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Leading-Edge Java
Do Frameworks and APIs Limit Developers' Imagination?
An Interview with Overstock.com's Chris Maki from JavaOne 2007
by Frank Sommers and Bill Venners
August 20, 2007
Summary
Readily available frameworks and APIs can make developers very productive. However, they can also limit developers' imagination, explains Overstock.com principal software engineer Chris Maki in this brief audio interview with Artima.

One of Java's key strengths today is its multitude of APIs and frameworks, addressing a wide range of problem domains. Such APIs and frameworks provide ready-made answers to many programming problems. Indeed, programming in Java today is to a great extent an exercise in learning to identify and use APIs and frameworks suited to a problem area.

Using readily available APIs and frameworks can keep a developer at a fairly high level of abstraction: Part of a Java developer's productivity comes from not having to reinvent the wheel with every project—instead, a developer can apply high-level frameworks to a set of similar projects and problems, expecting generally high-quality results.

While productivity is very important in a developer's work, so is originality and innovation. In a conversation at JavaOne earlier this year, Chris Maki, a principal software engineer at Overstock.com and leader of the Utah Java Users Group, told us that the frameworks and APIs that make us so productive also impose upon us their design decisions and their solutions to problems, sometimes leaving little room for innovation and originality:

When I first started as a software engineer... we used to think that anything you could think of, that anything you could conceive of, was possible with software, and that the sky was the limit. And we tried to do that. Today, it seems like we look at the Java APIs and the different packages, and say, "Well, this is all we can do. This is what the APIs tell us."

Back in those days, we were doing more typical client-server type applications. We would have a database, and most of the logic was in what we would call a fat client today. In the graphical or presentation layer, we would [use] animations... One of the applications I was working on was a pipeline application, which doesn't sound very sexy or interesting, yet as data moved through the pipeline, we used animations to show pictures of the different places the product would go, have [part of the UI] fade in and fade out... to visualize this movement of data...

If I was going to do that in Java [today], it would seem to me like a daunting task, given the complexities of some of the Swing APIs. I know that they made a lot of improvements, but when I sit down to do an app today, I don't think [that] whatever I can think of I'm going to do. I typically think the APIs and the design patterns tell me I've got to do this [or that]. While we made a lot of improvements by having cross-platform code, and write once, deploy anywhere kind of things, we've also limited our thinking.

Click to download audio Chris Maki, principal software engineer at Overstock.com, talks about how frameworks and APIs can limit developers' imaginations. (3 minutes 10 seconds)

To what extent do you think there is a role for the in-the-trenches enterprise developer to devise innovative and out-of-the-box solutions? In your projects, how do you mitigate the need for productivity that comes from following the prescriptions of a high-level framework, and the desire to come up with original and sometimes surprising, solutions?

Post your opinion in the discussion forum.

About the authors

Frank Sommers is Editor-in-Chief of Artima Developer. He also serves as chief editor of the IEEE Technical Committee on Scalable Computing's newsletter, and is an elected member of the Jini Community's Technical Advisory Committee. Prior to joining Artima, Frank wrote the Jiniology and Web services columns for JavaWorld.

Bill Venners is president of Artima, Inc. He is author of the book, Inside the Java Virtual Machine, a programmer-oriented survey of the Java platform's architecture and internals. His popular columns in JavaWorld magazine covered Java internals, object-oriented design, and Jini. Bill has been active in the Jini Community since its inception. He led the Jini Community's ServiceUI project, whose ServiceUI API became the de facto standard way to associate user interfaces to Jini services. Bill also serves as an elected member of the Jini Community's initial Technical Oversight Committee (TOC), and in this role helped to define the governance process for the community.

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