I was recently tasked with writing an pretty useful extension for Chrome that would enhance Google Calendar so that room numbers on our campus would show links that would take you to campus’s internal map tool. Google Maps does not understand this campus, so the normal map link provided is not helpful.
This task took me the better part of a day and a half, and the whole time I was gripped by this awful feeling that in order to solve this simple problem, I had to learn a bunch of random stuff that would be mostly useless as soon as I was done.
For example, I needed to learn how Chrome extensions work. For that, I needed to familiarize myself with the Google Chrome API — at least enough to get this job done. I can say for sure that even in the small amount of time I spent on that task, I could tell that this API is not stable. They change it as often as they feel like, adding this, removing that, and most ominously “deprecating” some other things. Depracation is the worse. It means “we’re not taking this function way today, but we are taking it away, probably when you least expect it.” And, in any case, how many Chrome extensions is the average programmer going to write?
Furthermore, getting into Google Calendar enough to insert my links was an exercise in pure disposable hackery. I had to reverse engineer enough of Calendar to figure out where to scan for locations and where to insert links. And I needed to understand how Calendar works well enough to know when it is going to change up the document model and set event handlers for that.
This script works today, but it’s obviously going to break, probably very soon, because Google can and will change the internal guts of Calendar whenever they please. Unlike the extension API mentioned above, they are under no obligation, not even an twinge of guilt, to hold their internal implementation of Calendar to some fixed standard.
All this points to some rather sad facts about the future of coding for the web. You’ll absolutely have to work through the supported APIs, and when they change, that’s your problem, and if they are not offered or are incomplete, that’s also your problem, and if they go away, also your problem. Compare that, for example, to a piece of software on your PC. Maybe you wrote an ancient MSDOS .bat file that does something with the input and output of an old program you liked. If the company that made the program makes a new version that breaks your script, you could upgrade to it when you want to — or never, depending on what was convenient for you.
I’ve already been bitten by this. I made an alarm clock that interfaces with Google Calendar using a published API. It is a nice alarm clock with a mechanical chime handmade by hippies from Woodstock, NY. It worked, just fine for years, until, one day, it stopped working. Google had deprecated, and then dropped the API the clock was using. There was a new API. I had to go to my years-old code and rewrite it (to use a substantially more complicated API, by the way).
I guess that’s life, but people who make alarm clocks for a living may be surprised that users want them to provide active support and software upgrades forever. Or maybe we’ll just throw out our clocks after a year or so, like a phone.
But this is a mere annoyance compared to my main concern: unstable platforms discourage the development of knowledge and expertise. Why learn anything well if the entire API, or hell, the only supported programming language, or even the entire theoretical framework for working with the API (does anybody seriously think REST with PUT, GET, and POST is going to last forever?) is going to change next Wednesday? Perhaps that’s why in my interviews with Google nobody ever seemed to care one whit about any of my knowledge of experience.
I, for one, welcome the coming generations of ADD-afflicted software engineers and am excited to see the wagonloads of new “wheels” they’ll invent.