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Atlas: Under the Hood

At 280 North we’ve been working on a framework called Cappuccino for creating what we like to call desktop class applications. These are not your average web sites, but instead a new breed of web application that aims to replace many of the programs that currently run on your desktop. When we launched 280 Slides, the first application built on this framework, many people were surprised to see just what was possible in the browser. Since then, Cappuccino has been steadily progressing with over 40,000 downloads and code contributions from twenty-one individuals.

The goal of Cappuccino has always been to make it as simple as possible to build high quality applications in the browser, and up until now we’ve worked on providing built-in behavior for enabling such tasks as autosaving, undo/redo, and copy/paste. But recently we’ve been focusing on an entirely new product: Atlas. Atlas is a new IDE and visual layout editor that leverages the power of Cappuccino, but drastically reduces the amount of work required for creating a truly rich application experience on the web.

WYSIWYG

With Atlas you can build and style your entire interface using drag and drop. By default we provide you with a large library of built in widgets along with the new Aristo open source theme, meaning your application will look fantastic with no additional work. However, you can also skin these applications entirely from the editor and extend the library of widgets with Atlas’ plugin architecture. And unlike a lot of existing layout editor availabe today, Atlas is not a code generator. On the contrary, Atlas lets you edit the live JavaScript objects in memory and then takes a “snapshot” of them in place. When your application runs, it ‘thaws’ these objects out, making sure that you see exactly how your application will look before you run it.

Layout that Makes Sense

Atlas provides a new take on web layout that make it easy to define precisely the behavior you want, while simultaneously doing away with existing browser inconsistencies. Instead of having to learn the variety of different ways to position and resize elements in the browser, Atlas introduces the simple concept of ‘anchors and springs’. Anchoring an interface element to one of the edges around it ensures that it will stay “stuck” there when it’s container resizes. Activating the internal ‘springs’ causes it to resize with its container.

While simple to learn, these two tools enable you to create incredibly complex and fluid layouts. More importantly, they’re guaranteed to behave the same way regardless of the browser you’re running your web app in. Atlas also provides a large selection of collection views to handle common layout tasks such as split views, table views, and scroll views.

Connections Reduce Glue Code

A common problem that has plagued layout editors in the past is the need for additional glue code to “talk” to the generated interface. In Atlas, much of this work can be done with a technology called ‘connections’. Connections allow you to visually define the interactions between interface elements and other objects. For example, you can define what action a slider should take when it is dragged:

Similarly, you can ‘bind’ the contents of an array to a table, so that when it changes the table automatically updates as well, all without having to ever touch the keyboard:

Model View Controller Built-In

Cappuccino is a Model-View-Controller framework, and Atlas takes this idea to the next level by allowing you to not only create visual elements, but abstract models and controllers as well. By allowing you to interact directly with the objects in your program visually, you can focus on building unique interactions instead of learning a myriad of APIs.

Atlas has gone a step further and provided a number of pre-built controllers to existing web services that you can simply drop in to their applications. You can then simply use connections to grab information from services like RSS and Twitter. Once again, Atlas’ plugin architecture allows you to create controllers for your own web services as well, which you can then share with others.

Multi-Platform Support

Cappuccino was built from the ground up in preparation for a world of multiple platforms. It is becoming increasingly important for applications to run in several different environments: browsers, social networks, handheld devices, and much more. In general, very little application logic or backend code has to change from platform to platform, but the interface usually needs to be recreated from scratch.

With Atlas, it is drop dead simple to create a unique and custom interface for different platforms like the web browser and the iPhone. Cappuccino will then intelligently load the correct interface for your application depending on the environment it is being run on, allowing you to reduce the amount of code you need to rewrite and as well as using just one language and API for all the platforms you deploy on. We call this idea ‘Write once, layout everywhere’, and we feel it is the right way to gaurantee a high quality experience everywhere you ship your application.


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Atlas will be shipping this summer and you can sign up for email updates at 280atlas.com.

[Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/atelier_tee]

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