Get Your Hands On Our Labs

I suppose I could start with a bad pun by saying that you've had your hols, and now it's time for some HOLs instead! Of course, this assumes you understand that "hols" is English shorthand for "holidays" and that "HOLs" is IT guidance shorthand for "Hands-On-Labs" (I wonder if people in the US have a shorthand word for "vacations", or if - seeing they are typed rather than written by hand these days - that should be a shorttype word, or even just a shortword).

Anyway, enough rambling, where I'm going with all this is that p&p just released the Hands-On-Labs for Windows Phone 7. This set of practical exercises and associated guidance is part of the patterns & practices Windows Phone 7 Developer Guide project, which resulted in a book (also available online) and associated guidance aimed at helping developers to create business applications for Windows Phone 7.

As part of this guidance, the team released a sample application that runs in Windows Azure and is consumed by Windows Phone 7. The application is based on a fictional corporation named Tailspin that carries out surveys for other companies by distributing them to consumers and then collating the results. It's a fairly complex application, but demonstrates a great many features of both Azure and Windows Phone 7. The Azure part came from a previous associated project (patterns & practices Windows Azure Guidance) with some added support for networking with the phone. The bits that run on the phone are (obviously) all new, and demonstrate a whole raft of capabilities including using the camera and microphone to collect picture and voice answers to questions.

What's been interesting to discover while working on the HOLs is how the design and structure of the application really does make it much easier to adapt and maintain it over time. When some of the reviewers first saw the mobile client application for the Windows Phone 7 Developer Guide project, they commented that it seemed over-engineered and over-complicated. It uses patterns such as Dependency Injection and Service Locator; as well as a strict implementation of the Model-View-ViewModel (MVVM) pattern that Silverlight developers love so much.

So, yes, it is complex. There is no (or only a tiny bit of) code-behind, and instead all interaction is handled through the view models. It uses components from the Prism Library for Windows Phone (see patterns & practices: Prism) to implement some of this interaction, such as wiring up application bar buttons and displaying non-interruptive notifications. Views are instantiated though a view model locator class, allowing them to be bound to a view but created through the dependency injection container. Likewise, services are instantiated and their lifetime managed by the container, and references to these services are injected into the constructor parameters of the view models and other types that require them. Changes to the way that the application works simply require a change to the container registrations.

In addition, there are custom types that wrap and abstract basic tasks such as storing data and application settings, managing activation and deactivation, and synchronizing data with the remote services. There is a lot in there to understand, and one of the tasks for the Hands-On-Labs was to walk developers through the important parts of the process, and even try to justify the complexity.

But where it really became clear that the architecture and design of the application was "right" was when we came to plan the practical step-by-step tasks for the Hands-On-Labs. We wanted to do something more than just "Hello Mobile World", and planned to use a modified version of the example Tailspin Surveys application as the basis for the user's tasks. So I asked the wizard dev guy (hi Jose) who was tasked with making it all work if we could do some really complicated things to extend and modify the application (bearing in mind that each task should take the user less that 30 minutes to complete):

Me: Can we add a new UI page to the application and integrate it with the DI and service locator mechanism?
Jose: Easy. We can do the whole MVVM thing including integration with the DI mechanism and application bar buttons in a few steps.

Me: OK, so how about adding a completely new question type to the application, which uses a new and different UI control? And getting the answer posted to the service?
Jose: No problem. The design of the application allows you to extend it with new question types, new question views, and new question view models. They'll all seamlessly integrate with the existing processes and services. Twenty minutes max.

Me: Wow. So how about changing the wire format of the submitted data, and perhaps encrypting it as well?
Jose: Yep, do that simply by adding a new implementation of the proxy. Everything else will just work with it.

As you can see, good design pays dividends when you get some awkward customer like me poking about with the application and wanting it to do something different. It's a good thing real customers aren't like that...

Comments (2)
  1. Beave says:

    Thanks for these Labs. I already used many of the concepts of wp7Guide in my own projects. These labs give me an easier approach to this project and explain the details really well. There is only the matter of localisation that is totally missing in the tailspin project. Please add a lab to localize every string, even the application bar buttons. I find this severely breaks with the "no code behind" philosophy and I'm quite curious to see how the tailspin team would implement this.

  2. Alex Homer says:

    Hi Beave, thanks for the kind comments. According to the dev guys, localization is something they're considering for the update to the WP7 Guide when the next release of the O/S comes along. I'll post a note if I hear anything more concrete (or useful)…  

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