Thursday 24 January 2008 — This is over 15 years old. Be careful.
Chandler, the uber-PIM project from the Open Source Applications Foundation, has had a major life event. Many people are calling it the end of the project, and it may well be. People are still working on it, but the funding is cut, and the future is very very unclear.
This is too bad, it was an ambitious and idealistic project, perhaps too much so. I don’t really know what was going on over there. I haven’t read Dreaming in Code, I don’t read the mailing lists, I haven’t even looked at their software in years.
Remarkably, Carlos Perez blames it on Python. His piece is really something, because he starts by admitting that he suspected from the beginning that Python wasn’t up to the task, and now he’s pretty sure his suspicions have been confirmed. Except that he doesn’t do any analysis of what actually went wrong at Chandler. He repeats his biases against dynamic languages, and concludes that they are to blame. He comes to this conclusion even as he points out how strange it is that Python is only used in the client, and the server is Java!
The consensus seems to be, and it seems right, that the problems with Chandler were:
- Organization: too many heavy-hitters heading in their own directions. See the previous point about Python at the client and Java at the server.
- Lack of focused target: replacing people’s email infrastructure, while at the same time re-thinking how those activities are accomplished is a huge challenge.
Carlos’ viewpoint will probably perservere. Chandler was in some ways seen as a poster child for Python, and its demise I’m sure will cause at least a minor meme along the lines of, “We can’t use Python, look what happened to Chandler.” This is too bad. I think the choice of language matters to a project, but not nearly as much as we techies often think. So many other things matter a great deal more.
Carlos points to Eclipse as an example of what can be accomplished with Java. Eclipse is an amazing achievement, but it isn’t Java that did it. There’s a huge amount of effort that goes into the focus and support that makes Eclipse what it is. As an example, have you ever read their release notes? These are amazing! No project in the history of the world has had such thorough, helpful, and well-crafted release notes. That’s got nothing to do with Java, and everything to do with the care and work that the Eclipse organization puts into producing and supporting their software.
So here’s to Chandler, a (nearly) departed friend. I hope that it continues in some meaningful form. Here’s to good craftsmen (and their kibbitzers) not blaming their tools. Here’s to using your language of choice as just one tool in your tool set. And here’s to seeing your projects for what they are: a collection of people trying hard to achieve difficult goals the best they can.
I spent a good while looking at Chandler code a couple of years ago, and it was some of the most long-winded, convoluted python I've ever seen. They were trying to write java in python - deeply nested structures, thousands of getters and setters, etc. Given their background, it would probably have made more sense to write the thing in Java.
Still, I agree with your general point: the problem with Chandler was the organization, not the language.
I will continue to watch out for all these posts on the blogosphere, and I hope that someone from the Java side will be able to reason these guys to stop their attacks without any base. Eclipse was successful because people put in a lot of effort. But the Java folks will probably never admit that what they can do, can be done with less verbosity just as well.
That said, we dynamic language weenies are reaping a bit of well-deserved blow-back over this. Java (and friends) have long been the scapegoats we've used to promote our languages and tools; DHH, for example, deliberately promotes Rails as a major improvement over Java ("no more XML sit-ups!"), and I've certainly made jabs at Java as a way of promoting Django/Python.
We can't have it both ways, unfortunately, and by blaming Java for so many failed projects we've set Python up to be blamed for this particular failure.
Trust me, that was *many* years ago.
"That said, we dynamic language weenies are reaping a bit of well-deserved blow-back over this."
Where? Where I am, Python acceptance and usage has *exploded* lately, with IronPython, Jython 2.2, and Django as the killer applications. One or two blog posts by self-proclaimed Java pundits doesn't an industry make. People are a lot smarter than that.
It was pretty much a train wreck, very painful to watch, and they started over basically from scratch after months of prototyping using ZODB, going IIRC to BerkeleyDB (which is itself ironic, because it has even fewer of the types of features that they were requesting than does ZODB; I don't know what they use now). This was *not* ZODB's fault, it was just a case of extremely maladjusted expectations. I'm sure this mistake wasted an immense amount of time. If the way that situation was handled was any indication of how other design decisions were being made, I'm 100% unsurprised that the project got itself into trouble.
I will be the first to admit that making a judgement call based on those two numbers is presumptious - especially given how little information I have about the project. But when developing a product, the toughest and most important decisions all come as a result of asking the question, "When are we going to ship v1.0? ... and what it's gonna take to get there?"
Any team that's not asking themselves this question on a more-or-less weekly basis after 6 months, let alone 6 years, is going to be in real trouble.
@Craig: An IDE more complex than a productivity suite? It's hard to say, but I think you're over-generalizing too much to make a meaningful argument. Both are "suites" in their own way, and both can be made as complex or as simple as needed based on the resources available. I've been involved in the development of several productivity suites (one Java based, one web application based) and one IDE (Objective-C/Java, a long time ago). Both were substantial efforts of roughly the same scale. if I had to point at one, I'd say the IDE was the harder of the two because of how much more sophisticated the users are and the proportionally greater expectations they have.
@Fredrik: The "blowback" is well-deserved. The software industry as a whole has been toward smaller applications that leverage a larger body of existing (mostly opensource) code. A natural byproduct of this is the a proportionate increase in dynamic languages where rapid development is naturally much easier. But if you have to write 1M or 10M lines of code that integrates with dozens of libraries written by 3rd parties, or that lots of people are going to depend on ... well, the argument for strongly typed/structured languages can be pretty compelling.
Users aren't overlooking Chandler because it's written in Python, or because it "doesn't scale." They're overlooking it because it's competing with a lot of other really good products, and isn't providing a compelling-enough alternative to them. That's it. I tried using Chandler, myself, after reading Dreaming in Code (excellent book, by the way -- highly recommended), and while I was really excited about it, and wanted very much to use it, it just didn't click with me -- it didn't make sense. If it did, I'd use it. But even as a developer myself, I couldn't care less what language it's written in, as long as it works, and it does what I need. Unless OSAF was employing a bunch of Python noobs (and it wasn't), all this can really only be attributed to human factors -- organizational challenges, product-design shortcomings, and the like. The vision may have been great -- we could argue about that -- but it's tough to get around the fact that the execution was, at best, so-so. And it seems to me the end result of that execution would've looked pretty much the same in Java.
When people insist that they're doing something new when they aren't (although I'll accept that this happens all the time in the Python community), a dose of skepticism is required all round.
P.S. "Nøff, nøff!" if the avatar picture doesn't change when I submit this. ;-)
P.P.S. Non-ASCII characters don't seem to like the round trip through the preview...
And: Philip Eby (a Chandler team member) has written his take on the Chandler re-org: Rumors of Chandler's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.
Considering there were agile development proponents on the team I have to wonder what happened to "deliver early, deliver often". User feedback might have helped, and would have been easier to give with more frequent releases. I agree that it isn't helpful to characterize the problems as due to choice of language.
There does seem to have been a somewhat isolationist approach, even though many of the individuals involved are extremely communicative about other projects they are involved in. It also suffered from unreasonable expectations from the outside. Even though the team tried to squash the myth of the "Outlook-killer", that association remained, and wasn't helpful.
Add a comment: