VB Universal Windows App Part 3 (for the end-user): roaming settings, and in-app purchases

VB Universal Windows App Part 3 (for the end-user): roaming settings, and in-app purchases

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This is Part 3 of the "VB Universal Windows App" series:

In the first two parts we set up a VS Solution that helped us to share between our two app projects. In this post, we're going to code in the user-facing benefits of universal Windows apps.

From an end-user perspective, the benefit of universal Windows apps is that (1) if you buy the app in one store then it counts as bought in both, (2) if you buy a durable in-app purchase on one device then it counts as bought on both, (3) settings will roam between the Windows and Windows Phone versions of an app.

The first part (buy the app in one store and it counts as bought in both) is already complete, simply by registering the app with the same name in both stores. What we're going to implement is roaming settings, and in-app purchases.

I want to point out that the entirety of today's blog post is authored in the common PCL. We've "won" - we've set up the universal Windows app so we can do our work just once, and it works for both apps.


Roaming settings

We'll create some settings which will roam, and some settings which are local to each device.

Don't panic! The task of saving state can sometimes seem daunting. But as you can see it's only a two minute video to code it up from beginning to end.

What helps is to plan your app's data before you start coding the app. Keep in mind that all Windows and Windows Phone apps might be summarily terminated. When they're re-launched, the user will expect them to resume right where they left off. Therefore you need a way to save the current state of your app, and reload it later. That's the reason for the two "TODO" comments in the above code:

' TODO: Save application state and stop any background activity
' TODO: Load state from previously suspended application
Step 1: replace those comments with calls to two functions that we're going to write:

     Shared  Sub  LoadState()
     Shared  Sub  SaveState()

Pro tip: The Windows and Windows Phone design guidelines recommend that if the user manually launches the app then it should start in a "fresh" state, but if app is relaunched because (for instance) it had been shut down and the user navigated back to it, then it should resume where it left off. However many users nowadays prefer apps that violate these guidelines by always resuming where the user left off. Twitter on Windows Phone does this, for instance. You can achieve this Twitter effect just by commenting-out this "If" check in the OnLaunched method, i.e. by always reloading state.

             ' If e.PreviousExecutionState = ApplicationExecutionState.Terminated Then
     ' TODO: Load state from previously suspended application
            ' End If



Plan in advance the three kinds of state.

Transient state is stuff that will be constructed when the application starts, and not persisted. Example: the current mouse coordinates, or a single app-wide instance of "Dim RND As New System.Random()". (However, if you were writing say a card game and wanted to continue with the same random number sequence, then RND would be local state... see here for ideas how).

Local state is stuff that will be saved onto the current device when your app suspends, and reloaded when the app resumes. Example: the currently open page and its values; or the current position of all pieces in a Checkers game.

Roaming state is stuff that will be saved and reloaded just like local data. But it will also be synced to other devices, at times outside the control of the app developer or end user. The other device might even sync its data to your app while your app is currently running! Example: user preferences for whether they like inches or centimeters, or whether your app's flying toasters should be lightly toasted or dark brown. Roaming state cannot be larger than 100k at present.


Pro tip: as your app "grows up", you'll find it easiest to completely decouple the state+logic from the UI, in a design pattern called MVVM. There are lots of training resources on the topic, e.g. MVVM in 5 Minutes and MVVM in VB.Net and MVVM in Windows 8.


Plan in advance how you will serialize your local and roaming data to disk. For instance, you'll have to figure out how to serialize the current open page (including position of all scrollbars and checkboxes), or how to serialize the current position of all game pieces.

Again, don't panic! There are two techniques presented here. The first, settings dictionaries, are very easy to use for small amounts of data. The second, data contracts, become easy to use once you've put some initial plumbing in place.


Settings dictionaries are provided by Windows and can be used to manually serialize and deserialize key/value pairs. They are convenient if there isn't much data to serialize, but can't hold more than 8k per setting. (Note: we've factored the "reload-roaming-state" into a separate method, for reasons we'll come to later).

Shared  Sub SaveState()
    ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values("x") = x
    ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values("y") = y
    ApplicationData.Current.RoamingSettings.Values("burntToast") = burntToast
End Sub

  Sub LoadState()
    x =
    y = CDbl(ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values("y"))
ApplicationData .Current,  Nothing)
End Sub
Shared Sub ReloadRoamingState(appData As ApplicationData, o As Object)
    burntToast =
End Sub

Pro tip: when you release v2 of your app and users will first install it, your apps LoadState method will find only v1 state. Make sure you plan for the future. One common idea is to include a version number in the state, so their LoadState method knows exactly what it's loading.

DataContracts are useful if you have complex classes or structures to serialize. They are explained on MSDN here. Briefly, you put the <DataContract> attribute on your class or structure, and <DataMember> on members, and the entire whole thing serializes easily.

< DataContract >
Public  Class  GameState
    < DataMember >  Public  balls  As  List ( Of  BallInfo )
    < DataMember >  Public  background  As  Color
End  Class
< DataContract >
Public  Class  BallInfo
    < DataMember >  Public  x  As  Double
    < DataMember >  Public  y  As  Double
    < DataMember >  Public  dx  As  Double
    < DataMember >  Public  dy  As  Double
End  Class
I'm going to show how to use DataContracts to serialize state to a file in the LocalFolder or RoamingFolder. By using files we bypass the 8k limit faced by Settings, but it's more complicated to load. That's because reading files is an async operation, which might take time to complete, so the OnLaunched method can merely kick off the state-loading process. It's up to you to make sure the rest of your app deals gracefully with it, maybe by having your main page show a progress indicator until the load has finished.
Shared  Async  Function  SaveStateAsync()  As  Task
     Dim  file =  Await  ApplicationData.Current.LocalFolder.CreateFileAsync( "settings.dat" ,  CreationCollisionOption .ReplaceExisting)
     Using  stream =  Await  file.OpenStreamForWriteAsync()
        Dim  d  As  New  DataContractSerializer ( GetType ( GameState ))
        d.WriteObject(stream, currentGameState)
     End  Using
End  Function

Shared  Async  Sub  StartLoadStateAsync()
    ' Async Subs are generally bad practice, because there's no way for the
    ' caller to know when we're finished or to catch exceptions.
    ' But in this case we have no choice - so we'll handle exceptions ourselves,
    ' and expect the rest of the app to respond gracefully when
    ' "currentGameState" gets assigned.

         Dim  file =  Await  ApplicationData.Current.LocalFolder.GetFileAsync( "settings.dat" )
         Using  stream =  Await  file.OpenStreamForReadAsync()
             Dim  d  As  New  DataContractSerializer ( GetType ( GameState ))
            currentGameState =  CType (d.ReadObject(stream),  GameState )
         End  Using
     Catch ex As Exception When TypeOf  ex  Is  FileNotFoundException  OrElse
                              TypeOf  ex  Is  SerializationException
        ' If we couldn't load existing state, then we'll start with fresh default state:
       gs =  New  GameState
        gs.background = Windows.UI. Colors .Aquamarine
        gs.balls.Add( New  BallInfo  With  {.x = 15, .y = 10, .dx = 1, .dy = 2})
        gs.balls.Add( New  BallInfo  With  {.x = 1, .y = 2, .dx = 3, .dy = 4})
     Catch  ex  As  Exception
     End  Try
End  Sub

Public  Shared  Sub  OnLaunched(e  As  LaunchActivatedEventArgs )
     Dim  rootFrame =  TryCast ( Window.Current.Content,  Frame )
     If  rootFrame  Is  Nothing  Then
        rootFrame =  New  Frame ()
        If  e.PreviousExecutionState =  ApplicationExecutionState.Terminated  Then
            StartLoadStateAsync()  ' Kick off this long-running method
        End  If
 End  Sub



How to deal with syncing of roaming data.

Roaming data should be loaded in OnLaunched, and saved upon app suspension, as normal. But you should also deal with what happens when roaming data is delivered onto the device while your app is currently running. The process is straightforward. Here are the hooks:

Sub  OnLaunched(e  As  LaunchActivatedEventArgs )
     AddHandler  ApplicationData.Current.DataChanged,  AddressOf  ReloadRoamingState
 End Sub 

  Function  OnSuspendingAsync()  As  Task
     RemoveHandler  ApplicationData.Current.DataChanged,  AddressOf  ReloadRoamingState
 End Sub 

  ReloadRoamingState(appData  As  ApplicationData , o  As  Object ) 
    ... deserialize the data as discussed previously
 End Sub


In-app purchases

We already created an in-app purchase in the two dev centers for something we called "SpeedBoost". Now we'll add code to use it, and to allow the user to purchase it from within the app.

The point about an in-app purchase is that the user can buy it from within the app! Here's a screenshot of the "purchase" button I created for Paddle Game (in this case for a computer guidance system, rather than a speed boost):

As for what the user sees after they click your purchase button, that's entirely implemented by the system. The bad news is that you're only going to see success or dialogs until after your app has been finished and uploaded to the stores (and even after that it sometimes takes a day or two for everything to be approved).



Step 1: add a field to App.vb to record whether user owns the in-app product. I use a nullable Boolean, where I'll interpret "Nothing" to mean "still need to check"

     Private Shared  _HasSpeedBoost  As  Boolean? =  Nothing


Step 2: add a property to App.vb to perform the check if necessary:

     Shared  ReadOnly Property  HasSpeedBoost  As  Boolean

             If  _HasSpeedBoost  Is  Nothing  Then  _HasSpeedBoost =
 CurrentApp.LicenseInformation.ProductLicenses( "SpeedBoost" ).IsActive
             Return  _HasSpeedBoost.Value
        End  Get
    End Property


Step 3: add a method to App.vb which will perform the purchase. In it, I reset the nullable field back to _Nothing, meaning "still need to check". That way the property getter will be re-run, and will work correctly whether the user completed or declined the purchase.

     Shared  Async  Function  PurchaseSpeedBoostAsync()  As  Task
         If  HasSpeedBoost()  Then  Return
        _HasSpeedBoost =  Nothing
         Await  CurrentApp.RequestProductPurchaseAsync( "SpeedBoost" )
     End  Function


Step 4: add a button in your AdaptiveMainPage.xaml (or elsewhere in your UI) where the user can make the purchase:

< Button  x:Name="purchase1"  Content="Purchase Speed Boost"/> 

Step 5: respond to the button-click:

     Async  Sub  purchase1_Click(sender  As  Object , e  As  RoutedEventArgs )  Handles  purchase1.Click
        Await  App.PurchaseSpeedBoostAsync()
     End  Sub


Step 6: Show or hide the visibility of the purchase button according to whether the user has already purchased the speed boost:

     Overrides  Async  Sub  OnNavigatedTo(e  As  NavigationEventArgs )
    End Sub

     Sub  UpdatePurchaseButtonVisibility()
        purchase1.Visibility =  If ( App.HasSpeedBoost(),
     End  Sub


Step 7: Remember that your app has to be made better in some way by the in-app purchase! In my case, if the user purchased the SpeedBoost, then I doubled the ball's speed...

     Shared  Sub  Tick()
        x += dx : y += dy
         If  HasSpeedBoost()  Then  x += dx : y += dy
    End  Sub


Telemetry and debugging

There are lots of bugs that you'll only discover after publishing your app. It's important that you get back good actionable feedback about them.

It's especially important to get good feedback when in-app purchasing fails. Imagine a customer who wants to pay you money, but a glitch isn't letting them - they'll be doubly frustrated. It's often better to err on the side of generosity and give them the functionality at least this time around. I also wanted good telemetry for the in-app purchasing because, until the app had been approved in both stores, I was getting strange crashes.

Here's how I rewrote PurchaseSpeedBoostAsync to get better feedback:

Shared  Async  Function  PurchaseSpeedBoostAsync()  As  Task
     If  HasSpeedBoost()  Then  Return
    _HasSpeedBoost =  Nothing
     Dim  log =  CStr ( ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values( "log" ))
     If  log  IsNot  Nothing  Then
         ' previous run of this app tried to purchase, but didn't succeed...
         ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values.Remove( "log" )
        _HasSpeedBoost =  True  ' so the user can at least use the item
     End  If
        log =  "About to await RequestProductPurchaseAsync"
         ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values( "log" ) = log
         Dim  result =  Await  CurrentApp.RequestProductPurchaseAsync( "SpeedBoost" )
        log &= vbCrLf &  String.Format( "Finished await. Status={0}, OfferId={1}, TransactionId={2}" , result.Status, result.OfferId, result.TransactionId)
         ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values( "log" ) = log
     Catch  ex  As  Exception
        log &= vbCrLf &  "EXCEPTION! "  & ex.Message & ex.StackTrace
         ApplicationData.Current.LocalSettings.Values( "log" ) = log
     End  Try
End  Function

This method "pessimistically" logs, writing its latest state to LocalSettings every step of the way. Even if it crashes part way through, then at least the log will show how far it got.

Separately, when the method starts, it checks if any previous invocation of the method had left anything in the log. If so, that means the user must have tried to make the purchase but something went wrong. The best thing to do is allow for a problem-report to be sent by email, and give the user the benefit of the doubt by assuming (for this run of the app) that the purchase went through.

Shared  Sub  SendErrorReport(ex  As  Exception )
    SendErrorReport(ex.Message & vbCrLf &  "stack:"  & vbCrLf & ex.StackTrace)
End  Sub
Shared  Async  Sub  SendErrorReport(msg  As  String )
    ' Async Subs are normally bad because the caller can't know when the method
    ' has finished and can't deal with exceptions. But the caller will typically be
    ' inside a catch block where they can't await. And even if they did get an
    ' exception from us what would they do? send an error report?!!!
     Dim  md  As  New  Windows.UI.Popups.MessageDialog ( "Oops. There's been an internal error" ,  "Bug report" )
     Dim  r  As  Boolean ? =  Nothing
    md.Commands.Add( New  Windows.UI.Popups.UICommand ( "Send bug report" ,  Sub () r =  True ))
    md.Commands.Add( New  Windows.UI.Popups.UICommand ( "Cancel" ,  Sub () r =  False ))
     Await  md.ShowAsync()
     If  Not  r.HasValue  OrElse  Not  r.Value  Then  Return
     Dim  emailTo =  "my.email@address.com"
     Dim  emailSubject =  "App1 problem report"
     Dim  emailBody =  "I encountered a problem with App1..."  & vbCrLf & vbCrLf & msg
     Dim  url =  "mailto:?to="  & emailTo &  "&subject="  & emailSubject &  "&body="  &  Uri.EscapeDataString(emailBody)
     Await  Windows.System.Launcher.LaunchUriAsync( New  Uri (url))
End  Sub


So far in this blog series we've created out app, and implemented most of its functionality - in-app purchases, local state, and roaming state. All this is already good enough for a great many apps. Tomorrow, though, we'll venture into serious games programming - we'll add sound effects using the open-source SharpDX library.



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