Realbasic Alternatives

So, you want to develop apps quickly and easily but you are sick of Realbasic’s subscription model, or are annoyed by the forced switch to “Studio”. What to do? The latest news from Real Software has me thinking (again) about what I should do rather than continue to use Realbasic, and here are the alternatives I’ve come up with.

XCode — Free (Mac). On the downside, you can’t deploy on Windows (or Linux, if you care). On the upside, actually supports all Mac UI widgets properly, has far fewer stupid bugs, can actually load images with alpha channels, produces apps which you don’t need to be ashamed were created with Realbasic, allows you to deploy on the iPhone, and actually has pretty good tools for building web apps.

Cocotron looks to offer the Holy Grail of cross-platform development. Develop your apps in XCode and Cocoa and simply compile to Windows. I haven’t tried it yet, but it certainly seems intriguing and it appears to be under pretty active development.

Unity — $199 and up (Mac/Win as of 2.5, also iPhone/Wii). On the downside, doesn’t produce standard desktop apps. On the upside, very good for game and multimedia development (far better than Realbasic); generally superior performance to Realbasic; your programs can run in web browsers, the iPhone, and even the Wii; one license allows you to code on both Mac and Windows; actually has a superior GUI for OO development than Realbasic (once you get your head around it); supports three languages (Boo, C#, and JavaScript), each of which is an easy move for RB coders; no subscription model.

BlitzMax — $80 (Mac/Win/Linux). Very fast, modern BASIC with full cross-platform GUI support (available as a $30 add-on). Designed with 2D game development in mind, but perfectly capable of being used for app development. Downside: bare-bones IDE which does not include visual GUI tools or handle bindings between UI elements, events, properties, and code. Visual GUI tools (which do do these things) are available from third parties.

Python — Free (Mac/Win/Linux). Python is not only a ridiculously nice language, it’s also hip and cool and highly marketable. It’s kind of like JavaScript without the negative associations (but also without the ability to run in Web browsers). For GUI development, Tkinter looks interesting and PythonCard actually seems pretty compelling.

Java — Mostly Free (Mac/Win/Linux). Well, Eclipse is pretty nice, and I assume that by now it’s probably possible to produce vaguely decent UIs. I’ll need to look into this. Java is definitely not my favorite language, but it’s very marketable.

Netbeans — Free (Mac/Win/Linux). Free and open source IDE and runtime that lets you code in Java, JavaScript, Ruby, PHP, C/C++, and (shortly) Python. OK that sounds too good to be true. (I downloaded 6.5 and messed with it a bit. It falls under the category “I guess it probably seems pretty neat if you think Solaris is pleasant to use”, so — yeah — too good to be true.)

Web-based — Mostly Free, and some amazingly good, cheap stuff (e.g. Coda). On the downside, you can’t deploy standalone desktop apps via the web. Oh wait, you can. And you are living with whatever functionality you get from browsers (i.e. JavaScript, canvas, Flash, etc.). On the upside, web apps are where the action is. And there’s always Cappuccino and Atlas.

Adobe AIR — Free? (Mac/Win/Linux). Essentially a runtime that bundles Webkit, Flash, and other functionality, allowing you to build web apps that run like applications (including being able to avoid the usual sandbox restrictions). Of course, you’re essentially trapped inside the functionality provided by Webkit (and Flash, if you choose to use it).

Flex Builder Standard 3 — $249 (Mac/Win). On the downside, produces non-standard (Flash-like) UIs. On the upside, your software runs inside browsers (OK, not on iPhones, but neither does Realbasic); you don’t pay a subscription, and Adobe will provide free bug-fixes even for outdated versions of its software. Also, Flash-like UIs are all the rage anyway, and at least you’ll have a consistent user experience on all platforms. Oh, and ActionScript 3 is not going to be hard to learn for Realbasic developers.

Runtime Revolution — $49/$249/$499 (Mac/Win/Linux). On the downside, produces non-standard (sometimes ugly) UIs, and the language is a bit outmoded (although nice in many ways). On the upside, there’s no subscription model.

Qt SDK — Free or Expensive (Mac/Win/Linux). Built on top of the well-known Qt UI library. On the down side, requires you to code in C++. On the upside, produces robust, cross-platform apps. Builds skills that get you better paid jobs than RB experience. The free version is only useful for producing free apps, but that’s a lot of what I do with Realbasic. Correction: the free Qt version can be used for proprietary apps. (And frankly, no-one cares if you open-source a RB Project.)

Lazarus — Free (Mac/Win/Linux). Very interesting looking open source recreation of Delphi. If it works it could be fabulous — I love Object Pascal (although it’s hardly a popular language these days). It appears to let you compile both native Cocoa and X11 apps on OS X.

It’s worth noting that it’s not easy to replace Realbasic for cross-platform development. I can whip up a cross-platform utility with a native UI in Realbasic with almost ridiculous ease, and that’s simply not true for any of these options.

I’ll probably end up keeping an active Realbasic license for as long as I make money from contract programming with it. But, I’ll be moving all the projects I can move, along with any new projects, away from Realbasic ASAP. RiddleMeThis, for example, may well be rewritten using web technology, with desktop deployment via Adobe AIR or something similar.

Other Useful Links

Wikipedia’s compilation of RAD tools

Microsoft’s “Express” (i.e. free) development tools

Realbasic Attempts Suicide


I’m writing to let you know about some important changes we are making to REALbasic.

On April 14th, we will introduce REALbasic 2009 Release 2. At that time, we will be reducing the price of REALbasic Professional Edition to $300, a 40% reduction from its current price of $500. We will also be reducing the renewal price from $250 to $150. That means when you renew in the future you will be saving 40%!

Wow. Sounds pretty good. Maybe a smart move in a recession, and perhaps they’ll gain more customers (moving up from the $100 “standard” version to the $300 “pro” version).

We have been talking to a lot of Personal Edition users, as well as people evaluating REALbasic, and we have been researching software pricing.  We have determined that $300 is a more appropriate price for REALbasic Professional Edition. It will likely mean that more people will purchase the Professional Edition which helps to grow the REALbasic community.

Another reason we are doing this is to make it easier to provide REALbasic editions for each of the three major types of users: hobbyists, part-time developers and full-time developers. The Personal Edition is designed for hobbyists and students, and the Professional Edition is for part-time developers. For full-time developers, we will be introducing REAL Studio.

REAL Studio, which will be introduced with REALbasic 2009 Release 2 on April 14th, will provide features that full-time developers need:
-A license key that can be installed on any number of computers or operating systems to make development and testing easier
-The Profiler for optimizing code performance*
-IDE Scripting for build automation*
-Remote Debugging*
-A REAL Server unlimited connections license
-Priority technical support
-New licenses will come with 12 months of updates, rather than 6 months

Wait a second. The asterisks mark features I already get now, all of which are pretty useful. (note that there are four, not three, items)

Three of these features were previously in the Professional Edition. Along with the price drop for the Professional Edition, we are moving these features to the Studio Edition. REAL Studio will be priced at $1495 with renewals priced at $749. However, we are offering all Professional Edition users a free upgrade to REAL Studio. And you can renew your license for up to two years at the current renewal rate of $250. But you must do this BEFORE you upgrade your license to REAL Studio.

So, basically, I can get a “free” upgrade to Studio if I want to continue getting remote debugging and profiling (among other things) which I already paid for — but when my subscription comes up for renewal it will be tripled in cost, or I can watch my existing license be gutted and the worthwhile parts of it moved to “Studio”.

Well this seems like a strong incentive to abandon Realbasic as quickly as possible.

Post Script

Apparently there were howls of protest about Real removing remote debugging from Realbasic Professional, so it’s going back in. This leaves IDE automation and Profiling as features that existing Pro customers will lose if they do not take the “free” upgrade. (Why do I put “free” in quotation marks? Because you’ll end up being stuck paying 3x (or 5x) as much for future upgrades.)

Unity 2.0

Unity 2 has been out for a month or so now, and I’ve gotten my head around most of the additions (everything except multiplayer, basically). It’s a bit of a mixed bag (I’ll probably write a more thorough review for MacApper) but the nutshell version is this:

The new UI support is at once great (in that it lets you do all the stuff you really need to do fairly easily) and disappointing (in that the architecture is pretty much a horrible kludge). In essence the UI code is all stateless procedural drawing code versus a library of widgets. There’s no proper event support, widgets don’t have an independent existence or retain state. (E.g. you can’t ask a button if the mouse is currently over it.)

The new UI code works, is pretty, and is fairly easy to use, but it’s kind of architecturally lame and the code to support a UI is unnecessarily complex and high maintenance, or you need to write your own state-ful abstraction layer. By comparison, Director offered two UI options — a clunky looking, incomplete, but otherwise functional set of widgets for basic interaction which could be dragged onto the timeline, and a platform-native plugin that let you build “proper” windows with standard controls, but which was completely un-integrated with the rest of your app.

So, on the good side, the new UI code works, looks good, and is integrated fairly well with everything else (cosmetically) … i.e. your UI widgets don’t look 10 years out of date or live in their own Window. On the bad side, writing UI code is unnecessarily tedious and you’ll end up reinventing all kinds of wheels… But it does seem like you could write a bunch of wrapper code for all this that could make it not suck (whereas there was simply no way to fix Director’s UI issues).

Enough on that topic.

The terrain engine is similarly great (the terrain drawing tools are simply awesome, the results look fabulous, and it’s all very easy to use) and incomplete (terrain doesn’t work with blob shadows, the terrain shader is kind of limited, and the lightmapper won’t take into account trees or other geometry in the scene, so while your terrain can cast shadows onto itself, it can’t receive shadows from objects, such as buildings, placed on it.

Several notable deficiencies in Unity remain: undo is still unreliable at best; UnityScript is still not JavaScript (which would be OK if the differences from JavaScript were properly documented, but they’re not); and there’s still no set-breakpoint-and-step-style debugger.

Note: Unity 2.1 addresses all the concerns discussed here except for the architecture of the UI system.