My favorite conundrum, the difficulty of being simple, pops up everywhere I look these days.
- OpenXML document format vs the Open Document Format
- Point: OpenXML is so complex no one else can implement it.
- Counterpoint: Its complexity is due to the existing features of MS Office, which are reflected in the old binary format and faithfully preserved in OpenXML.
- W3C XML Schema vs RELAX NG
- Point: XSD is hard to read, hard to write, hard to understand and should be scrapped.
- Counterpoint: Namespaces, URIs, DOM, and others are also horrible specs, but real people use them all to get the job done.
- WS-* vs REST
- Point: Stand up to the forces of WS-Complexity and speak truth to confusion.
- Counterpoint: Or stick with WS-* if you value security, your career, and other such boring enterprisey stuff.
- XML vs JSON
I had an epiphany shortly after buying a Toyota Prius recently: The thing is an absolute Rube Goldberg machine under the hood, but is if anything simpler to operate than an ordinary car. By contrast, the Ford Model T was so simple in design that it came with all the tools needed to maintain and repair it, and a generation or two of backyard mechanics learned how to do just that. It got 25 miles per gallon, better than Ford’s typical product today. The Prius, on the other hand, is so backyard mechanic-unfriendly that the 12 volt battery is sealed away under the trunk; there is apparently no way even to use it to perform that one bit of auto repair that almost anyone can do, jump-start another vehicle. But that complexity returns a big benefit – a Prius has all the interior size and environmental comforts of a conventional midsize sedan, but twice the fuel efficiency of the simple, uncomfortable Model T (and 3-4x that of Ford’s current best seller). The complexity is mostly hidden away from the driver; the only leaks in the abstractions that make it look like an ordinary car are the tricks one can use to optimize fuel economy.
I noticed that Len Bullard recently made essentially the same point I am trying to make:
So it is with the modern combustion engine: it works, it is efficient with respect to the power delivered for the fuel and the weight of the overall vehicle, thus adding more efficiency, but it is not something that the average backyard mechanic can rebuild. The tools required, the parts required and the knowledge of how they work in combination exceed his or her resources, understanding and nerve.
Complexity is just as much in the nature of the evolution of systems as simplicity is desirable. At some point, the demands of an environment or a market require complex solutions. While simplicity is a goal, it can also become a religion just as harmful as fundamentalism when pursued with a sword. Complex systems can do what simple systems cannot do. The goal that all systems be accessible can be met with open standards, but the goal that they be powerful, workable and light might not even as the principles over which they are built remain the same.
Now Donald Norman, the guru of high design, weighs in:
“We want simplicity” cry the people befuddled by all the features of their latest whatever. Do they really mean it? No.
But when it came time for the journalists to review the simple products they had gathered together, they complained that they lacked what they considered to be “critical” features. So, what do people mean when they ask for simplicity? One-button operation, of course, but with all of their favorite features.
In the case of the iPod, the way beauty is provided happens to be through a clean and simple design, but it doesn’t have to be. The Hummer is aesthetically appealing precisely because it’s ugly and complicated.
I think it is a misattribution to say, for example, that the iPod is successful because it lacks features. If you start to believe that, you’ll believe, among other things, that you should take out features to increase your product’s success. With six years of experience running my own software company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features
Gadgetopia summarizes — “you need features, but they need to appear simple to the end users”.
There’s a name for the discipline of working within a network of complex constraints to produce something simply usable – engineering. It’s not easy to get the complicated system of batteries, motors, charging systems, and drivetrain in a modern hybrid car to work together efficiently, but some very clever engineers managed to do that. Those who dismiss various XML technologies, or XML itself, because of ugly complexities or unpleasant constraints may someday look as prescient as the folks in the auto industry who killed off the electric car in the 1990’s, only to be humbled by the engineers who made the hybrid system practical a few years later.
OpenXML, WS-*, XSD, and XML for that matter are not doomed because they are complex, nor are they destined for success because they attempt to hide their complexity from the end user. Those who build infrastructures and applications on top of them are challenged to do good engineering to make their purported features actually work and to appear simple to the ultimate consumers. In the long run we’ll probably end up more or less where automobiles are now – complexity under the hood that would inspire Rube Goldberg, but engineering quality that makes it appear simple to the driver.
Reasonable people can disagree on whether we are currently on the right track to making this happen. If we are, the yelping in the blogosphere might be dismissed as backyard mechanics lamenting the fact that “enterprisey” applications can’t be built with hand tools anymore. If the critics are right, we could plausibly be in the midst of a disruption akin to the 1970’s consumer revolt against Detroit-made gas guzzling behemoths in favor of smaller, better-designed imports. We shall see, but the answer is not at all obvious despite various “Mission Accomplished” declarations by one faction or another.
Here what I (personally … obligatory disclaimer about not speaking with the xmlteam hat on) think about the technologies listed at the top of this post with respect to the simplicity/complexity dilemma: