Modern Software Development or Slow as Molasses

I’ve been looking at that issue for quite a while, and always tried to play nice and be quiet about this, but quite recently I’ve experienced the discrepancies that I am going to describe quite intimately, so I feel I can no longer hold back.

But lets start with a little introduction and motivation for the topic at hand. I am going to be talking about Software-Developers mostly, but some of the general ideas are probably relevant to all kinds of crafts and handiwork.

The tools we use are shaping the way we work. They also shape the results of our work, the shape how we divide our time between different tasks, they shape how we estimate the effort needed to finish a project. And they shape what kind of projects we approach, and what the size of the projects we approach is.

They shape how we think about our work, and about the world.

So I’ve been pondering the idea of getting into Android App Development for a while, and this week I put my plans into action and attended an Android Developer Meet, and got started with the first basic Android tutorials. I tried to approach this whole endeavor with an open mind, fully expecting that the first few steps might be a bit rocky, and that it can be frustrating when you are on unfamiliar ground as an experienced developer.

Never the less, with the helpful support from someone at the Meet, I managed to stumble my first few steps into the foreign fields of Android development.

Now as a bit of a back story, to say the least, I’ve been developing Software for quite a while, especially on the frontend and graphical user interface side. I started with Delphi and Pascal, moved on to C++ and I’ve used many of the different user interface libraries that are available for C++, like wxWidgets and Qt. Over the years though, I started to prefer a rather obscure and not so well known toolkit for my personal projects. It is called FLTK, or Fast and Light Tool-Kit.

Moving more into professional Development in the recent years though, I am currently working more often with the Qt toolkit.

But never the less, the next day after this Android Development Meet, I decided to give the good old FLTK another spin, just to see how it compares to what I learned about Android the other day.

I had to tinker a bit with the environment on my laptop to get started with the FLTK library again, but I managed to get it all going.

I typed up a little “Hello World” style basic program, compiled it, started it, fired up the included FLTK Form Designer “fluid” and added a few buttons and controls to my program, when I suddenly came to realize the horrors that I experienced the other day.

Compiling and starting a basic program based on FLTK on my laptop happens in an instant, compiling the project happens under 1 second, it is barely noticeable. Starting the program on my laptop, the window opens almost as soon as I press the enter key after I entered the name of the binary in the console.

The FLTK Designer is fast, it starts in an instant, you create a form, add elements, etc. at no point at all is there any waiting involved.

And slowly it dawned me, I tried to fend the thought off, but I could not help myself. I tried so hard to stay open minded about android, to not be the grumpy old man that says “In the olden days everything was better”.

I tried to come up with several excuses and defences, of course Android has way more capabilities, it has to support different devices, resolutions, layouts, it has a more complex rendering pipeline, using accelerated graphics for its display, and supporting transitions and animations, etc.

But how could I kid myself, watching the IDE spinning its wheels over some gradle script, looking at the massive boilerplate that was generated for even the most simple project, waiting for the designer to switch between the text- and the graphical view taking more than a few seconds. Waiting what felt like ages for the emulator to start and show me the results of my feeble efforts. And even if I did not need to restart the emulator for changes to become apparent, just having the updated app restarted took way longer than what I looked at in the case of my simple FLTK project.

There is just one dominant feeling inside of me, and that is, how can anyone accept these kind of tools, why is there no outrage about this massive timesink, how can there be such a large number of Android developers, and nobody dares to speak up for some sanity in the development tools.

And then I start to really think, maybe that is why so many Android Apps are the way they are, because the developers are stuck in molasses. There is no room in Android development to quickly whip up a crappy little experiment, and bring it live, there is not much room, for radical and quick experimentation, everything needs to be well thought out, planned, and then implemented.

It is a set of tools, that more or less forces the developer to adhere to a corporate style slow moving waterfall model of development, because quite simply, no other style of development is possible.

Even for my little Hello World style Android app, I started to fear the moment of having to switch to the designer view in Android Studio, which would take long enough to put me out of my flow, and anger my patience.

That is probably why paper sketching is so popular in App development, and why there is a proliferation of “Mockup” Tools, and Designer Tools, specialised towards App development, because apparently, it is not possible to “think” visually and sketch in the Android Studio Designer. It is only possible to realize a design that is already thought through.

Funny enough, I sometimes use an old and discontinued UI Designer called wxDesigner, to sketch and plan my user interfaces, before I implement them in the framework required for the job.

But it goes further than this, the tools we use change the way we think, and I think being confined to limited tools like the Android tools confine the way we think about ourselves as Programmers. And now I am no longer talking solely about the slowness, but also about the complexity of the environment, that is the number of concepts that need to be understood to implement even the most basic application.

One such source of complexity is for example the changes between the various platform versions of the android system, and the way that the platform implementers choose to expose the developers to those changes. To say the least, references to changes between android versions are all over the place in the documentation and everywhere. In my opinion this is unnecessary noise, and noise takes attention and attention is limited.

In fact I think this leads to a point where it is more or less necessary to be a full time Android developer to write Apps. It is not likely or easily possible, to be, lets say a scientist for example, and to develop a little Android App on the side to control some lab equipment, or to support a little experiment.

And I think that is bad, it is a choice that the developers of the platform are making. It is a choice that takes power away from developers, because it binds attention that could be used elsewhere. Of course you could argue that it gives developers job security, because making the system too complex to understand for outsiders, makes them hard to replace, but well, software should be used to make the world more interesting, and not necessarily more boring.

I feel that these kinds of tools give the developer the feeling of being a cog in the machine, you are suddenly “just” an implementer, implementing other peoples ideas, realizing designs that other people thought out, you can no longer think about problems to solve, but rather all your creative energy is bound in the problem of handling the platform. It becomes a purpose of its own.

And it goes the other way around too, suddenly if you have an idea or problem, you can no longer solve it by implementing an app yourself, when you are a “non” programmer. You need a programmer, because it is not possible to write a simple app yourself, while still keeping focused on your actual field of expertise.

Anyways to wrap up my little rant, I think doing simple things should be easy, and writing a simple app should be simple. And shortcomings should be complained about and should be fixed. Can’t possible be an acceptable situation that one of the most popular platforms in the world is a pain in the butt to develop for.

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