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Definition: Application Builder Tools

The primary purpose of beans is to enable the visual construction of applications. You've probably used or seen applications like Visual Basic, Visual Age, or Delphi. These tools are referred to as visual application builders, or builder tools for short.

Typically such tools are GUI applications, although they need not be. There is usually a palette of components available from which a program designer can drag items and place them on a form or client window.

In Windows environments the form is often called the client window area.

The form, or client window, represents the target application under construction and is presented, during design, as it will appear when it runs independently of the builder program.

The most tell-tale window shared by many popular application builders is a property sheet, sometimes called a property editor or simply a properties window.

A property sheet is used to modify properties and events associated with components. In keeping with Java AWT terminology some property editors use the term action in place of event.

Applications built with powerful components can appear complex even when they take little effort to build.

Linking Components in Builder Tools

The calculator program shown earlier is a good example of building a complex program with no handwritten code.

The calculator was built without writing any Java code. Instead, components were linked by using a mouse. Generated events and event-handler methods were selected through pop-up menus.

Every time a button is pressed, an event is fired and side effects result. Example side effects include appending digits to the invisible EnteredString storage buffer, performing a math operation, or displaying text in the display pane. To program an event sequence, select a button as the event source, and indicate that you want to fire an event through a keystroke or menu command. You'll see a menu, or a property sheet, listing events that can be fired. Select an event, then drag a link to the target object which should receive the event. You will be presented with a menu listing event handlers available for the target object.

The following sequence of screens shows a more complex example in a different builder tool. An animation component is added to a subpanel within a client window. First an Animation Bean is selected from the builder's palette and dropped on a panel object in the client form.

A Bean is customized by selecting action items from a property sheet, which in turn invokes a custom Bean editor to select a specific event from a list of events that can be generated by an Animation Bean. A list of events is acquired by introspection; the builder tool uses Java introspection APIs to query beans dropped on the form.

Default behavior for event handlers is usually acceptable, but in some cases you'll want to manually override handler definitions with a text editor.

In this builder tool, much of the programming, including selection of events and event handlers, is done using a class hierarchy browser. After selecting the event-handler method, a template for the event handler is generated, while you flesh out details manually by writing code in the browser.

However not all programs require text editing. As mentioned, the calcualtor example was built without resorting to text coding. The maze of links required to hookup components can be overwhelming, as you can see in the following figure.

But, most builder tools allow you to easily edit links and filter the display of links so that you see only the level of detail that you want.

Nesting Components

Once you have assembled components into an application, often that application itself can be turned into a component. An earlier example showed an Animation component dropped onto a panel to display an animation. Most of the code for the example was created through menu selections. The component was customized primarily by specifying the names of animation files to be displayed from the disk. The mouseDrag event handler was overriden through the browser for detailed customization.

Once custom properties and behavior are defined, they can be preserved by making a new Bean out of the customized instance. This is usually accomplished by serializing the customized Bean using Java's built-in support for object serialization. Most builder tools provide a way to turn compound components into custom Beans. In this example you select the Animation Bean, and issue a menu command to turn it into a Bean component.

The builder generates code to turn the assembly (property and behavior definitions) into a Bean. The bean is added to the component palette of the builder tool. Alternately the bean can be packaged in a JAR archive file for sale, or distribution to clients.

You could take the new custom Bean and use it to compose a compound assembly, creating yet another custom Bean. For example, you could group three instance of a MyAnimationBean on a panel and save the whole assembly as a single new Bean. The compound MyThreeBeans custom component is added to your builder's component palette as a single Bean.

But I hate GUI builders

Over and over again, you hear advanced programmers say that builder tools are more trouble than they are worth. "If you really know what you are doing," they say, "You're best off building code for GUI applications by hand. I've tried GUI builder tools, and they're more trouble than they're worth."

To be clear, a GUI builder, or window builder, is a different beast than an application builder. Many programmers are familiar with window builders and their limitations. In a window builder you design screens visually, and code is generated that becomes part of an application built with traditional compilation tools.

Application builders let you do all of this, but in addition, they let you visually hook up components, select events to be fired, and handlers for events through mouse drag, or menu selection. Very little code needs to be written by hand to get the initial component interaction working properly--at least in comparison to a GUI builder or a window builder.

Also, GUI bulders are typically one-way tools. They allow you to build your interface visually and generate code from a project file. In most cases, however, if you edit the generated code manually, the changes are not propagated backward to the visual representation of the application in the project file.

Tools like Delphi and Visual Basic are much more sophisticated than traditional GUI builders in that modified code does propagate backward to the visual representation. Powerful language parsers are required to make this work properly. The text is parsed and the new representation of visual objects is merged with the old representation (sort of like a binary diff utility). Because older window builders did not provide such a capability, many programmers became frustrated with the tools once they moved past early design stages. They rightly concluded that only a minor amount of work goes into the physical layout of GUI components. Most of the work for any application goes into component hook up, event generation, and event handling methods.

Unfortunately, many programmers, familiar only with the older window builder tools, believe the current generation of application builders suffer from the same restrictions. However, the current generation of builder tools provides enough flexibility and power to warrant another look.

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