minilibs vs. megalibs

Case study: gtk2


The application needs a GUI: widgets, buttons, menus, popups.

Actual implementation: gtk

The application starts, initializes gtk, builds the GUI and runs gtk_main(). When the top window is closed or gtk_main_quit() is called, gtk_main() exits the application.

How is it broken by design

The relation between the application and the GUI is broken.

Gtk is not a lib that provides GUI facilities for an existing application (additive development). Instead, gtk takes over the main loop, forcing the application to be implemented in a certain way. In other words, a gtk application is not designed around the problem it tries to solve, but around the GUI, following the One Way gtk requires, or trying to work it around (subtractive development).

How it affects the application, how things get complicated

The application must be written in an event-driven way and should not have its own main loop. Event driven mechanisms provided in gtk (... and glib) must be used. In practice this means if an application wants to do anything differently compared to the way gtk is designed, it will need to work around gtk or just live with limitations imposed by gtk:

There is no proper way to fully uninitialize gtk and keep the application running. For example if an application starts without a GUI, then wants to set up a GUI for a short time, later on close the GUI and go on processing data, it is simply not possible with gtk. The top window created with gtk_init() is not closed or destroyed by gtk, it disappears only when the process exits. This is because of the broken relation between the application and gtk: the gtk API assumes (thus enforces) the ideas that:

The last issue causes problems in pcb-rnd, where the application has support for multiple GUIs. It is impossible to properly switch from the gtk GUI to another GUI and then switch back, because the gtk window stays open as gtk can not be shut down.

Generally, it's hard to have code that does anything else than init/uninit before and after the GUI main loop, or has multiple successive GUI main loops.

How the minilib approach would fix this

Provide API for: Let the application do whatever it wants to do; the GUI lib is not a programming environment that:

The GUI lib is a library that should be focusing on one thing: running the GUI. It should be a servant that implements an infrastructure of non-intrusive, slave functions the application can combine whatever ways seems reasonable to build a GUI.