Friday, 13 May 2016

XML or JSON, and that is not the question

So in last couple of days, our .NET community has showed some strong reactions to the announcements in the ASP.NET team stand-up. While Ruby and more recently node community are known to endless dramas on arguably petty issues, it felt that .NET community was also capable of throwing tantrums. For those who are outside .NET community or have not caught up with the news, .NET/ASP.NET team have decided to revert the project.json (JSON) in #DotNetCore back to *.csproj/*.vbproj (XML) and resurrect msbuild. So was it petty in the end?

Some believed it was: they argued all that was changed was the format of the project file and the drama associated with it was excessive. They also pointed out that all the goodness of project.json would be ported to the familiar yet different *.csproj. I call this group the loyalists:

On the other hand, some were upset by the return of the msbuild to the story of .NET development. This portion of the community were arguing that +15-year-old msbuild does not have a place in the modern development. They have been celebrating death of this technology not knowing it was never really dead - I call them msbuild-antagnoists. The first group (loyalists), on the other hand, were flagging that the msbuild would be improved and the experience would be modernised.

Now there were another group of people were frustrated that this decision had been made despite the community feedback and solely based on the feedback of “some customers” behind the closed doors. I call them OSS-apologetics and their main issue was the seemingly lack of weight of the community feedback when it comes to the internal decisions that Microsoft takes as a commercial enterprise - especially in the light of the fact that project.json was announced almost 2 years ago and it was very late to change it.

Now there were yet another group that had invested time and effort (==money?) in building projects and tooling (some of which commercial) and they felt that the rug has been pulled from underneath them and all those hours gone to waste - for the lack of a better phrase I call them loss-bearers. And they were even more upset to see that their loss was accounted as a learning process:
Obviously there is not a great answer for them but it is usually said that it is a very minor part of the whole community who have been living on the bleeding edge and knew it could be coming any minute, as mentioned on the stand-up:

Where do I stand?

I stand somewhere in between. Cannot quite agree with the loyalists since it is not just the question of format. On the other hand, I do not bear any losses since I had decided long time ago that I will skip the betas and pick it up when the train of changes slows down - something not yet in sight.

But I do not think any of the above captures the essence of what has been happening recently. I am on the belief that this decision along with the previous disrupting ones have been important and shrewd business decisions to save the day and contain losses for Mircosoft as a commercial platform - and no one can blame Microsoft for doing that.

I had warned times and times again that the huge amount of change in the API and tooling and no easy migration path will result in dividing the community into a niche progressive #DotNetCore minority and the mainstream commercial majority who would stay on .NET Fx and need years (not months) to move on to #DotNetCore - if at all. And this potentially will create a Python-vs-3-like divide in the community.

The cross from the old .NET to the new #DotNetCore (seemingly similar on the surface yet wildly different at heart) would not be dissimilar to the cross between VB6 to .NET. And what makes it worse is that unlike then, there are many viable alternatives OSS stacks (back then there was only Java and C/C++). This could have meant that the mainstream majority might in fact decide to try an altogether different platform.

So Microsoft as a business entity had to step in and albeit late, fix the few yet key mistakes made at the start and alongside the project during the last 2 years:
  • ASP.NET team to make platform/language decisions and implement features with clever tricks rather the .NET Fx baking such features in the framework itself. An example was Assembly Neutral Interfaces.
  • Ignoring the importance upgrade path for the existing projects and customers
  • Inconsistent, confusing and ever changing layering of the stack
  • Poor and conflicting scheduling messages
  • Using Silverlight’s CoreCLR for ASP.NET resulting in dichotomy of the runtime, something that as far as I know has no parallel in any other language/platform. In the most recent slides I do not see CoreCLR being mentioned anymore yet it might be there. If it is, it will stay a technical debt to be paid later.
All in all it has been a rough ride both for the drivers and the passengers of this journey but I feel now the clarity and cohesion is back and long-standing issues have been addressed now.

Where could I be wrong?

My argument naturally brings these counterarguments:
  • Perhaps had ASP.NET team not pushed the envelope this far by single-handedly crusading to bring modern ideas and courageous undertakings such as cross-platform, we would be having .NET 5 now instead of #DotNetCore.
  • By carrying baggage from the past (msbuild), Microsoft is extending the lifespan its stacks which in the short term will be beneficial to the corporate but since it is not a clean break, in the long term results in dispersion of the community and a need for another redeux.
Hard to answer these arguments since one is a hypothetical situation and the other looks well into the uncertainty of the future. I will leave it to the readers to weigh the arguments.

Last word

It is not possible to hide that none of this has been without casualties. Some confidence lost, community at times upset and overall has not been all rosy as far as the Microsoft’s image in its OSS ventures goes. I did mention old and new Microsoft coming head-to-head, which might not be correct but as Satya Nadella said, culture does not change overnight.