Friday, November 13, 2015

Reacting to React

While I'm on the blog here, I figured I'd take a minute to write my thoughts on React / React Native.

Recently I've had occasion to play with React Native a bit. This post is not so much about first impressions, though, but about my perspective and some preconceptions about things like React in general.

I run a big JavaScript meetup group called OttawaJS. I get to see lots of interesting presentations on the latest and greatest technology, and sometimes give talks myself. Over the past few years I've seen an absolute deluge of new frameworks and libraries for web and mobile development, and like a lot of people in the tech community, have suffered from "new framework fatigue".  Perhaps this is one reason why, when React came around, I didn't get immediately excited about it. Beyond that, here are some general observations, personal biases, and preconceptions.

1. When Mark Zuckerberg famously said "HTML5 isn't ready", many people felt they hadn't given it a fair shake. The developers at Sencha proved the point by building an HTML5 clone of the Facebook app that outperformed the native one.  So Facebook hasn't been a big proponent of using the web stack for mobile apps, historically. Although I think there are some really good ideas underlying React, having a large company behind something doesn't mean it's the right solution for everybody.

2. I'm a little wary of frameworks built and promoted by large companies. Enterprises don't usually build open source frameworks without some benefit to themselves, and having more developers on a project tends to add complexity. The frameworks and tools that I usually prefer, and the ones that have generally proven most successful over time, are often written by a single author out of personal interest, and have slowly built up a following.

3. There seemed to be a lot of marketing behind React, and that can be a bad sign. It had barely been introduced and there were conferences about it and a flood of videos and articles. Paul Graham said something similar about Java a long time ago. About how good languages and frameworks don't need to be marketed, and how anything with a big marketing engine behind it just smells funny.

4. There are some cool functional programming concepts in React but they're mixed in with the classical object model. This kinda points to confusion about what the designers thought they were trying to build.

5. Generating HTML programmatically actually does suck. Other languages and framework have tried this, and they also sucked. I think Ember's Glimmer engine has taken an approach that minimizes DOM updates for great performance, without re-inventing the way HTML is written.

6. React seems to have done a lot to make people aware of cool things like immutability and components. And that's really great. However I think those concepts have value outside of React and can be applied with smaller, bespoke libraries like Redux and Riot.js.

7. My gut feeling is that it just doesn't feel like React is the holy grail of component-oriented web frameworks. It brings some cool concepts to the table and has helped shift developers' focus towards interesting alternatives to two-way binding and REST to thinks like one-way data flow and GraphQL. But I think web components and the native web stack are heading in the right direction and will ultimately replace a lot of what client-side MVC frameworks currently do.

So that's why I've told people I'm not betting on React becoming the defacto standard way to build web/mobile apps. At best, I think some of it's most useful concepts will be extracted, cleaned up and incorporated in smaller standalone implementations.

KCJS keep calm and javascript. :-)

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