MonoDroid : First impressions

Just like everyone , I have been bitten by the Handheld bug . Mobile Phones and tablets will definitely be the wave of the future and will influence the way we live and conduct business in a huge manner. Android

They already have started doing so , they are so much a part of us. I am excited about the whole tablet mania which I think will revolutionize the use of computers . As a result, I wanted to write some ‘apps’ as well, may be make some extra cash or start a business.

I started out thinking iPhone and iPad , however soon realized that I would have to own a Mac computer to do development on these because I did not come across a good development environment on Windows for iPad or iPhone . ‘MonoTouch’ by Novell was closest to the development technologies I am most familiar with , however MonoDevelop and MonoTouch also are required to be used on a Mac. Hence I decided to go the Android way – which allowed programming easily on Windows… and once again a very promising Mobile OS , thought this would be my best middle ground.

C# and .Net being my strongest technology stacks , I decided on trying MonoDroid by Novell so I could use Visual Studio 2010 and C# to do Android programming. I had choice of Java and Eclipse as well, which I have installed parallely along with Android SDK just for comparison’s sake. I thought if MonoDroid works I am better off with it since it gives me a chance to program in C# and .Net , chances are very good I’ll save time in learning nuances of Java which I left behind a few years ago. Having said that I did try the ‘Hello World’ program with Java and Eclipse , ran the application successfully on the Android emulator.

MonoDroid gave me a similar experience as Java in terms of installation and running of the simple “Hello World” program. The installation of MonoDroid required an extra installation of MonoDroid SDK.. other than installing Java SDK , Android SDK , ADT Plugin and the Development environment which is VS 2010 in .Net . All you need to do is follow the instructions in the order they are supposed to be installed in , everything goes smoothly. I was also able to run the “Hello World” program with MonoDroid in the Android Emulator. So far so good. I started getting deeper with this encouragement , thought I’ll try different things like reading XML data and displaying in a ListView or GridView. I also tried things like reading from the existing databases like the Contacts database from the Device and printing some Contact names on the screen.

I think MonoDroid is a very good start in Android development , their 1.1 version released as of this writing . They have done a good job of creating C# and .Net object wrappers around Android SDK – which makes it very easy to look up different objects and methods within the MonoDroid API in correlation with Android API.  For example ‘ContentResolver’ as in Android API is named the same way in MonoDroid API and so are the corresponding methods. However the debugging with a breakpoint in the code does not always work – I am so used to examining the objects in runtime to learn more about them or fix some runtime bugs – it was very frustrating at times without understanding why the debugging did not work. I raised this in the MonoDroid forums on MonoDroid site and they said that they are trying to fix the debugging issues in the next release.

They have done a good job of creating C# and .Net object wrappers around Android SDK – which makes it very easy to look up different objects and methods within the MonoDroid API in correlation with Android API.

Another issue I ran into was that while going through several iterations of development I was constantly making small changes and redeploying. The modified binary would not get redeployed right away after hitting F5 or clicking ‘Start Debugging’ . Again it was creating road blocks while making changes and wanting to see them right away . I learnt later that “the new binary isn’t deployed immediately because it can’t; the only way to update the app is to build a new package (.apk) and install the new package (plus an intermediate package uninstall). Package creation is not an instance process, hence the delay. MonoDroid group said that they intend to improve the package creation experience in the future, but there’s only so much that can be done…” .

So, all in all it was a mixed experience with being able to start very well to hit some high points and some low points. It does get a little frustrating with not too many examples on the web or documentation – there are few programmers who are fairly actively making posts on MonoDroid but you are a lot on your own . One of the things I started doing was first copy code example from Android API and then convert them to .Net code using the IntelliSense . That helped in terms of at least getting the code to a point where it looked right syntactically and ready to run. There is a steep learning curve in understanding Android API – which can take a few weeks depending on how much time you have in your hands.

MonoDroid is definitely a step in the positive direction attracting .Net developers quickly into Android programming – however the development experience still needs to improve . I am not sure if it’s ready for real world deployment applications because I have not yet seen any Show Cases of MonoDroid real world Apps unlike MonoTouch which a lot of people have already used to develop Commercial applications selling in the market. However if you want to do Android programming and want to stick to .Net technologies , I am sure with a little more wait it would be worth it , considering Mono’s reputation. MonoDroid will soon be upto where MonoTouch already is. Give it a try and experience for yourself by starting from here.

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