Managing XAML Resources in Universal Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Apps

Universal apps for Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 allow you to share both code and XAML resources between desktop and phone versions of an application. Anything contained in the “Shared” pseudo-project gets compiled individually into each platform-specific project:


This is unlike Portable Class Libraries where a single assembly is compiled and shared between the projects that use it. Files in the “Shared” project are included and compiled directly alongside the platform-specific projects’ own files.

This enables some nice features. For instance, you can write conditional code blocks (using #if) to change application behavior between different platforms. New Universal apps have the WINDOWS_PHONE_APP and WINDOWS_APP symbols defined for this purpose:

Sharing XAML Resources

XAML resources are a bit different. It isn’t currently possible to have conditional XAML within a single file (although there is at least one effort being made toward that goal), so you either have to share the entire file or make a separate copy for each platform.

If you want to define app-wide XAML resources (outside of the context of a particular page or control) you might typically do that in App.xaml. But if you share App.xaml/App.xaml.cs between both the phone and desktop platforms (and you should!) then it becomes impossible to have different app-wide XAML resources on each platform.

Merged ResourceDictionaries

You can work around this issue by merging in platform-specific ResourceDictionaries within App.xaml:

In this example, the app will look for a file called Themes/AppResources.xaml and merge it into its main ResourceDictionary. This file could be either a shared or platform-specific file, and you can specify additional ResourceDictionaries to merge in as well. (This can get a bit tricky, however, if you need to reference static resources across different merged files, so it’s usually best to try to keep things contained in a single file if possible.)

For our needs, we’ll simply add a new Resource Dictionary with the specified name in each project. (Also, it’s worth noting that Resource Dictionary is now included in the list of file templates within Visual Studio, making this even easier.)

Here’s what the VS solution looks like with the platform-specific XAML resource dictionaries underlined in red:

universal-xamlresourcesFrom there, just put any XAML resources you need in the platform-specific AppResources.xaml file and they will become available throughout your application. Any styles or other resources will work in the Visual Studio designer window and the new XAML static resource autocompletion will continue to work exactly as you’d expect.

Easier Page and User Control Sharing

This also makes it easier to share pages and user controls between platforms.  You can reference platform-specific styles, DataTemplates, or any other static resource from shared pages/controls as long as a resource exists with the same name on each platform.

In most situations, this will probably be a better solution than modifying control properties from conditional code in the code behind. Not only does it help maintain the separation of code and layout, but it also works perfectly within the Visual Studio designer.

Here’s an example with a shared page. The style MyTextBlockStyle sets the text color to red on Windows Phone and green on Windows. (By the way, you can switch between viewing within the context of Windows or Windows Phone by using the drop-down box I’ve underlined in red.)

Windows Phone:




Finding Default Styles for Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 XAML Controls

When you want to retemplate a XAML control, you can usually create a copy of its default template by right clicking the control within the Visual Studio Designer or Document Outline windows and selecting “Edit Template” or “Edit Additional Templates”:


Clicking “Edit a Copy…” will allow you to name the new style and select where you want to put it. Visual Studio will copy over the default properties and point your control to use the new style.

In some situations, it may be difficult or impossible to select the control you wish to edit through the designer. Or, such as with this ContentDialog control, the option may be disabled:


For those situations, you can find the default styles for all Windows Phone 8.1 XAML controls in the following file:

The equivalent file for Windows 8.1 XAML controls is located at:

From there, you can copy the styles and templates you need into your app and modify them as necessary.

Eat What You Like, but Less Of It

If I were to write a diet book, that would be the title.

One year ago today I started tracking my weight. I had been overweight for a long time, but I had never made any serious effort to do anything about it. I actually didn’t even know how much I weighed.

Now, one year later, I’ve lost 70 pounds, I’m well within the “normal” BMI range for my height, and I feel better (both physically and psychologically) than I have in years.

A lot of people ask me how I did it or what my secret was. The truth is, there is no trick, and you probably already know the answer: diet and occasional exercise. That’s it.

I never knew how easy this could be. My whole life I believed it would take more effort than it actually did. I think a lot of people have these same misconceptions.

But there are a few things I learned along the way that helped me stay motivated. These changes have made a huge improvement in my quality of life and I hope by sharing my experiences I can inspire others to do the same.

Note: These are just my personal experiences of what worked for me. Different things work for different people, and what worked for me may not work for you. This is not medical advice. Consider talking to your doctor before starting a new diet plan.

Continue reading Eat What You Like, but Less Of It

The Importance of Using a Reputable Web Hosting Company

PHP allows you to execute arbitrary external programs using exec. This is great for when you need to do something beyond what is possible to do with PHP alone.

For instance, let’s say you needed to do some PDF manipulation. You might find that a program like QPDF suits your needs. If you install QPDF on your server you can call it from PHP simply by using exec. For example:

The Inaccessible VPS

I’ve recently been developing a web application for a client that involves a lot of custom PDF processing. At this moment, we’re using three different PDF manipulation libraries/programs to fulfill the needs of this site. Unfortunately, there is no single PDF library that handles all of our needs for this application.

Thankfully, the client has elected to use a VPS. The great thing about using a VPS is it gives you full control over the entire server, allowing maximum flexibility to use any third-party libraries we need.

Unfortunately, however, the client chose to use the same company they purchased their domain name from as their VPS provider.  You might know them from their Super Bowl ads. Or their support of SOPA. Or that time their CEO shot and killed an elephant. Or perhaps one of the other controversies they’ve been involved in.

The client also chose the $129.99/month “assisted service plan” which removes root access to the server in exchange for allowing the company’s “expert staff” (more on them later) to manage it on your behalf. You can’t even access the server via SSH. Instead, you are given access to a Plesk control panel, but you don’t even get full access to that — most of the interesting settings are locked out.

So one of the major reasons for picking a VPS — direct, unrestricted control — isn’t even available.

“Expert Staff”

Ok, so, giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe dealing with support every time you need to run a command on the server isn’t so bad (bear with me here). Maybe we can even forgive the minimum 24-72 hour turnaround time (longer than any host I’ve ever dealt with) as long as they do what you need.

PHP’s exec was disabled by default, but they enabled it for us. Great. We asked to have PDFtk installed, they installed it. Well, first they told us they couldn’t install it because it’s a Windows program (all you have to do is scroll a bit to see the Linux version). Not exactly confidence-inspiring, but after getting our support request escalated and pointing out the Linux version, a few days later, we had it up and running.

We later found that we would need QPDF as well to unlock encrypted PDFs. (PDFtk can do this too, but, unlike QPDF, it requires the original encryption password.) So we submitted another support ticket. While they did at least recognize QPDF is available for Linux, they refused to install it because “we can’t install any application that require [sic] us to compile it on the server.”

Of course, QPDF binaries are available from a number of places. This is a CentOS 6 server, and QPDF can even be installed directly from the EPEL repository.

Breaking New Ground

Sadly, supplying ready-to-install binaries still wouldn’t be enough to convince support to install QPDF.

At this point you might be wondering why we hadn’t already moved to another host, and, indeed, if it were up to me, we would have moved this site long before this set of issues. Unfortunately it isn’t up to me, and the client still wants to use the original VPS. I suspect it’s because they agreed to a one or two-year contract with this provider.

Anyway, back to QPDF. Support replied saying they still couldn’t install it because, while they were able to find documentation showing examples of using PDFtk from a web application (presumably using a wrapper such as this), they couldn’t find any documentation that indicated QPDF could be used in the same way. Evidently nobody has ever called QPDF from PHP before (or, more likely, it’s just that nobody has posted PHP examples of it because of how trivial it is to use via exec).

So that is the reason for this post: to provide public documentation showing how QPDF could conceivably be used from a web application. It’s apparently impossible to program anything without ready-to-go examples from documentation, blog posts, or Stack Overflow.

Don’t Do This

Seriously. Use a reputable web hosting company. Web hosting is a horrible business, but, at the very least, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by not buying it from the long list of “services” your domain registrar tries to sell you during checkout.

I used Liquid Web for nearly 10 years and, even with managed servers, I’ve never had to try to convince them to install something. They’re not scared to give you root access. Even when I would screw something up, they were always happy to help, and even explain the steps they took to fix it.

I’ve recently started moving some sites to Linode. I haven’t had to use their support yet, but even if you choose their paid managed support, you still retain root access to your servers.

If nothing else, if you’re hosting something big enough to need a VPS, at least make sure you have root access. That way, if support turns out to be incompetent, you can at least go in and fix things yourself.

Update: QPDF has been installed! Total time from first request: 15 days.

Fixing jumpy ListBox scrolling in WP7 Mango

Update October 14, 2011: If you are using Buttons in your item templates this may cause some issues. See the comments at the bottom of the page for more information and a potential workaround.

A few days ago I tweeted about a ListBox scrolling issue I found with WP7 Mango when using item templates that have different heights. I first noticed this issue when using the Silverlight Toolkit’s LongListSelector control, but I found that it also applies to the standard ListBox control (which the Mango version of the Silverlight Toolkit uses internally to display data) whenever list items have different heights (e.g., wrapped text, list headers/footers, etc.).

In short, the issue is that after tapping/selecting an item in the list, scrolling becomes extremely jumpy. It’s a bit hard to describe — it’s not just a matter of poor performance, the list scroll position will actually jump up or down as you try to scroll through the list.

I found a relevant bug report on the SL Toolkit’s issue tracker here. At first I thought the issue was caused by selecting an item within the ListBox but I found that deselecting the item didn’t fix the scrolling behavior.

After doing some further testing I discovered that the issue was triggered whenever the ListBox (or a control displayed within the ListBox) gained focus. Setting focus to another control on the page seems to fix the issue completely.
Continue reading Fixing jumpy ListBox scrolling in WP7 Mango

Using remote images with secondary live tiles in WP7 Mango

I’ve seen a few posts on Twitter and this blog post by Jeff Wilcox about the issues with using a remote image on secondary live tiles, so I thought it might be useful to share the workaround I developed for a new WP7 application I have been working on that makes heavy use of secondary tiles.

In short, the issue with using remote URIs for the BackgroundImage or BackBackgroundImage properties of secondary live tiles is that the tiles will disappear after restarting the phone. Worse, the tile still appears in the ShellTile.ActiveTiles list as though the tile is still pinned. This issue is mentioned in a few parts of the documentation, including here:

When creating a secondary Tile, the BackgroundImage and the BackBackgroundImage images must be created using a local resource.

I did some testing and determined that the issue is only caused by using a remote image URI during the initial tile creation — any tile updates that occur later on can use remote URIs without any trouble. In fact, you can update the tile with a remote URI immediately after creating it and the tile will still appear after the phone is restarted. (Note that the image displayed after a restart will be the static, local image and not the remote image. For my app, the tiles are regularly updated via push notifications but you could also update the tiles from within your app or background agent, etc.)
Continue reading Using remote images with secondary live tiles in WP7 Mango

MicroTweet for the .NET Micro Framework

Update April 14, 2011: This project is now on CodePlex: MicroTweet – Twitter OAuth API Library for the .NET Micro Framework

I recently purchased a Netduino Plus, a small (but powerful) board based on an Atmel 32-bit microprocessor with the same form factor as an Arduino. The Netduino can run programs written in C# for the .NET Micro Framework and the “Plus” version adds a 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port, giving you a very powerful network-capable device for about $59 USD.

What can you do with it? Quite a lot, actually, as seen in the Project Showcase section of the Netduino Forums. You have access to network sockets via System.Net.Sockets, you can perform HTTP requests via System.Http, and there are even a few lightweight web server implementations available.

The only thing I couldn’t find is a library for Twitter. Looking around, I found a project called Tweet Library for Arduino, which sends tweets through an external website, presumably to avoid implementing OAuth on the Arduino. For this project, I decided to make the Netduino communicate with Twitter’s API directly, which means no external websites or proxies are necessary.
Continue reading MicroTweet for the .NET Micro Framework

WP7 Application Crash Reporter

Update Feb. 26, 2011: Crash logger code has been modified to provide more details, including the OS version, current culture, current XAML page, and whether the app is obscured or locked.

Recently I found Andy Pennell’s LittleWatson Class, which is designed to log and report any unexpected crashes in your WP7 app. This can provide extremely useful data about problems your users have experienced and, if you tend to run your app without debugging enabled, crashes that occur during development.

Andy’s code is designed to send error reports via e-mail, but I’d prefer something a bit less intrusive. For Remote, I decided to write a class similar to LittleWatson that would submit the error reports to a script running on my web server.
Continue reading WP7 Application Crash Reporter

Simple Installation Tracking for WP7 Apps

When I first started developing Remote, Microsoft had not yet provided a way for developers to see how many downloads their apps were getting. Microsoft now provides app download statistics via the App Hub, but the data is delayed by 6 days and only shows new installations – app upgrade statistics are not available. With this in mind, I decided to create a simple installation tracking system to monitor how well my app was doing in real time.

Looking through the App Hub Forums, I found a few other sales tracking systems. This one, based on Google AppEngine, tracks not only installations but usage activity and phone model and manufacturer information. This one is based on the Silverlight Analytics framework and uses Google Analytics for reporting.

My tracking code is much simpler and does not require any third-party frameworks, but it only reports new installations and upgrades. If you need to track feature usage information, you might be better off using one of the other solutions rather than trying to modify this code to your needs. Also, it’s worth noting that retrieving device manufacturer and model information requires an additional capability listing (“phone identity”) which may deter customers from wanting to try your app.
Continue reading Simple Installation Tracking for WP7 Apps

iTunes Mini Player Shortcut

When Apple released iTunes 9, the behavior of the Cmd-Ctrl-Z shortcut was changed.  Previously, it would toggle the window between the full-size “regular” view, and the small, “mini-player” view.  This change was quickly reversed in the next version of iTunes, returning the shortcut key to its previous behavior.

With the iTunes 9.0.3 release a few days ago, the behavior of this shortcut key has changed once again.  Fortunately, the Keyboard Preferences panel allows you to fix this once and for all:

Just open System Preferences, go to the Keyboard settings, and add the following key shortcuts in the “Application Shortcuts” section under the “Keyboard Shortcuts” tab:

  • Zoom – Cmd-Option-Ctrl-Z (or any other key shortcut, it just has to be something different than Cmd-Ctrl-Z)
  • Switch to Mini Player – Cmd-Ctrl-Z
  • Switch from Mini Player – Cmd-Ctrl-Z

All of these should be added for iTunes specifically, as shown in the above screen shot.