Windows, macOS and the Web: Lessons from Cross-Platform Development at think-cell

By Sebastian Theophil

For twelve years, think-cell had been a Windows-only software company and our codebase of approximately 700k lines of code had accumulated many unintentional platform dependencies. Six years ago, we decided to port our application to the Mac. This change has affected every part of our development process: the project organization, build system and the way we program in C++ today. The commonly used cross-platform libraries such as Qt and boost were good tools to build on, but by themselves were not enough. For many concepts, such as mutexes, semaphores or shared memory, they only offer a common interface to platform-specific objects with very different semantics and lifetimes. We wanted light-weight, platform-independent C++ abstractions with identical semantics for rendering, internationalization, file I/O, mouse event handling, RPC calls and error reporting. Developing these was challenging, firstly, because we had to define which semantics our application needed and, secondly, we had to implement them on each platform. This was not an easy process but I would argue it has improved the quality of our code very much. By now, we have moved on to the next challenge and have started to move some functionality to web applications. We wanted to reuse our existing code-base of course, and that meant writing web applications in expressive, type-safe C++. Definitely an advantage in our book! We have built our web applications using emscripten, but thanks to a student intern, we generate type-safe C++ bindings, beyond those provided by emscripten, from any typescript interface definition. In my talk, I will give you an overview of the C++ abstractions we have implemented, focusing on the cross-platform problem areas where common semantics were hard to define due to limitations of either one of the operating systems, and of course I will show you our tools that let us write web application in C++.