Friday, March 03, 2017

Haxe - the programming language you've never heard about

Haxe logo I have switched to a new project at work and it surprised me with the use of a programming language called Haxe. I have just begun, so I will not be able to explain to you all its intricacies, but I am probably going to write some more blog posts about it as I tread along.

What is interesting about Haxe is that it was not designed as just a language, but as a cross platform toolkit, meaning that when you compile the code you've created, it generates code in other languages and platforms, be it C++, C#, Java, Javascript, Flash, PHP, Lua, Java, Python, etc on Windows, iOS, Linux, Android and so on. It's already version 3, so you probably did hear of it, it was just me that was ignorant. Anyway, let's explore a little bit what Haxe can do.

Installing


The starting guide from their web site is telling us to follow some steps, but the gist of it is this:
  1. Download and install an IDE - we'll use FlashDevelop for this intro, for no other reason than this is what I use at work (and it's free)
  2. Once it starts, it will start AppMan, which lets you choose what to install
  3. Select Haxe+Neko
  4. Select Standalone debug Flash Player
  5. Select OpenFL Installer Script
  6. Click Install 3 Items



Read the starting guide for more details.

Writing Code


In FlashDevelop, go to Project → New Project and select OpenFL Project. Let's call it - how else? - HaxeHelloWorld. Note that right under the menu, in the toolbar, you have two dropdowns, one for Debug/Release and another for the target. Let's choose Debug and neko and run it. It should show you an application with a black background, which is the result of running the generated .exe file (on Windows) "HaxeHelloWorld\bin\windows\neko\debug\bin"\HaxeHelloWorld.exe".

Let's write something. The code should look like this, to which you add the part written in italics:
package;

import openfl.display.Sprite;
import openfl.Lib;
/**
 * ...
 * @author Siderite
 */
class Main extends Sprite
{

    public function new()
    {
        super();

        var stage = flash.Lib.current.stage;
        var text = new flash.text.TextField();
        text.textColor = 0xFFFFFF;
        text.text = "Hello world!";
        stage.addChild(text);

    }
}

Run it and it should show a "Hello world!" message, white on black. Now let's play with the target. Switch it to Flash, html5, neko, windows and run it.



They all show more or less the same white text on a black background. Let's see what it generates:
  • In HaxeHelloWorld\bin\flash\debug\bin\ there is now a file called HaxeHelloWorld.swf.
  • In HaxeHelloWorld\bin\html5\debug\bin\ there is now a web site containing index.html, HaxeHelloWorld.js, HaxeHelloWorld.js.map,favicon.png,lib\howler.min.js and lib\pako.min.js. It's a huge thing for a hello world and it is clearly a machine generated code. What is interesting, though, is that it uses a canvas to draw the string
  • In HaxeHelloWorld\bin\windows\neko\debug\bin\ there are several files, HaxeHelloWorld.exe and lime.ndll being the relevant ones. In fact, lime.ndll is not relevant at all, since you can delete it and the program still works, but if you remove Neko from your system, it will crash with an error saying neko.dll is missing, so it's not a real Windows executable.
  • Now it gets interesting: in D:\_Projects\HaxeHelloWorld\bin\windows\cpp\debug\bin\ you have another HaxeHelloWorld.exe file, but this time it works directly. And if you check D:\_Projects\HaxeHelloWorld\bin\windows\cpp\debug\obj\ you will see generated C++: .cpp and .h files

How about C#? Unfortunately, it seems that the only page explaining how to do this is on the "old.haxe.org" domain, here: Targeting the C# Platform. It didn't work with this code, instead I made it work with the simpler hello world code in the article. Needless to say, the C# code is just as readable as the Javascript above, but it worked!

What I think of it


As far as I will be working with the language, I will be posting stuff I learn. For example, it is obvious FlashDevelop borrowed a lot from Visual Studio, and Haxe a lot from C#, however the familiarity with those might confuse you when Haxe does weird stuff like not having break instructions in switch blocks or not having the protected or internal access modifiers, yet having inheriting classes able to access private members of their base class.

What now?


Well, at the very least, you can try this free to play and open source programming toolkit to build applications that are truly cross platform. Not everything will be easy, but Haxe seems to have built a solid code base, with documentation that is well done and a large user base. It is not the new C# (that's D#, obviously), but it might be interesting to be familiar with it.

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