Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Modern Tools and Archaic Practices Shouldn't Mix

Sun have released NetBeans 6.5, which, among many other (potentially) useful and interesting features, claims to officially support Web development using PHP. This is, on the face of things, a major improvement from the situation under NB 6.1 and prior, which treated PHP essentially as other unsupported languages were treated: you could do raw text editing, but the features that are the entire point of using an IDE - auto-completion, search/cross-reference, and so on - were completely absent. Not so in 6.5; at least minimal support for features like code completion, auto-display of PHPDoc during code entry, and so on can be found here. After a few minutes of poking around, I was starting to get optimistic; here was a decent, if somewhat more heavyweight, alternative to the Komodo Edit which I had been using for some months. Why look for alternatives when I was extremely happy with Komodo Edit for the Mac? Because, almost every day, I sat down in front of Komodo Edit for Linux, and became frustrated with the inconsistencies, limitations and general less-polished feel (Why can't ActiveState include KE for Mac key emulation along with vi and emacs?)

So, back to NetBeans and PHP. I spent a few minutes putting together toy code just to see how the editor felt. Then I created the really one-and-only sample PHP project that came with NB 6.5, a site for a fictional India-based budget airline. Go through the 'New Project' wizard, select the project type, the directory to be used to contain the entire thing (for development, at least), and hit The Magic "Finish" Button.

And, voilĂ , a new project is born:

At first blush, nothing too obviously catastrophic. Rather non-semantic names for the image files, and the files under 'include' generally presume that you'll only ever need one nav bar, for example, but hey, it's a sample project, I tell myself. It's not necessarily meant to be production-quality; it's supposed to give you a starting point to either see how to use NetBeans to work in the PHP you already know, or how to use this PHP that's all over the Web in the NetBeans you've been using earlier versions of.

And then I double-click on the index.php file in the Projects pane. And my jaw hits the floor as I see... 1996-ASP-style intermingling of PHP code and raw HTML. OK, the DTD is from 1999 and the PHP code uses superglobals, which date from 2001, but you get the idea.

We've spent the better part of a decade, as a craft, running screaming away from this style of work. No sane, experienced PHP developer would write code like this today; we may not have (quite) advanced to the point where "everybody" uses the same tools for similar projects, but separation of presentation (HTML) and logic (PHP) is pretty universally seen as not just a Good Thing® but a Necessary Thing® if the site is ever going to be debugged/maintained. There are just so many problems that conmingled code and markup create, unnecessarily, in living code. I'm well aware that a 'toy' example for a general-purpose editor-with-benefits can not (and arguably should not) try to teach tyros the basics of the language in question.

But is it really too much to ask that such an example be written in a reasonably modern and correct style, or at least put big red (say, 144-point Comic Sans) warnings to the effect, "DANGER: If you don't know why this is  horrible practice, please go buy a book! The job you save may well be your own."

Still using the free Komodo Edit on the Mac, trying to justify shelling out for the "real" Komodo IDE... but that's a deliberation for another post.

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