Developing for Windows Phone 8.1 using XAML

By far the most common way to build Windows Phone applications is to use XAML and C# (or VB). In this case the XAML is a variant on Silverlight, which made it very easy for developers building Silverlight applications to switch across to building Windows Phone applications. 4 years on and the number of Silverlight developers has dropped (well at least the appeal of being a Silverlight developer has), and all the focus now is on becoming a Windows developer.

Unfortunately somewhere along the lines the Windows team decided that having three XAML frameworks (WPF, Silverlight and WP) wasn’t enough and that they needed to come up with another, only marginally different, framework. This we’ll refer to as Windows XAML.

With the announcements around Windows Phone 8.1 we’re entering a new time of convergence between phone and desktop applications where we can reuse not just the code (eg Portable Class Libraries and code file sharing) but also the XAML markup. This doesn’t come for free and relies on migrating our applications, or starting new applications, using Windows XAML instead of Silverlight.

So where does this leave us? What it means is that there are now three ways to develop for Windows Phone 8.1:

1) Windows Phone 8.0 Silverlight

Use this if you want maximum reach from a single application package; you don’t need or want to use any of the new platform features. This type of application will run on all Windows Phone 8.0 and 8.1 devices.

2) Windows Phone 8.1 Silverlight

By running the  “Retarget to Windows Phone 8.1” option after right-clicking on your application in Solution Explorer, your application will be migrated forward and will run against the new runtime. This means you can take advantage of some of the new platform features without having to redevelop your application. Whilst in most cases the retargeting process doesn’t modify the behaviour of your application, you will need to verify your application functionality before publishing the new version.

Once retargeted your application will only run on Windows Phone 8.1 devices, so it is recommended that you take a backup or a branch of your code and keep the 8.0 version alive to support those users who haven’t upgraded.

3) Windows Phone 8.1 Windows XAML

New applications, not wanting to maintain backward support for Windows Phone 8.0, can be created using Windows XAML. Ideally this would be all new applications as it allows for reuse across phone and tablet. The Universal projects concept introduced into Visual studio makes it easy to share code between projects, whilst still having platform specific functionality included in the “head” projects (ie the Windows and Windows Phone projects).

There is one thing that isn’t being highlighted is that each option has some limits on what you can and can’t do. 8.0 SL projects can’t access any of the new platform features. Windows XAML can’t do things like lock screen background provider….. it’s worth reading up on this before you make a decision

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