) platform, they are a core part of the way that the Uno Platform renders apps on each platform.
Not JUST a XAML Platform
The last section seems like I’m being overly negative on the DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms platform and I must admit for the longest time I was frustrated that the team hadn’t prioritised making it easier for developers to re-template controls. Whilst I still prefer a platform where I’m in control and can change the template of controls as needed, I recognise that in the majority of cases, this isn’t required in order to deliver great looking apps.
If we look at what’s in scope for DotNetMaui we see that there inclusive approach will provide developers with many options to develop and style their application. This will make DotNetMaui a great starting point for developers wanting to build apps using the Microsoft tool chain, and of course provide a great feeder into building apps that connect and work well with Azure.
Picking Your Platform
At this point you might be asking yourself how do you decide which platform to pick for building your next cross platform application. This is a question that I ask daily and the answer is that it really depends on the situation, the customer, the development team etc. So for a minute, lets limit the scope to the Microsoft ecosystem and consider the following three options:
- Power Apps – I haven’t talked about these in this post but if you’re looking for a minimal code platform that connects to Microsoft 365 and the Power platform, then this is your best option. It’s not really a true cross platform app platform but worth considering as it’s massively powerful for working with enterprise data and workflows
- DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms – If you’re looking to rapidly deliver great looking apps where the designs are derived from the Material design language without wanting to curate animations, effects and styles, then DotNetMaui/Xamarin.Forms is the way to go. Pick the approach (eg MVVM or MVU) and language (eg C# or XAML) that suits your team.
- Uno Platform/WinUI – If you’re looking for granular control over every aspect of your application then you can’t go past the Uno Platform. This platform is evolving at an amazing pace providing support for Web Assembly, Skia backend and much more. Each control has a ControlTemplate that you can override and customise precisely the way you want it.