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webbureaucrat

from legacy to functional and very little in between.

De-Microsofting Your Development Environment

Anyone who has been following the web ecosystem over the last few years knows it has been rapidly consolidating under Microsoft. That consolidation economically threatens the open web. Diversifying your tooling could protect you as much as diversifying any investment, and it's much more convenient than you might think.

Why not just use all the Microsoft tooling?

Too often, anything even remotely critical of Microsoft gets dismissed as archaeic, Ballmer-era neckbeard bias. I want to be clear here: I do not hate Microsoft. I'm very well aware that Nadella's Microsoft is probably among the most open-source friendly companies, especially for its size. Microsoft's climate goals are second to none. Microsoft's F# programming language is a pretty good language, which is a big statement coming from me, a person who hates almost every programming language.

That said, I still have reasons for wanting to diversify my tooling, and I think those reasons are broadly applicable.

  • Policies can change. Microsoft's shift toward better corporate citizenship over the years shows how business practices from change over time. The next CEO might be as different from Nadella as Nadella is from his predecessors.
  • Pricing can change. Vendor lock-in is an insideous thing. Before using any vendor-specific features of a platform, ask yourself how much of a price hike your business could reasonably tolerate and, beyond that price, what the engineering cost of the shift away would be.
  • Licenses can change. Remember when Facebook tried to change the terms of React.js? Small development teams were scrambling to switch, knowing Facebook's legal team could bury them if they wanted. Facebook backed down because React as a product isn't a big part of Facebook's business and because the market for free front-end frameworks is famously (infamously?) oversaturated. A company with actual market power over the open web, however, would be a real threat.
  • Interoperability is expensive. Microsoft will often face an engineering cost to adhering to standards it doesn't control in-house. Changing open standards requires consortia and drafts and meetings and RFCs--slow, democratic processes. And if the open standards require implementing features it doesn't care about, it will still have to implement them to remain interoperable. Therefore, we should assume that the long-term incentives are against open standards.
  • Discouraging ICE contracts is still important. I realize this hasn't been in the headlines for a long time, but it's still true that Microsoft has relationships with DoD and DHS which are troubling to conscientious consumers. One reason I avoid Microsoft products is that I want to believe that violating human rights is expensive to their business.
  • Important technical decisions should never be made by default. My entire career has been spent on the .NET stack, regardless of requirements. Don't do that! Figure out what tools will be best for your use case, and don't assume it's what you've always done (and if your developers can't learn new things, hire better developers).

None of this is to say that no one should ever use any Microsoft product, but I would encourage anyone to manage their risk just by considering some alternatives, some of the time. I'm going to try to avoid the obvious clickbait-y answers ("Use Firefox and LibreOffice and AWS!") and hopefully provide some value off the beaten path.

Backend-as-a-service

The selling point of Azure--its easy-to-use, seamless integrations--are also its danger. Consider these alternatives if you don't want to take risks with price increases.

  • Parse Platform is an impressive little open source back end. Back4App offers Parse Platform hosting, but it's portable, so if Back4App ever goes away or hikes prices, you can simply spin up your own instance and move your data. Notably, it has a built-in authentication platform if you want a secure way to avoid privacy-hostile third-party OAuth integrations.
  • Jelastic is pretty much my favorite cloud platform because it truly commodifies cloud hosting. If you're not familiar, Jelastic is a company that licenses cloud platform software to anyone with a server farm. You can shop by price or server region, and if you don't like the service, you can always choose to do business elsewhere.
  • PostgREST doesn't fit neatly into this category, but it's a close substitute if you want a quick-and-easy REST API with a little more control than you might have in a traditional BaaS.

Text editors

Visual Studio Code has taken the development world by storm, and not without good reason. Microsoft's fork of Atom is pluggable and keyboard-navigable without sacrificing beginner-friendliness.

But I'm still a little surprised by its popularity. It's my considered opinion that for most uses, good ol' reliable emacs has it beat.

Much digital ink has been spilt against the abysmal resource management of Electron apps, so I won't dwell on it here, but I will say that it's a little absurd that in the current year we still have to think about the speed and memory consumption of text editors. Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code aren't that slow realtive to other full-blown IDEs, but once you free yourself from having to actually wait for your editor to open, it's hard to go back.

But it's not just about computing speed-- it's also about human speed. Mousing around is slow and, in my opinion, unpleasant because it breaks the state of flow.

As an additional benefit, I really think every developer should learn one CLI text-editor really well for the times when getting a GUI set up would be inconvenient or unrealistic. The last time I tried to use the SSH feature on VSCode, it was a buggy mess. I'd rather just use a battle-tested editor like emacs.

Web Framework

It would be silly to list a bunch of well-known web frameworks for an audience of developers, but there is one that's worth highlighting: Play Framework. Play Framework is based on ASP.NET MVC, and any ASP.NET MVC developer would feel right at home, but there are a few reasons why I prefer Play:

  • C# is, bless its heart, trying to be a better functional language, but it's burdened with the legacy of its many years trying to be a Java clone. Scala is also both object-oriented and functional, but it's more opinionated in its approach, allowing for cleaner, more uniform code.

  • Play is necessarily stateless, so it scales easily by default.

  • Twirl templates (the Play answer to Razor templates) act as functions that take parametric inputs and evaluate to HTML. This is much more intuitive and flexible than the object-oriented model-binding in ASP.NET.

JavaScript that Scales

It's troubling to me that the ongoing (neverending?) debate about static types on the browser platform has defaulted to "TypeScript or Not TypeScript." Conversely, the conversation around "Should you adopt TypeScript?" usually seems to begin and end with "Do you want to use static types in the browser?"

This is nonsense, honestly. There are lots of mature, production-ready languages with robust ecosystems that offer static typing in the browser, and it's pretty irresponsible to just default to TypeScript without weighing the benefits against the alternatives. Further, if you are so inclined toward compile-time safety checks, TypeScript frankly offers the least safety in favor of being the most JavaScript-like.

  • Elm is a combination framework-and-language which guarantees no runtime errors except for stack overflows (infinite recursion) or through outside JavaScript interop. Mutation is not supported by the language at all, which, like static types, significantly decreases the mental load. If you aren't familiar with Haskell-like languages, it may have a significant learning curve, but the ability to write completely safe UIs in the browser usually makes it worth it.

  • PureScript is another Haskell-like language with a high degree of safety, but without a baked-in architecture. Despite its safety it has a relatively short learning curve because it's not overloaded with features.

  • ReScript is an OCaml dialect with a very TypeScript-like syntax. If you're interested in the safety of functional programming but miss your semicolons and braces, this could be a good language for you.

  • And, of course a ton of other languages which didn't start in the browser have been adapted to it through transpilation or WASM-compilation. ScalaJS and Fable and Blazor and Rust and js_of_ocaml and... you get the idea. And look, if out of all those you still think TypeScript is your best bet, that's great! But we're way past the point in time where it makes sense to treat it as a default.

Git Hosting

This one just seems obvious to me. If you're considering making just one switch, I recommend it be this one because it's just so easy.

Outside of network effects, I can't see any reason why anyone would pick GitHub over GitLab. There are only three significant differences between GitHub and GitLab as far as I can see:

  1. GitLab is open source.
  2. GitLab has a more mature devops platform.
  3. GitHub has an ICE contract.

end of list.

When you consider that it only takes two (2) commands to move an entire repository from one hosting service to another, it just eludes me why people use GitHub.

I have seen maybe one or two job applications that ask for a GitHub username, specifically, but my answer to that is just to leave my GitHub profile blank except for a link to my GitLab (and I've only seen this about twice out of hundreds of job applications).

Catch-all Consumer Collaboration

Whenever I find myself looking for a privacy-friendly alternative to a browser-based service, I tend to start with disroot.org. In a nutshell, they provide access to free instances of open source online software, including email, conferencing, and several different services for document collaboration. They also have developer-focused services like git hosting and issue board software.

I highlight Disroot specifically because it's unusual for a service to be both very batteries-included consumer-friendly software and also be so open source and privacy friendly. By default, I don't want to self-host everything and administer my own server, but I like knowing that option is open to me if I want it.

Hitting "end task" on lock-in

It's not my intention to moralize at anyone, and I know that there are shops where a broad Microsoft service contract makes sense, but if you like exploring your options and you want to feel like you really own your projects, then I hope I've provided some good starting points in your search for alternatives.

I write to learn, so I welcome your constructive criticism. Report issues on GitLab.

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