Mike Riley is a Dr. Dobb's contributing editor. You can contact Mike at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mriley.
Windows Mobile applications can encapsulate controls that accelerate the creation of user interface enhancements and programmatic functionality, turning development time from a matter of months to a matter of weeks -- or even less. For example, instead of spending time on programming a flexible grid display, a commercial component may already deliver the required capabilities. What's more, the drudgery of debugging such an enhancement is all but eliminated as a result of the vendor's commitment to the stable functionality of their hosted components. Enterprise developers already supporting a large customer base of Windows Mobile 5.0 users will especially appreciate the expansive platform of Windows Mobile editions that these controls can support.
Resco Mobile Forms Toolkit
Resco's Mobile Forms Toolkit, for instance, is a suite of 24 .NET Compact Framework controls ranging from audio playback and zip file manipulation to calendar, list, and tree UI components.
The controls I've found particularly useful and easy to implement in my development efforts are the SmartGrid for tabular data (its XML Template runtime design made this control particularly flexible), CustomKeyboard (for its slick skinning and key collection layout abilities), and DetailView (for its built-in error checking and XML Templated layout design support).
Unlike some component publishers, Resco also develops commercial Windows Mobile applications. Consequently, its component suite reflects a developer-centric understanding of what effectively works in the Windows Mobile application construction process. The controls are polished, well-documented, and work effortlessly in the Visual Studio Windows Mobile emulation environment. They also are easily packaged and deployed with the target applications they are incorporated into. And they are very well designed, both graphically and programmatically. The Resco controls work well within the screen real estate boundaries that constrain many other UI components. The visual controls also support the higher VGA resolutions available on more recent Windows Mobile devices, giving developers even broader target device support.
The Sapphire Suite from Sapphire Solutions is a collection of 10 DLL and .NET and Visual Studio 2005 and 2008 compatible components, several that dive deep into collecting device hardware data.
For example, the IrDA component allows applications to interact with infrared devices (assuming the Windows Mobile host is equipped with an IR port). The IMEI and SIM utilities provide access to the device's International Mobile Equipment Identifier (IEMI, Subscriber Information Module (SIM) details, and a battery utility that can be used to poll the device's battery charge level.
Other components in the suite include a flexible Remote Access Server (RAS) control, encryption, email, FTP and GZip utilities, and a button utility that allows applications to closely monitor and change the state of on-screen button names and actions. Of all the controls I tested, the most compelling were the IrDA, SIM, and Mail components. Unfortunately, IR is becoming a less frequent hardware option in newer Windows Mobile consumer devices, so this control may have more limited appeal for developers with specific IR needs. The SIM control made it easy for me to create, modify, and delete contact data to my phone's SIM card, and the Mail component provided access to easily create mailboxes and send and receive email with attachments.
ComponentOne Studio Mobile
ComponentOne has created a suite of components specifically designed for the Windows Mobile platform. While not as comprehensive as its Windows desktop counterpart, the ComponentOne Studio Mobile suite consists of four useful components, two of which are mobile editions of their desktop components.
The Chart component can render numerous chart types, from the standard line, bar, and pie types to radar and plots that can be stacked for greater visualization within the constrained screen real estate of a Windows Mobile device. The FlexGrid component offers a plethora of options from built-in sorting and highly customizable per-cell visual attributes (like background fills and images) to effortless calculations of sums, averages, etc. for a range of cells. FlexGrid also provides rapid, case-insensitive searches for cell contents, data binding to ADO.NET sources, and more. Even with all these features, the component is relatively lightweight so as not to add too much bulk to deployed applications using it.
The MaskedTextBo and Zip controls are useful, but not as compelling compared to other suites. I was also a bit disappointed that there were only four controls in the suite. For the price (starting at $800 for the standard edition), when compared to competing suites and even the number of controls in ComponentOne's desktop edition, you'd expect the collection to be double in size. FlexGrid and Chart unquestionably carry the majority of this package's overall value proposition.
While the Windows Mobile platform enjoyed years of success, it's interface has not kept up with the times. Based on the Windows desktop paradigm, it's menu-driven UI makes interacting without a stylus a chore. While users eventually attain a modicum of proficiency, modern interfaces on the iPhone, Android, and Palm Pre platforms have reset user experience expectations. Until Microsoft delivers a modernized interface, developers may conclude that little can be done.
Touch Controls Suite 1.7
While the Windows Mobile platform enjoyed years of success, it’s interface has simply not kept up with the times. Based on the Windows desktop paradigm, it’s menu-driven user interface makes interacting without a stylus a chore. While users eventually attain a modicum of proficiency, modern interfaces on the iPhone, Android and Palm Pre platforms have reset the user experience expectation. Until Microsoft delivers a modernized interface, developers may conclude that little can be done.
Mirabyte saw this shortcoming as an opportunity and created a number of controls optimized for the effortless single touch operation found in Windows Mobile competitors. The latest 1.7 release includes nine .NET Compact Framework controls that convincingly emulate the modern fluid, finger-flicking UIs. The primary control is the TouchListBox that provides smooth scrolling list views and item selections so prevalent in Android and iPhone applications. The GlassDialog control replaces the bland Windows modal dialog boxes with a translucent frame that overlays the primary display. While the control doesn’t emulate Android or iPhone exactly (i.e., there is no blur effect underneath the frame), it’s a convincing and considerably more attractive view compared to the stock alternative.
The TouchPictureBox attempts to provide an easier way to scroll over images but feels awkward in execution. This is not the fault of the control, but rather the single-touch limitation of the current Windows Mobile OS. The other components are mainly enlarged button, check, textbox, and title bar controls that make selecting manipulating these onscreen items far less frustrating compared to default Windows Mobile UI objects. Mirabyte has posted a YouTube video that show these controls in action.
Rebex Total Pack for .NET
One aspect of mobile computing that is not as glamorous as attractive user interfaces but more important is security. Secure data transfers ensure integrity, privacy, and trustworthiness. While security is taken seriously on the Windows Mobile platform, easily accessing the features programmatically are not trivial. However, managing various applications of the SSL protocol is no longer a challenge thanks to the Rebex Total Pack for .NET.
While primarily a secure library collection for desktop .NET applications, Rebex has included a counterpart of .NET CF 1.0, 2.0, and 3.5 FTP, FTP/SSL, SFTP, and Time components, and .NET CF 2.0 IMAP/SSL, POP3/SSL, SMTP/SSL, and S/MIME components. These controls turn the ardous task of ensuring secure email and file transfer communications into a quick and easy one.
Rebex includes several demo applications showing how simple it is to create these secure applications, from an asynchronous SFTP client to a secure IMAP messaging application. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was able to assemble a secure, custom Windows Mobile file transfer agent to copy images taken with my phone's camera to a Unix-hosted website with SSH/SFTP access..
Thanks to the mobile component model that Microsoft has designed, Windows Mobile developers have an advantage when it comes to rapid mobile application development. No other mobile device platform comes with the number of extensible commercial components that the Windows Mobile ecosystem has to offer. Using these controls is as easy as using their counterparts on the Windows desktop. As the Windows Mobile OS continues to mature, the catalog of mobile components will no doubt continue to expand to a broad range of encapsulated functionality that will give developers the tools they need to make their mobile applications successful.