ACFactory Day 4: Command&Control

This is the fourth part of a series documenting the development of ‘ACFactory’ (ACFabrik in German), an application that generates printable character sheets for the Pen & Paper role playing game Arcane Codex (English page).

You might also want to read Day 3: Authoring XAML.

Today, I was mostly lost in the vast unknown jungle that WPF is, even after having read “Windows Presentation Foundation: Unleashed by Adam Nathan” (I really recommend it!).

Control

First there was the difference between UserControl and custom control. (No, I am not very familiar with any other UI framework). Whereas UserControls are little more than include on steroids (you get a code behind file), if you *really* want to create something new or abstract over a composition of controls, then creating custom controls is your only option.

But custom controls are just C# (or VB.NET) code files. There is no XAML involved. How can that be the preferred way to author new controls? Remember that WPF controls are supposed to be look-less, platonic ideas of what they represent.
I wanted to create a zoom view control. What are the abstract properties of such a zoom view control?

  1. It has content
  2. It can magnify its content

Number 1 tells us to derive from ContentControl, the type that defines the Content property. Number 2 is a bit trickier. I decided that my control has a ZoomFactor property (type double, 1.0 == 100%) to which a ScaleTransform is bound. Whether or not this works, I am not exactly sure as the control is not working yet.

But how does the control look? Well that’s not the controls concern. A look is provided by the Themes/Generic.xaml resource dictionary, the default fallback in the absence of local definitions and system specific themes. In my case there is going to be a neat little zoom control (combo box + slider) hovering in the top left corner.

Command

To establish communication between the ZoomViewer template and the ZoomViewer control, there is really only one good mechanism: Commands. Commands are yet another abstraction that makes event handling more modular. Controls like buttons, hyperlinks and menu item can be “bound” to a certain command. That command determines whether they are enabled or not and what happens when they are clicked. You could for instance bind the menu item Edit > Paste, a toolbar button and Ctr+V to the Application.Paste command and they would all automatically be activated/deactivated depending on the state of the clipboard.

Even better, the default implementation, RoutedCommands, work just like routed events and bubble up the tree of your XAML interface. You can then define different command bindings at different locations in your UI. The best of all: Via the command target property, you can tell the command routing where to look for command bindings. I could have two buttons, that both invoke the Navigation.Zoom command, but on two different ZoomViewers.

My ZoomViewer does support the Navigation.IncreaseZoom, .DecreaseZoom and .Zoom commands. This is how the default control template can communicate with the ZoomViewer, by invoking those commands.

There is however one thing, I found very irritating: neither the slider nor the combo box implement commands by default. The msdn contains a sample, that shows how to do this. It turns out to come with quite a few things to watch out for:

  • You must differentiate between routed and ordinary commands as only the former can react to command bindings and can be set to originate from different InputElements.
  • You should rather pass a reference to the invoking control than null as the command target.
  • You must be careful with the CanExecuteChanged event handler. It must be correctly unset, when the command is changed/removed.

How well this all turns out, will hoepfully see soon. Development right now is a bit sluggish as I keep switching over to msdn and/or my book for reference, since Visual Studios XAML editor is not very sophisticated, even with basic ReSharper support. This must get much better in VS10. Up until now, I have observed VS08SP1 only crash 3 times (twice due to a recursive binding *blush*) and once with an HRESULT of E_FAIL (whatever that exactly was). But at least I lost no code.

Oh, and why exactly the Microsoft Blend XAML editor does not provide any support is totally beyond me. I mean free (that means it costs nothing) tools provide better code completion than Blend: Kaxaml, the “better XamlPad”. Even though it takes some time to load, I can definitely recommend it.

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