Flutter and Desktop Apps: Progress towards an ambient computing vision

It’s no secret that our mission for Flutter is to target a broad variety of devices— including iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, macOS, and web — from a single codebase. And with native compilation and game-quality visuals. Within Google Flutter is using by projects from Assistant to Stadia, from Cloud Search to Blogger. And outside of Google, Flutter has adopted by companies from ByteDance to Grab. From Nubank to MGM Resorts, all of whom benefit from the productivity and flexibility of Flutter.

Many of you are interested in progress on desktop operating systems including Windows, macOS, and Linux. Also, in surveys and on GitHub, the desktop is repeatedly one of the most popular new features. Over the coming weeks, we’re going to show off more of our work here. And we thought we’d start by surveying some of the work from various feature teams that contribute towards the overall project. While desktop support is currently a technical preview, there’s been plenty of work going on.

Release Mode of Flutter

Recently we checked in profile and release mode for Windows and Linux, in addition to the existing support for macOS. For example, if you’re running the latest builds of Flutter, you can now compile a Flutter application to a Windows executable with flutter build windows. This uses our production AOT compiler to create a native x64 machine code. Further, it can distribute to a machine without Flutter installed.

Desktop class experiences

Whether you’re building standalone executables or web apps, there are unique attributes to building desktop-class experiences. Desktop windows are usually in landscape mode and resizable. And input usually comes from a physical keyboard and mouse rather than an on-screen keyboard and touch. These controls are optimizing for a different screen density.

At the framework level, we’ve made various changes to Flutter to support desktop-class experiences.

  • When you create a new project in recent builds, you’ll see that the default template now includes a reference to a visualDensity property. This allows controls to adapt their density based on the platform they are targeting, with more compact spacing on desktop platforms. An example of how this is used is TextField, which now offers compact, comfortable, and standard spacing depending on the specified density.
  • We’ve added much better support for mouse and keyboard input. And this includes raw key codes on Windows, right-click mouse button, cursor changes and scroll wheel support.
  • You can now query for the specific platform (through the Platform class) and Windows, macOS, and Linux all provide the appropriate results.
  • In the most recent release, we’ve added NavigationRail widget that is specifically designed for desktop-class experiences on desktop and tablet.

FFI

The Dart team has been hard at work polishing Foreign Function Interface (FFI). And this is a great velocity booster for platform integration. For C-based APIs, the dart:ffi library provides a direct mechanism for binding to native code. The Dart runtime provides the ability to allocate memory on the heap that is backed by a Dart object. And makes calls to dynamically linked libraries.

Updating the Flutter plugin model

By design, Flutter itself has a small core. Rather than adding heft to the base framework, plugins, and packages. Whether directly from the Flutter team or the broader ecosystem of contributors. It provides integration with the underlying operating systems.

However, with Flutter increasingly supporting mobile, web, and desktop, developing a plugin for every supported platform becomes ever more challenging. It’s more likely that a plugin will require contributions from different authors with expertise in each platform.

A useful technique is to define a common interface as part of the core plugin. That each platform can implement independently. So as described in a recent post about modern plug-in development, we’ve recently adopted the schema for plug-ins. To enable platform development to be more easily federated across multiple authors. As part of this work, it’s now possible to declare explicitly which platforms supported by a plugin.

We’ve started to build out some of the core plugins using this model. So, you’ll find some early examples of the federated model in the flutter/plugins repo.

Note that the Windows and Linux plugin APIs are still in flux. So while we encourage exploration, we aren’t ready for general-purpose production support at this time. To be mention, we’re working on adding Desktop platform tags on pub.dev.

Running on Windows: Win32 and UWP

One interesting aspect of the work that we’ve been doing on Windows is experimenting with various architectural approaches. On any platform, Flutter embedded into a small host container app (an “embedder”), using a similar approach to game engines like Unity. This platform-specific embedder provides an entry point, coordinates with the underlying operating system for access. To services like rendering surfaces, accessibility, and input, and manages the message event loop.

Windows offers two distinct approaches for creating this embedder. First, the mature Win32 programming model can use to create the entry point for Flutter content. So, this offers maximum backward compatibility to platforms such as Windows 7 and builds a standard EXE file that many developers will expect. Conversely, the modern UWP app model is the recommended approach for Windows 10. It offers intriguing opportunities for expanding Flutter support to devices such as Xbox or the upcoming Windows 10X operating system.

We’ve been working informally with various contributors to explore different solutions. Here, we would gladly support a close collaboration with Microsoft to complete a high-quality solution. With the Surface family of devices extended to include Android and Windows. So, we think Flutter offers Microsoft a compelling platform for building beautiful native experiences that span their entire portfolio.

Having fun with desktop

This work remains in technical preview, and the APIs and tooling are not yet stable. Yes, we’re still tracking plenty of work. Because we want to complete before we promote desktop support to stable, including improved accessibility and localization support.

If you want to try it out, you’ll need to be on a development channel. Windows and Linux are only available on the master branch. Which is where active Flutter development takes place. macOS is available on the dev branch, which is slightly more stable. But not recommended for production use. You can switch channels with flutter channel master or flutter channel dev, and then use one of these commands to enable support for the platform you’re using.

Learn basic knowledge about Flutter here.

Author avatar
Sandip Savaliya
https://www.whitelioninfosystems.com
Entrepreneur | Developer | GDG Speaker | IOT Enthusiastic | Tech Explorer

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