September 18, 2013

The Microsoft Word Problem

I use FL Studio 11 to make my music. Some people find this surprising, due to FL Studio's stigma as being a "toy" DAW that it simply cannot seem to shake, despite the fact it actually does most things as well or better than other professional DAWs. FL Studio has two real, significant issues: Large projects are unstable, and it has extremely bad 64-bit support.

This is almost never what people actually complain about. Instead, people complain about FL studio lacking features when they really just need to enable the right option. My friend lamented FL Studio's poor handling of automation clips without knowing about the "browse parameters" feature that lists all of a synth's parameters and highlights the one you are changing. He then complained that it didn't play notes when you started playback in the middle of them - this can be toggled in the audio settings. He also didn't know how to group multiple instruments to be controlled by the same piano roll, so I had to show him how to use Layers. Every single reason he gave for FL Studio being crap was just him not understanding how to use it properly, or not knowing where to find a specific feature.

This is the exact same problem Microsoft had with Word, and it's what resulted in the Ribbon GUI overhaul. Every reason people gave for not liking Word was just a result of them not being able to find the feature they wanted in an endless cascade of menus. To address this, it required a GUI overhaul so those features were grouped in intuitive ways, so people could find them more easily.

Even APIs can suffer from the Microsoft Word Problem. OpenGL, especially it's early incarnations, was essentially a giant, opaque list of functions that randomly referenced each other and had no clear organization. The online documentation is literally just an alphabetized list of every single OpenGL function in existence. The end result is that you need to know precisely what you want to do in order to find the right function. This is in contrast to DirectX, which (for example) has every single renderstate in a single, enormous enumerator. That enumerator contains something like 50 or so equivalent OpenGL function calls, which are not grouped in any meaningful way. It's documentation, like everything else on MSDN, is organized in hierarchical groups. DirectX tells you every single possible thing you theoretically might be able to do with your graphics card. OpenGL, on the other hand, has extensions, which are both a blessing and a curse. It makes OpenGL inherently more adaptable than DirectX, but at the cost of having absolutely no idea what the graphics card may or may not be capable of, because it's just not in OpenGL, it's in some extension you have to dig up.

Just like Microsoft Word, the features are all there in OpenGL, they're just harder to get to. And you'd better hope you know exactly what your technique is called, or you'll never find the function you want. WebGL inherits this problem, and throws on a few of its own inherent with attempting to bolt a low-level C api on to a high level web language that needs to be sandboxed.

We can't simply implement a feature, we have to make it easy to find, and easy to use, or it's worthless. It's amazing how quickly programmers forget the importance of context. In all of these cases, the solution to feature overload is conceptually very similar - Word created the Ribbon, which grouped related features under tabs and sub-groups. A similar grouping of OpenGL functions and parameters would do wonders for it's usability. FL Studio would also benefit by dumping it's left-hand browsing bar in favor of a Ribbon or module approach that didn't force 15 wildly different GUI styles into a single menu.

Context is important. If I want to find the function that sets the alpha blending operation in OpenGL, I should not have to go through over 300 functions to find it. I should be able to go to the "sampling" functions and look in the "blending" subgroup, and poof, all the functions that have anything to do with blending are there. It doesn't matter if we're designing word processors, digital audio workstations, low level APIs, middleware, or web applications. Anything and everything is susceptible to the Microsoft Word Problem.

September 12, 2013

Write Less Code

"Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein (paraphrased)
The burgeoning complexity of software is perhaps one of the most persistent problems plaguing computer science. We have tried many, many ways of managing this complexity: inventing new languages, creating management systems, and enforcing coding styles. They have all proven to be nothing more than stopgaps. With the revelation that the NSA is utilizing the inherent complexity of software systems to sabotage our efforts at securing our systems, this problem has become even more urgent.

It's easy to solve a problem with a lot of code - it's hard to solve a problem with a little code. Since most businesses do not understand the advantage of having high quality software, the most popular method of managing complexity is not to reduce how much code is used, but to wrap it up in a self-contained library so we can ignore it, instead. The problem with this approach is that you haven't gotten rid of the code. It's still there, it's just easier to ignore.

Until it breaks, that is. After we have wrapped complex systems into easy-to-use APIs, we then build even more complex systems on top of them, creating networks of interconnected components, each one encapsulating it's own complex system. Instead of addressing this burgeoning complexity, we simply wrap it into another API and pave over it, much like one would pave over a landfill. When it finally breaks, we have to extract a core sample just to get an idea of what might be going wrong.

One of the greatest contributions functional programming has made is its concept of a pure function with no side-effects. When a function has side effects, it's another edge on the graph of components where something could go wrong. Unfortunately, this isn't enough. If you simply replace a large complex system with a bunch of large complex functions that technically have no side-effects, it's still a large complex system.

Object-oriented programming tries to manage complexity by compartmentalizing things and (in theory) limiting how they interact with each other. This is designed to address spaghetti code that has a bunch of inter-dependent functions that are impossible to effectively debug. The OO paradigm has the right idea: "an object should do exactly one thing, and do it well", but suffers from over-application. OO programming was designed to manage very large complex objects, not concepts that don't need Get/Set functions for every class member. Writing these functions just in case you need them in the future is a case of future-proofing, which should almost always be avoided. If there's an elegant, simple way to express a solution that only works given the constraints you currently have, USE IT. We don't need any more leaning towers of inheritance.

The number of bugs in a software program is proportional to how much code you write, and that doesn't include cheap tricks like the ternary operator or importing a bunch of huge libraries. The logic is still there, the complexity is still there, and it will still break in mysterious ways. In order to reduce the complexity in our software, it has to do less stuff. The less code you write, the harder it is for the NSA to sabotage your program without anyone noticing. The less code you write, the fewer points of failure your program will have. The less code you write, the less stuff will break. We cannot hide from complexity any longer; we must actively reduce it. We have to begin excavating the landfill instead of paving over it.

September 2, 2013

Most People Have Shitty Computers

Premature optimization is the root of all evil - Donald Knuth
Ever since I started putting words on the internet, I have complained about the misinterpretation and overgeneralization of this Donald Knuth quote. Developers essentially use it as an excuse to never optimize anything, because they can always say they "aren't done yet" and then permanently render all optimizations as premature. The fact that "premature" is inherently a subjective term doesn't help. The quote was meant to target very low-level optimizations that are largely useless until you're positive everything else is working properly and you have no other low-hanging fruit to optimize.

Instead of following that advice, and only doing complex optimizations after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, developers tend to just stop optimizing after the low-hanging fruit is gone. Modern developers will sometimes stop optimizing things entirely and leave it up to the compiler, which almost always does a horrible job at it. Because web development is inherently dependent on one of the worst programming languages currently being used by anyone, these issues are even more prominent.

When people complain about stuff not working on their phones while on shitty internet connections (which is every single free wifi hotspot ever), the developers tell them to stop using shitty internet connections. When they complain about how slow and unresponsive a stupid, unnecessary app whose entire purpose is to just display text (I'm looking at you, Blogger), the developers tell them to get a better phone. When someone writes an app that doesn't compress anything and sucks up bandwidth like a pig, for absolutely no reason at all, the developers tell them to get a better data plan.

What the fuck?

Just because you have a desktop with an 8-core processor and 32 gigs of RAM doesn't mean your customers do. The number of people using the top-of-the-line technology is a tiny fraction of the total number of people who actually use the internet, which at this point is more than 1/3 the population of the entire human race. Only targeting hipster white kids who live in San Francisco and have rich parents may work for a small startup, but when Google's mail app turns into a piece of sludge that moves about as fast as pitch at room temperature, we have crossed a line. Google is everywhere. Their stuff should work well on the shittiest internet connection you can imagine. You can't go around expecting all your customers to have perfect internet all the time when it's just not possible.

Don't just target the latest version of Windows and tell the other versions to stuff it, because it's almost never really necessary when all you're doing is using 3 or 4 new functions introduced in Windows 7 that could easily be encapsulated in a small check. Don't write your game in such a way that it will only be playable on a high end gaming machine because you will get a lot of flak. If making this happen is hard, you probably have a shitty game engine that has a bad architecture. Likewise, when my orchestral VSTi sucks up 10% of my CPU while it's just sitting there and NOT ACTUALLY DOING ANYTHING, something is seriously wrong. I know it's using the exact same sample format as Kontact (someone reverse-engineered it), except that it does everything 4 times slower. Yet, when people complain, and they complain all the time, the response is always "you need a better computer."

Most people have shitty computers. Your customers don't care about all the cool new features you can implement for your mail app now that you have time to work on them because you never bothered to optimize it properly - they just want a mail app that WORKS.