Desktop OS for developers

The results of the latest StackOverflow Developer Survey just came out, showing – among other interesting things – that Windows is dying as a developer OS. Not one to abandon ship any time soon I’d still like to offer up some suggestions.

TL;DR

  • Make the commandline deterministic.
  • Copying files across the network cannot be a lottery.
  • Stop rebooting UI-frameworks
  • Make F# the flagship language

Back in the day, Microsoft through VB and Visual C++ overcame some of the hurdles of developing software for Windows – then the only, effectively, desktop OS in the enterprise. Developers, and their managers, rallied behind these products and several million kilometres of code was written over a couple of decades.

The hurdles that were overcome were related to the boilerplate needed to register window classes, creating a window and responding to the basic window messages required to show the window in Windows and have the program behave as expected vis-a-vis the expectations a Windows user might have. Nowhere in VB6 samples was anybody discussing how to write tests or how, really, to write good code. In fact, sample code, simplified on purpose to only showcase one feature at a time, would not contain any distractions such as test code.

When Classic ASP was created, a lot of this philosophy came a cross to the web, and Microsoft managed to create something as horrible as PHP, but with less features, telling a bunch of people that it’s OK to be a cowboy.

When the .NET framework was created as a response to Java, a lot of VB6 and ASP.NET  programmers came across and I think Microsoft started to see what they had created. Things like Patterns & Practices came out and the certification programmes were taking software design and testing into consideration. Sadly, however, they tended to give poor advice that was only marginally better than what was out there in the wild.

Missed the boat on civilised software development

It was a shock to the system when the ALT.NET movement came out and started to bring in things that were completely mainstream in the Java community but almost esoteric in .NET. Continuous integration – unit testing – TDD – DDD. Microsoft tried to keep up by creating TFS that apart from source code version in had ALM tools to manage bugs and features as well as a built-in build server but it became clear to more and more developers that Microsoft really didn’t understand the whole thing about testing first or how lean software development needs to happen.

While Apple had used their iron fist to force people to dump Mac OS for the completely different, Unix-based operating system OS X (with large bits of NextStep brought across, like the API and InterfaceBuilder) – Microsoft were considering their enterprise customers and never made a clean break with Gdi32. Longhorn was supposed to solve everything, making WPF native and super fast, obsoleting the old BitBlt malarkey and instead ushering in a brighter future.

As you are probably aware, this never happened. .NET code in the kernel was a horrible idea and the OS division banned .NET from anything ever being shipped with Windows, salvaged whatever they could duct tape together – and the result of that was Vista. Yes, .NET was banned from Windows and stayed banned up until Powershell became mainstream a long, long time later. Now, with Universal Windows Apps, a potentially viable combo of C++ code and vector UI has finally been introduced, but since it is the fifth complete UI stack reboot since Longhorn folded, it is probably too little too late and too many previously enthusiastic Silverlight or WPF people have already fallen by the wayside. Oh and many of the new APIs are still really hard to write tests around, and it is easy finding yourself in a situation where you need to install Visual Studio and some SDK on a build server, because the dependency relies on the Registry or the GAC rather than things that come with the source.

Automation

As Jeffrey Snover mentions in several talks, Windows wasn’t really designed with automation in mind. OLE Automation possibly, but scripting? Nooo. Now, with more grown-up ways of developing software – automation becomes more critical. The Windows world has developed alternate ways of deploying software to end-user machines than work quite well, but for things like automated integration tests and build automation you should still be able to rely on scripting to set things up.

This is where Windows really lets the developer community down. Simple operations in Windows aren’t deterministic. For a large majority of things you call on the command-line  – you are the only one responsible for determining if the command ran successfully. The program you called from the command-line may very well have failed despite it returning a 0 exit code. The execution just might not have finished despite the process having ended, so some files may still be locked. For a while, you never know. Oh, and mounting network drives is magic and often fails for no reason.

End result

Some people leave for Mac because everything just works, if you can live with bad security practices  and sometimes a long delay before you get some things like Java updates. Some people leave for Linux because if you script everything, you don’t really mind all those times you have to reinstall because thing like a change in screen resolution or a security update killed the OS to the point you can’t log in anymore, you just throw away the partition and rerun the scripts. Also, from a developer standpoint, everything just works, in terms of available tools and frameworks.

What to do about it

If Microsoft wants to keep making developer tools and frameworks, they need to start listening to the developers that engage whenever Microsoft open sources things. They most likely have valuable input into how things are used by your serious users – beyond the tutorials.

Stop spending resources duplicating things already existing for Windows or .NET as that strikes precisely at the enthusiasts that Microsoft needs in order to stop hemorrhaging developers.

What is .NET Core – really? Stop rewriting the same things over and over. At least solve the problems the rewrite was supposed to address first before adding fluff. Also – giving people the ability to work cross-platform means people will, so you are sabotaging yourselves while building some good-will, admittedly.

Most importantly – treat F# like Apple treats Swift. Something like – we don’t hate C# – there is a lot of legacy there but F# is new, trendier and better. F# is far better than Swift and has been used in high spec applications for nine years already. Still Microsoft after years of beta testing still manages to release a JITer that has broken tail call optimisation (a cornerstone of functional runtimes as it lets you do recursion effectively). That is simply UNACCEPTABLE and I would have publicly shamed then fired so many managers for letting that happen. Microsoft needs to take F# seriously – ensure it gets the best possible performance, tooling and templating. It is a golden opportunity to separate professional developers from the morons you find if you google “asp.net login form” or similar.

In other words – there are many simple things Microsoft could do to turn the tide, but Im not sure they will manage, despite the huge strides taken of late. It is also evident that developers hold a grudge for ages.

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