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VPlan4: A bit of history

Some of you might have already noticed that there is a new page on VPlan4. VPlan4 is -- as the name implies -- the 4th complete rewrite of my small task planning tool. Before I ramble on a bit on VPlan4 itself and its development, let me take you on a trip into the past.

Why VPlan?

VPlan is based on "Getting things done", a very nice book by David Allen which describes a work-flow. That particular work-flow tries to maximize the time you spend on advancing various projects, for instance, some stuff at work or the long-overdue car repair. At the time VPlan1 was written, there were no web-based services like remember the milk or todoist. So I went out to write a first small basic task-tracker.


The original version: I had no clue back then what features to use, so I started with a very simple tree structure for everything (one tree only), with C#. Storage was done by serializing the tree, and the tree-view was very rudimentary. All of the UI was implemented using WinForms. There was no drag&drop, but it served as a test-bed for some prototyping. I quickly scrapped it once I wanted to implement projects (which group several tasks together.) The key take-away from VPlan1 was that a WinForms based UI is a workable path, and that the backend is key.


The first VPlan I actually used for a longer time. Still written in C#, with a WinForms based UI, but a completely rewritten backend. Tasks where now stored as a table, and the tree structure was built on the fly. This gave some robustness improvements, but the WinForms UI was starting to become the limiting part. However, I had a much better separation now between UI and data, as the UI was just containing pointers into the data table and all manipulation was done on the database backend only.


In order to finally get a nice UI, I turned to C# and WPF (at that time, the .NET 3.0 framework was brand new, and 3.5 SP1 was not yet announced.) The backend was switched to SQL Server Compact, which allowed for low-level consistence checking via foreign keys. I wrote a model for the database backend, and hooked it up to the UI.

However, choosing WPF was a double-edged sword: While I really liked the declarative approach, making an usable tree-view was totally overkill. For instance, I wanted check-boxes in the tree-view to close tasks (something which is dead easy in WinForms): However, WPF does not support this out of the box, and the workarounds are rather cumbersome. I also never managed drag&drop to work nicely, even though I spent quite some time on the UI. There were also a bunch of platform-related issues, like a 3-5 second startup (even on a pretty beefy machine!) and the high memory use (used to be 70 MiB with .NET 3.5, went down to 30 MiB with .NET 4 now.)

What was nice about VPlan3 was the backend, which made all changes ACID and thus pretty reliable. I also spent some time polishing the UI (nice messages, questions, hot-keys, etc.) and used VPlan3 quite a lot since then. Interestingly, it was again a total rewrite of VPlan2 -- I couldn't use much of the old code base, and all of the UI was completely rewritten from scratch.


Fast-forward to 2010: I started to use Linux for some of my development work, and I really wanted VPlan to run on Linux as well. In the meantime, all of the web-based tools have appeared with nice UIs, drag & drop, comfort functions etc. which VPlan lacked, so there was really some reason to give it another shot. I eventually turned away from C# and gave it a shot in C++ -- to see how much work it actually is, and to get acquainted with Qt.

In the next weeks, I hope to get around to post a bit about the development experience and deploying. I've spent quite a bit of work this time to get a solid deployment and servicing story working on Windows, based around MSI and WiX.