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Friday, September 19, 2003

Excellent discourse on WebObjects and Tapestry

Drew Davidson, (co-?)creator of OGNL, recently posted this message about WebObjects to the Tapestry user mailing list:
I went to WWDC 2001 full of excitement about WO, since at that time they were just getting the pure Java 5.0 version out the door. I had talked with them previously about how they were going to transition from ObjC to Java and was concerned about the API.

Their main focus was to make it API compatible with ObjC - something I thought was ridiculous. From their point of view, I guess that their customers were clamoring for this because it would make transitioning their applications from ObjC to Java easier; most of the WO work we did at Running Start (where I worked with Erik Hatcher) during 2000 involved using the ObjC-Java bridge and the Java API to WO that was provided. So there was an existing Java API for WO.

However, this decision had long-term consequences to users. The API as presented by the ObjC-Java bridge was an Objective-C API - no two ways about it. It was not Java-like in the least. The API used internal collections (NSArray, NSDictionary, etc.) instead of the soon-to-be-standard Java Collections in java.util. The method names were ObjC-like and not JavaBeans patterns where that made sense. ObjC concepts like categories and inherited class methods that Java does not support were rough translations and sometimes the disconnect was obvious.

Short term this is a benefit as developers can more easily port their code.

Long term, however, this means that you must live in the Apple WO world instead of the bigger Java world. Adaptors must be written when interaction is required between APIs and standard tools for doing JavaBeans stuff just won't fit without making custom BeanInfo objects for the necessary objects.

The WO API itself was written very long ago (it started back at NeXT back in 1994, for crying out loud!) and it was written with the perspective that you build a WO *application* that acts as an application server. It does not take into account the notion of Application Servers and therefore solves the entire Application Server role from soup to nuts. At the time it was written this was sensible.

But the world has moved on. Servlets are now the standard way to deploy Java web applications. Apple has made efforts to integrate WO with the Servlets, and even integrate with JSP, but IMNSHO they have not really made it feasible to develop and deploy this way. The API is just too elderly and they needed to have ripped a new page off the notebook, taken the concepts and started over. The concepts are still very valid. Nothing else (up until Tapestry) had attempted to really componentize the web, and that is very much to NeXT's (then Apple's) credit. When Howard started over with the basic assumptions of Application Server, Servlets, etc. and applied the excellent concepts from WO he created Tapestry. Tapestry is, to my mind, what WO 5.0 should have been. The failure was due to Apple's doing what the customer *wanted* and not what they *needed*. I'm sure that Apple's rationale for doing what they did was to support their customer base and not lose those customers. But look at their market now - they are niche. But the 3 WO customers left probably had a very easy time porting their 4.5 applications to 5.0.

BTW I mentioned the collections problem at WWDC (in one of the sessions, in front of everyone) and was brushed off by Ernie Prabakhar (the manager in charge of WO at the time) by him claiming that their collections were not functionaly compatible (mainly due to null handling); I told him that I had integrated the two without conflict with some facades that wrapped the NS stuff to Java Collection stuff. It worked, but was wasteful because of all of the adaptors hanging around and the constant awareness you had to have at integration points. They really had no interest in solving this problem, and it was clear they just wanted me to shut up and go away because I was expressing concern and critique instead of praise and adulation.

You, Jamie, are correct in your assesment that WO has stopped evolving. It has become a niche solution wherein you have to buy into the entire Apple web development package, rather than being able to use the tools you want and exclude those you don't. The only company that can get away with this kind of behaviour and still keep market share is Microsoft.

- Drew

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