App streaming is a way of delivering the user experience of an app without actually running the app on the user’s machine. The name is an allusion to music and video streaming; you get to experience the asset immediately, without waiting for it to download completely. Streaming an app also has the benefit of avoiding installation, something which can be problematic to do (and to undo). This is nice when you just want to demo an app, before deciding to install it.
Another advantage of app streaming is that the app can run on a much faster machine than the user’s, or even on a network of machines. Social networks are a crude example of app streaming; there are massive backends working behind your web browser, crunching away on all that graph data. Typically, though, app streaming involves an explicit visual component, with the user’s display and input devices standing in for the normal ones. The goal is to make using a new app as simple as playing an online video.
distributing Smalltalk user interface components
Everything in Smalltalk happens by objects sending messages to each other. With a remote messaging framework like Tether, we can put some of the objects in a user interface on a remote machine. Snowglobe is an adaptation of Squeak‘s Morphic user interface framework which runs Squeak on a server, but uses SqueakJS in a client web browser as the display. This is an easy way to recast a Smalltalk application as a web app, while retaining the processing speed and host platform access of the original.
Morphic is built around a display loop, where drawable components (morphs) are “stepped” at some frequency, like a flipbook animation. Normally, drawing is done on a single morph that corresponds to the display of the machine where Squeak is running. Snowglobe adds a second display morph which is Tether-aware. When drawing to this tethered display morph, the app server translates every display operation into a compact remote message.
To maximize speed, Morphic already tries to do its drawing with as few operations as possible (e.g., avoiding unnecessary redrawing). This is especially important when display operations become remote, since network transmission is orders of magnitude slower than local drawing. Since the tethered display morph also lives in a Smalltalk object memory, we can optimize drawing operations involving graphics that are known to both sides of the connection. For example, when changing the mouse cursor to a resize icon when hovering over the corner of a window, there’s no need to send the icon over the wire, since the displaying system already has it. Instead, we can send a much smaller message requesting that the icon be shown.
For full interaction, we also need to handle user input events going back the other way. Snowglobe co-opts Morphic’s user input handling as well. With user input and display forwarded appropriately together, we achieve the seamless illusion that our app is running locally, either as a single morph amongst other local morphs, or using the entire screen.
going beyond screen-sharing
Protocols like VNC do the remote display and user input handling we’ve discussed, although they are typically more complicated to start than clicking a link in a web browser. But since both systems in a Snowglobe session are Smalltalk, we can go beyond simple screen sharing. We can use Tether to send any remote messages we want, so either side can modify the app-streaming behavior in response to user actions. For example, the user might decide to go full-screen in the web browser displaying the app, prompting SqueakJS to notify the remote app, which could change the way the app displays itself.
try it for yourself
I’ve set up an AWS server running the Squeak IDE, reachable from SqueakJS in your web browser. Be gentle… there’s only one instance running (actually two, one in Europe and one in North America, chosen for you automatically by Amazon). Please check it out and let me know what you think!