Gnome Developer Experience Hackfest 2013

on Monday, February 11, 2013

The Aftermath

After finally getting rid of a really bad cold, here I am reporting about the DevX hackfest that took place right before FOSDEM, at the Betagroup Coworking Space, a very nice coworking place in Brussels with excellent access and great facilities. The hackfest, organized by Alberto Ruiz (thanks!) and sponsored by the Gnome Foundation, had the goal of improving the application developer experience on the desktop, and lasted for three days, with plenty of discussions on a variety of topics, from tooling and IDEs, documentation, languages, libraries to bundling, distribution and sandboxing (and more).

It was a pretty interesting experience, there were a lot of people participating and due to the nature of the facilities (i.e., we were all in one room together), and lot of discussions bounced around the room and spilled over from group to group. My goal for the hackfest was to work on (and hopefully finish) the tooling required to create Mono bindings for the Gnome desktop in an automated way, so that packagers and developers can make bindings available for any library that supports gobject-introspection. By the end of the hackfest, the bindings tool (called bindinator) was able to bind Webkit with no user intervention, and with gstreamer bindings 95% done  (two bugs still pending), things are looking good for automated C# bindings.

Between hacking and sneezing, we discussed tooling and IDEs, particularly what an IDE should have in terms of features, and what features a language should have to better support an application development environment; i.e., in the case of dynamic languages, a built-in AST is a very good thing to have, since you really want good code completion in your IDE, especially when you're starting on a new platform and aren't comfortable with the available libraries and APIs. Other useful features that went on the list for an IDE would be syntax highlighting (a must on any good code editor), responsive UI, good build infrastructure integration (preferably hiding away the specific build tool details and possibly with its own project format that's independent of specific build tools (looking at you autotools)), debugger support, modularization (for user extensibility). And, preferably, being built with the same tools and languages that are recommended for the platform (dogfooding++).

The language discussion was really *the* topic that dominated the three days. There was a lot of back and forth over the merits and demerits of Python, Javascript, Vala, C and C# throughout the days and into the evening activities. Which language would be the easiest to integrate? What tools are available for each? Debuggers are important and hard to do, code completion is harder in some languages than others; if one were to code an IDE from scratch, what language would be better for the UI, the logic, systems integration? Would floating point fuzziness affect someone doing an accounting app? What type of developers are the target, and what type of apps? Widgets and applets that just create a quick UI over existing libraries? Bigger apps? How many developers are there for every language, and how many things are missing and/or need to be fixed in Vala, or Javascript, or any other language? Should there be a single language recommendation? Two languages? All these and more were put forth and discussed extensively, and will probably continue to be discussed over time (as there is rarely a right answer for most of them). No matter how people feel about the decisions that came out of this hackfest, they can be assured that they weren't taken lightly, or without a fight.

All in all, it was a great hackfest, three days of very productive discussions and hacking. Kudos to Alberto Ruiz for a great job organizing everyone, and thank you to the Gnome Foundation and Andrea Veri for the sponsorship and assistance.