Thursday, September 15, 2011

Portable library for C++ GUI programming

It has been for a few occasions that I find my self wanting to port my GUI programs (most of which were written with gtkmm) to other platforms for the enjoyment of my friends. However, while most GUI toolkits claim to be portable to all platforms (Linux, Windows, and Mac), they generally require installation of multiple shared libraries by the users.

This is a major show stopper for most of my friends and is sufficient to kill any interest in them on the first mention. Therefore, the only viable mean is for me to make and send them statically-linked, monolithic executables that they can happily click on to start the shows. (They generally don't mind waiting a few minutes to download a bloated binary, as long as it remains a single step.)

My recent survey of the GUI library landscape brought my attention to GLUT. While it still requires installation on Windows, I can easily find static versions of FreeGLUT library for MingW that can be used to cross-compile, on Linux, statically-linked executables that can run independently on Windows. Furthermore, the GLUT framework, which, according to this, "is installed with every install of Mac OS X".

However, GLUT library only provides facilities for managing windows and handling user inputs. It is by no means a GUI toolkit and you will have to draw all user-interactive elements by yourself (in OpenGL). I do find a GUI library, GLUI, that is built on and should be as portable as GLUT. However, after porting a couple programs to GLUI, I failed to find it enjoyable for me to break up the C++-elegant logic of gtkmm and redo my work in a less polished API.

What follows is the birth of gltk, it is an implementation of the gtkmm API on GLUT. I actually started with adding the libsigc++'s signal-slot API to GLUI since the original callback mechanism only supported single static callback function and I needed more flexibility to port my programs. But, the hack soon proliferated into the entire source tree, and I decided it would be much more enjoyable for me to start something entirely from scratch.

After a somewhat persisting part-time effort that lasted more than a month, I have just made the first release of the library. It's usable for a simple application that only needs some buttons, checkboxes, sliders, single line text labels or entries to control calculations. For myself, this represent over 80% of the applications that I would have considered porting. I am feeling pretty happy about it and I hope some others will also find it useful.

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