Tuesday 5 October 2010

Redundancy is Repetitive, Inefficient and Counterproductive

But you already know that.

I've long been a supporter of free and open source software, even contributing to a few projects. However, my enthusiasm has cooled a bit in the last several years, as the time I've been able to devote to such projects has both dwindled and been divided among more projects.

I'm continually flabbergasted by the number of open-source projects that cover the same ground, ad infinitum, often with little to no apparent differentiation between them. By continually "reinventing the same wheel," these small projects usually manage to put out a small number of alpha- or beta-quality releases, and then cease to make visible progress. This could be because the original developer(s) became frustrated or distracted; because the project succumbed to internal politics (a leading cause of FLOSS project death); or merely because the developer(s) realised that they were deep in the rut of a path that has been travelled many, many times before.

This flash of obviousness came about as I've been researching and evaluating PHP frameworks for Web development. I've been developing and maintaining sites using a couple of these, notably Kohana 2.3, but for various reasons have been reluctant to make the switch to the now-current 3.0 release. I decided to do a relatively formal, structured evaluation of several of the frameworks out there, rather than just pounce on the first I came across that looked "reasonable." (Silly me, but oh well.) Of course, as my list of frameworks to look at grew from six, to twenty, to considerably more, I became uncomfortable; torn between the reality that I'm doing this all myself (and devoting significantly less than 100% time to the endeavour), but at the same time wanting to remain open to pleasant surprises. After all, "pleasant surprises" were how I stumbled upon Kohana in the first place, and though I am strongly considering using another tool in its place (again, for non-technical reasons), contributing to a megalithic monoculture is not my idea of "adding value."

Today I did something that I should have done a week or two ago: I went out to SourceForge and got a list of all the PHP frameworks registered on the site.

Oh, my effing $DEITY! "Searching gives 1316 results."

Obviously, not all of those are appropriate (there are numerous reinventions of the CMS wheel, for instance); many can be filtered simply because they haven't published updates recently enough to meet my criteria, and so on, but that's all rather beside my current point.

Open-source projects are (in)famously both insular and prolific, leading to the kind of nonsense I ran into on SourceForge. Commercial products have a built-in inhibitor of this particular pathology: if a market gets divided among so many competitors that nobody can cover their costs, then in very short order the existing products will either consolidate into fewer, more sustainable alternatives or die altogether. Open-source projects, particularly those started by people inexperienced in such projects, fail to realise that they too are competing for resources just as much as their commercial brethren. In the FLOSS case, the finite, competed-for resource is time, both of (potential) contributors and of passive users (what the commercial world calls "customers").

Some open-source projects recognise this. In the Linux and Unix/BSD desktop worlds, the "market" for desktop managers (that provide the windows, icons, menus, and so on that are the UI to the user) has been dominated by two projects, KDE and GNOME. Though there are other choices with solid offerings and active communities, a developer can choose to develop for either KDE or GNOME with the confidence that virtually anyone in his target audience will be able to run his software on their system of choice. Consequently, most projects that have to make a choice, choose KDE or GNOME.

The Web is a different beast entirely, and while standards are for the most part very well-defined, the "barrier to entry" for those seeking to do things (allegedly) differently is very low. Some in the PHP Web development community advise new developers to tackle creating their own framework, as a learning tool. I suspect that that's how many of the SourceForge listings originated. I also happen to think that the advice itself is naïve, akin to a new auto mechanic being advised to build his own engine to gain a better understanding of those from Toyota or Ford. What I would recommend instead is that a new developer learn one or two of the more widely-used frameworks, browse around for another two or three that seem interesting, and start contributing to the project(s) of her choice. Virtually all such projects recognise their need for more help, as well as the fact that "we were all newbies once."

Consolidation in the PHP-framework field, while maintaining the low barrier to entry, should be a Good Thing™: to a greater degree than commercial products, FLOSS projects should succeed on their merits, technical and otherwise. As more developers join a well-run project community, the project's software should continue to both improve and find wider user/customer use. The ability to "do your own thing" should be kept, if only as a check against the use of marketing hype over technical merit.

But I believe that relatively small, informal "A- and B-List" groups of selections would be good for projects and developers (and developers' clients); a lot of what I've come across in the last few days would be on my "P-List," if not "ZZZZ."

Oh yeah, by the way: this sort of maturation and shared effort would do wonders for our Craft's progress towards true professional status. Any of us who've had our schedules and budgets tinkered with by people who admit they know nothing of what we do should understand the desirability of that goal. Given the degree to which software permeates public life and policy, that "desirability" has become a dire necessity; it's just more expedient for people to pretend that isn't really the case. Stuxnet, anyone?

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