Rust, or: What's the Deal with GUIs?

Fri 29 June 2018

Ah, a two year writing gap. Life can be distracting sometimes. Get ready for a rust-y blog entry!

Yeah that was pretty bad, even by my standards.

Two Years and GUIs

One of the big (and kind of annoying) discussions that's been bantered about in the tech world over those two years has been whether Electron, a web-browser-masquerading-as-native-app project, is a plague on society or not. Resource wise, it's probably got some argument there, but in terms of productivity it's hands down the king of the castle - effectively trading memory pressure and less focus on platform conventions in favor of just shipping something out the door. You can open and scan any thread on Hacker News or /r/programming and find people bemoaning this repeatedly.

I wouldn't keep those threads open, for what it's worth - there's generally little worth reading in them, beyond people on both sides completely misunderstanding one another. The tl;dr for pretty much every thread is: more traditional native developers tend not to understand web development, or they look down upon it as easier and less worthy of respect. Web developers tend to favor shipping faster to a wider audience, and being able to implement things across (just about) any platform. You'll see some native developers go on about Qt/GTK and co as ideal native approaches (they're not), or advocating tripling your development efforts and re-implementing a UI across n platforms (why would you bother to do this for most commerical projects? Do you enjoy wasting time and money?).

With that all said, I had reason to build some stuff in Rust recently, and wound up wanting to throw together a basic UI for it. Rust is a wonderful language, and I genuinely enjoy using it, but it's very clear that the community doesn't have a GUI focus. I figured I'd end up basically packaging together some web view (Electron or [insert your choice here]), but wanted to see how easily I could finagle things together at a native level. Since I haven't written anything in some time, I figured this would be a good fit for a super short post.

Going Down a GUI Rabbit Hole

I use a Mac pretty much exclusively, and am pretty familiar with Cocoa, so jumping to that from Rust seemed pretty reasonable. It's also ridiculously simple, thanks to Objective-C - the C interop in Rust makes this fairly transparent, provided you're willing to dabble in the unsafe side of things. What I came up with was a mix of rust-objc and rust-cocoa, from core-foundation-rs, along with some usage of Serde for a quickly hacked together CSS framework.

A basic app would look like this:

The declarative approach to the UI is inspired by React (and co). I threw the resulting package on Github as Shinekit, in case anyone out there finds it interesting and would want to hack on it themselves. Since it's basically hacking through Objective-C, I've got a theory that it could be wired up to Microsoft's port of Objective-C for Windows, which ultimately creates native UWP apps.

Of note, some things for GUI programming are a pain in the ass in Rust - e.g, parent and child relationships. Shinekit pushes that stuff over to Cocoa/Objective-C where possible, rather than tackling it head-on. In a sense, it's cheating - but it creates a slightly nicer API, which (in my experience) is important in UI development.

What's Next?

Well, if you're a native fan, you're gonna hate to hear that yes, I did wind up just throwing a web browser into the mix to ship. Goal wasn't to build a full GUI framework.

With that said... time permitting I'll probably hack on this some more, as the existing GUI options in Rust don't really fit my idea of what a GUI framework should look and function like. As Rust becomes more popular, a decent GUI approach (even for small toolkit apps and the like) would be great to have. If or when this becomes more mature, I'd throw it up on crates.io as something to be used more widely.