States v’s Regions for Multi-Window Applications

In previous posts I’ve talked a lot about visual states, application state and control states. However, one thing that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around is the disconnect that happens when you start to consider that an application can have multiple windows.What’s rather ironic is multi-window support was something we took for granted back when we were building complex line of business Windows Forms/WPF applications. However, the iOS era lead to the dumbing-down of application development – in the Apple world users are only able to do single operations and apparently can’t wrap their heads around anything more than a single screen full of data at a time. This lead to application models, and page/view lifecycles that assume that the application is either in the foreground, or in the background; no middle ground where the application is visible, just not in focus, which is the case in a multi-windowed environment.

The interesting side effect of a multi-windowed environment is less to do with having multiple applications open and visible at the same time but that a single application can have multiple windows open at the same time. One of the best features of the old Live Messenger application was that you could have each chat open in a separate window, each of which could be independently moved, pinned and closed. Currently, nearly every messaging application, be it Messenger (Facebook), WhatsApp, Skype or Line, use a similar single-window model that’s extremely painful when you are actively participating in multiple chats.

Of course, most platforms all support some limited form of multiple window support, for example when projecting the contents of the screen to an external monitor. The Universal Windows Platform has full support for the creation and management of multiple windows within a single application instance. A recent post on the Redmond Pie shows a concept of what multiple windows on an iPad would look like. It’s evident that multi-windowed applications are going to play an important part of all future platforms.

This leads me to my next challenge. In the context of a single window application we can think of the current page of the application as mapping to a state in the application. Transition from one state to another equates to moving between pages. Within the confines of a page, there may be multiple states; these map to visual states on the page. However, going the other direction, how do we represent multiple windows? Windows don’t map to another higher level set of states, since there may be any number of windows opened, and they can all exist in relative independence.

So, we need a different concept to represent them, which I’ve termed Application Regions. By default all applications have a default or start up region. A region has a current states, which will normally correspond to the current page or view. Regions can be created and closed independently, and usually correspond to separate windows (although I’m currently considering whether a region can manifest itself in other ways). Regions can also have different startup pages (ie a different startup state), and might in fact have a completely different set of states.

In the same way that we need a state manager to assist with the management and tracking of states, we’ll need a region manager that understands how to create, track and close regions. Whilst the region manager will itself live in the platform agnostic core of our application, it will of course need a mechanism to spawn new windows (ie when a region is created). The region manager will also need to be clever enough to do the right thing when run on a platform that doesn’t support multiple windows. On such an environment, when a new region is spawned, the new set of pages/view will simply have to be added to the navigation stack of the existing window; when the user closes the region, the pages/views will be popped off the stack, returning to the last page/view of the previous region.

This is just some early stage thoughts on the concept of application regions v’s application states.

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