Monday, January 13, 2020

Constantly Evolving - Mobile Development

When I started writing software that could run on a Blackberry, I was counselled to avoid writing directly to the operating system and pursue a lowest-common-denominator web application to ensure resiliency over time.  This advice paid off marvelously and an 18 month project to create tag-parsing framework to expose Lotus Notes applications uniformly on any web browser has saved a client of mine close to $20 million dollars over 9 years.  When they moved away from Blackberry to iPhone, I only had to update one style rule in a master CSS file.

Recently, however, we have been making increasingly sophisticated applications that require hardware access at a low level on the Android platform, and hence we have begun some limited Android development efforts.  Coming from web development, my impressions of Android development using specifically Android Studio and Java have not been all that favorable.

Android is complex, but not beyond mastery.  The complexity is only one of a few problems I find.  The biggest problem is the constant evolution of the environment.  It doesn't change gradually.  It has changed dramatically and rapidly. This makes researching a solution to a given problem a little difficult.  The internet is littered with examples and discussions dating back 10 years, at this writing. Finding correct version information can be a challenge in google-fu.

One of the other things I would say is a fault is the lack of consistency.  There are numerous classes, plugins, and frameworks for making parts of the UI.  They each have different super classes and hence expose different methods.  Again, not an insurmountable problem, but an annoyance. You might for example, as I did today, be able to find an example for using a SwitchPreference on a PreferenceFragmentCompat, but only an example of using that same SwitchPreference to toggle other inputs on an ActivityCompat or something similar. The pieces are made to be interchangeable, but not universal.  A mix of XML and Java (or Kotlin, as the now formally primary and supported language is) must be used to get the most out of the parts provided.

Then there's Unity, a completely different set of tools for making games.  And now there's Flutter, which throws out all of the above, except Android Studio, and takes a completely different approach to developing for Android more akin to React Native.

It's all well and good. We should certainly grow as we go forward, but we seem to be making the same mistakes over and over again.  Application development is still presented as a coding exercise, when it seems we have long passed the point where we know how to make configuration driven application code generators.  We should be creating new systems that vastly reduce coding effort to get the same, or better, performance and capabilities as yesterday. But we, and I mean techies as a breed, keep churning out new ways to relive the same misery over and again.

I would hope that the industry will grow suspicious of these trends and do better going forward.  I plan to do my part where I can, partly by calling attention to this silliness, and partly by working to make things better.  Hopefully I'll have something to share in that regard in the future.

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