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    1: <html>
    2: <head>
    3: <title>XPFE vs. DHTML</title>
    4: </head>
    5: <body bgcolor="#FFFFFF">
    7: <font size="+1"><b>XPFE vs. DHTML</b></font>
    9: <p>'In the beginning, there were 3 front ends: Mac, Windows and Unix. Each took a suite of developers to maintain. Adding a new feature (even just a
   10: button) required 3 engineers to waste at least a day (more often a week) slaving away until the feature was complete. This had to change.' 
   12: <p>This <a href="">quote</a> is posted on and describes how the Netscape 4.x browsers
   13: required a different set of engineers to create and maintain the code for the user interface, even though the browser looked nearly identical on each
   14: different supported platform.
   16: <p>For a company committed to creating an application that runs on a wide range of different systems, using platform specific code was a big waste of
   17: time. XPFE, Mozilla's cross-platform front end, was designed to solve this problem by enabling engineers to create one interface that would then work on
   18: any operating system.  
   20: <p>This new technology started out as a time-saving technique and turned into one of Mozilla's most powerful innovations.  Mike Cornall, in an article
   21: about Mozilla published on LinuxToday, summarizes the history of XPFE well when he says: 'The application platform capabilities of Mozilla came about
   22: through a happy coincidence of Open Source development, good design, and far-sighted developers who were paying attention.'
   24: <p>When they started work on XPFE Mozilla engineers were trying to create a more efficient process that would save them time and effort, but this
   25: technology ended up having the unintended consequence of lowering the barriers to entry for application developers.  To better understand this happy
   26: coincidence and why it can be so useful for developers it is necessary to take a closer look at what XPFE is made of.
   28: <hr>
   30: <p><b>Understanding XPFE</b>
   32: <p>The technologies that XPFE uses are all existing Web standards, such as Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript and XML (the XML component is a new
   33: language called XUL, the XML-based User Interface Language).  Since well understood Web standards are being used to create applications instead of
   34: platform-specific C code, a whole new group of people now have the ability to create their own applications using Mozilla.
   36: <p>In the sense that XPFE uses some of the same standards that are used to create Web pages, Mozilla-based applications can even be thought of as Web
   37: pages.  Gecko, the HTML rendering engine that Mozilla uses, also draws all XPFE content, so a Web page and an application created with XPFE are on one
   38: level treated the same way by Mozilla itself.
   40: <p>Web developers and designers who use Mozilla are naturally attracted to the fact that they can create applications using the same skills and
   41: techniques that they used to create Web pages in the past.  The specifics involved with creating Mozilla applications are different but should seem very
   42: familiar to anyone who has created for the Web before.
   44: <p>When talking about front ends it is important to clarify what this means.  In this context a front end is more than the look and feel of a
   45: Mozilla-based application, but includes the functionality and structure of that application as well.  More simply put, XPFE allows users to do more than
   46: just create a skin for an application.  For example, Netscape 6 does use this functionality to allow for the creation of <a
   47: href="">different themes</a> for their browser suite, but the browser suite itself is also created out of these same
   48: technologies.
   50: <center>
   51: <p><img src=""><br>
   52: <font size="-1"><i>Figure 1: XPFE Framework</i></font>
   53: </center>
   55: <p>To understand all of the capabilities of XPFE, we can look at how the different components of it fit together.  JavaScript is used to create the
   56: functionality for a Mozilla-based application, Cascading Style Sheets are used for formatting the look and feel, and XUL is used for creating the
   57: application's structure.  Viewed together these three standards can be seen forming the triangle in Figure 1 above.
   59: <p><b>Comparing XPFE and DHTML</b>
   61: <p>In many ways XPFE is very similar to <a href="">DHTML</a>.  Dynamic HTML is a combination of HTML with JavaScript
   62: and CSS that allows a developer to create a Web application that is contained within the content area of a browser.  XPFE provides a logical evolution to
   63: this idea by allowing the creation of applications that are more powerful, more flexible and that can live outside of the browser window as stand-alone
   64: programs.
   66: <p>Figure 2 below illustrates the similarities between XPFE and DHTML.  Both use JavaScript to create functionality, both use CSS to format the design
   67: and layout, and both use a fairly simple mark-up language to describe content.  The difference between the two is that one of these mark-up languages is
   68: HTML and the other is XUL.
   70: <center>
   71: <p><img src=""><br>
   72: <font size="-1"><i>Figure 2: Comparison of DHTML and XPFE</i></font>
   73: </center>
   75: <p>Although HTML has been put to many different uses, it was <a href="">originally designed</a> as a simple system to
   76: link together separate text documents on the Internet.  Later additions to the HTML standard have extended its functionality, but even these enhancements
   77: can't make it an appropriate language to use for developing applications.  XUL is a language specifically designed for creating user interfaces, so it
   78: makes sense that XPFE is more suited for application development than DHTML.
   80: <p>Fortunately since XUL as a language is structurally similar to HTML it is simple enough to learn if you are already familiar with the basic language
   81: of the Web.  Even if you have never used HTML before, XUL uses a straight-forward <a href="">collection of tags</a>
   82: that makes it easy to get comfortable with it in a short time.  Once you become accustomed to using XUL you will be ready to start using XPFE to create
   83: your own applications.
   85: <p><b>Oversimplifying in the Metaphor</b>
   87: <p>This overview of XPFE as a simple evolution of DHTML is an oversimplification of the story and deliberately leaves out much important information.  
   88: These details were ignored at first to give a conceptual framework for understanding the new ideas that XPFE represent.  Now that we've gotten past the
   89: basics, we can go back and talk about the rest of the functionality available with using Mozilla to create applications.
   91: <p>At the <a href="">Second Mozilla Developer Meeting</a>, Rob Ginda, the creator of ChatZilla, lead a
   92: discussion group about Mozilla as Platform.  In this session he listed all of the following as components of a Mozilla-based application:
   94: <FONT COLOR="#800000">
   95: <UL>
   96: <LI>XUL (XML-based User Interface Language) - Used to create the structure and content of an application.<br><br>
   97: <LI>CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) - Used to create the look and feel of an application.<br><br>
   98: <LI>JavaScript - Used to create the functionality of an application.<br><br>
   99: <LI>XPInstall (Cross-Platform Install) - Used to package applications so that they can be installed on any platform.<br><br>
  100: <LI>RDF (Resource Description Framework) - Used to store data and transmit information.  Generally regarded to be one of the most complicated aspects of XPFE.<br><br>
  101: <LI>DTD (Document Type Definition) - Used for localization and internationalization, more commonly referred to in short-hand as L12N and I18N respectively.<br><br>
  102: <LI>XBL (eXtensible Binding Language) - Used to create reusable widgets using a combination of XUL and JavaScript.<br><br>
  103: <LI>XUL templates - Used to create a framework for importing data into an application with a combination of RDF and XUL.<br><br>
  104: <LI>XPCOM/XPConnect - Used to allow JavaScript, or potentially any other scripting language, to access and utilize C and C++ libraries.
  105: </UL>
  106: </FONT>
  108: <p>Each of these technologies is important and several of these deserve to have whole books devoted to them.  Although each of these technologies is
  109: important there is a distinction to be made among them.  Some of these are essential to the creation of a Mozilla application and some of them provide
  110: powerful extra features that can be used in addition to the basic functionality.
  112: <p>For example, <a href="">RDF</a> is an extremely powerful technology for using data in Mozilla but it is possible to
  113: create an application without using it.  <a href="">Localization</a> also provides Mozilla with a great
  114: amount of flexibility and usability but there are many existing applications that don't take advantage of this feature.  It wouldn't be possible to
  115: create an application without XUL though.
  117: <p><b>Judge For Yourself</b>
  119: <p>XPFE is a new technology that has yet to prove itself to the Web community and many people are skeptical about the need for an application framework
  120: such as this.  Before you make up your mind about XPFE, you should take a look at the many different applications that have already been created using
  121: Mozilla so you can judge for yourself.
  123: <p>If you are interested in trying out some of these, there are currently over 40 different Mozilla-based applications being hosted on <a
  124: href=""></a> that have been created using XPFE.  Other applications using the same technology include
  125: ActiveState's <a href="">Komodo</a> IDE, Rob Ginda's <a
  126: href="">ChatZilla</a> IRC client, and Zope's <a href="">Mozilla
  127: Initiative</a>.
  129: </body>
  130: </html>

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