JavaScript development and the paradox of choice

There are a lot of folks trying to sell their miracle cure for the problem of writing efficient, testable, maintainable JavaScript. And there’s an equal number of folks decrying the proliferation of almost-there libraries and flash-in-the-pan frameworks.

Bootstrap. Backbone. Handlebars. Angular. I’ve spent so much time hearing snatches of conversation about these tools, and trying to make sense of them, that after awhile it all starts to sound like some crazy beat poetry.


angular backbone bootstrap cordova handlebars lawnchair underscore jasmine karma testacular grunt yeoman blueprint ember bower require sencha dojo mootools phonegap modernizr prototype meteor…

If you shouted that on a street corner while wielding a bottle of bourbon, you wouldn’t look out of place. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed trying to understand this mess.

Police Chief Wiggum and a raving derelict, from Simpsons episode 3F02.

Pictured: a seasoned JavaScript developer.

A good JavaScript is hard to find

Part of the reason there are so many snake-oil salesmen is that the cure is so badly needed. Web development is both 1) hard and 2) absolutely crucial. Facebook and Gmail have set the bar high enough that nowadays everyone expects beautiful, responsive, browser-based applications that take milliseconds to download and work on every rectangular-shaped device you can throw at it. It’s a tall order.

And the reason it feels like snake oil is that none of these tools solves the entire problem. I’ve tried many of them, hoping that I had finally found the JavaScript silver bullet, and I’ve always felt vaguely disappointed afterwards. The medicine tastes good going down, I get excited watching YouTube tutorials and reading GitHub pages and coding in a new paradigm, and then afterwards I still end up sweating feverishly over the Chrome Developer Tools, trying to center a disobedient div or figure out why my event isn’t firing. I exchange one set of problems for another.

And then I lay awake at night wondering, “Well, maybe instead of JQuery UI, I should have used YUI or Bootstrap or…”? Then it’s back for another dose of the same old medicine.

Grandpa Simpson selling some 'revitalizing tonic,' from Simpsons episode 2F07.

Step right up and put some fury in your JQuery, some zest in your CSS!

Another world is possible

This situation really frustrates me, primarily because I come from a Java background. And in Java Land, the platform is mature enough that there’s a basic suite of components that have emerged as the brain-dead, obvious solutions to common problems.

  • Need to test your app? Duh, use JUnit.
  • Need basic HTTP operations? Double duh, use Apache HTTP Client.
  • Need ORM? What are you, stupid? Use Hibernate.
  • Need a package manager? Cripes, it’s the 21st century: use Maven. Or Ivy, if you want something even simpler.

And if you use modern Java-based frameworks like Android or Grails, you’ll see that a lot of these third-party tools are already baked in: e.g. JUnit and HTTP Client for Android; Ivy, Hibernate, and JUnit for Grails. New Java developers pick up stuff like JUnit without thinking about it, as if it were just part of the language. And it practically is.

Even Java itself is mature enough that I’ve honestly felt satisfied since Java 6, and haven’t seen much need to upgrade. String switches in Java 7? Yawn, I’ve been using Enums since Java 5. Lambdas in Java 8? No need, Google Guava has me covered.

No silver JS bullet

JavaScript, on the other hand, is anything but mature. There is no “obvious” choice for third-party components – with the exception of JQuery, which is so omnipresent nowadays that it almost is JavaScript.

But aside from JQuery, there’s no one-stop solution that everyone rallies behind. For each of my “easy” questions for Java above, you get a forest of forked decision trees in JavaScript:

Mr. Burns contemplates Ketchup vs. Catsup, from Simpsons episode 2F07.

Ketchup or catsup? Karma or Selenium?

The paradox of choice

When you’ve got dozens of popular frameworks, many of them with overlapping or even conflicting goals, the choices can be overwhelming. And even after you choose one, it’s easy to end up second-guessing yourself and fretting endlessly over your decision. It’s a familiar case of the phenomenon popularly known as the paradox of choice.

So what’s a poor JavaScript developer to do?

Let’s say, for instance, that your boss tells your team that you need to write a mobile webapp. Do you choose JQuery Mobile, Sencha Touch, or Dojo Mobile? And what if you need to write a regular data-driven Ajax app? Do you choose Angular, Ember, or Backbone? Each of them has a snazzy self-laudatory website and fierce partisans on Stack Overflow. Looks like you’ve got some reading to do!

I’m new to web development, but I’ve come to believe that the only surefire solution to the problem of competing frameworks is to try them all. Not for a mission-critical project, of course – instead, you should just write a stub app. That way, you’ll discover each framework’s strengths and shortcomings, you’ll understand the problems it’s trying to solve, and you’ll be able to make an informed decision when it really counts.

In my opinion, it’s better to have three developers on your team take a week to write stub apps in three different frameworks, rather than blindly embark down a single path based on the attractiveness of a documentation page or the charisma of a YouTube evangelist.

My own stub app

I decided to try this approach recently with three frameworks I was curious about – Angular, Bootstrap, and PhoneGap. They seemed to have orthogonal goals, so in theory they should play nicely together.

My objective was to write a webapp with nice MVC features (Angular) that would look pretty (Bootstrap) and could work as a native Android or iOS app (PhoneGap). For the task itself, I chose to write an end-of-game score calculator for one of my favorite Euro-style board games, Imperial. This had the benefit of being a well-defined problem that scratched a personal itch, and plus it gave me something to show off to my board gamer buddies.

For the feature specifications, the usual suspects applied. I needed to persist user data, because presumably users would want to see their saved games, or resume a game if they accidentally closed the tab. The design had to be responsive in order to accomodate multiple screen sizes, because you could imagine using this app in your browser as well as on a smartphone. It had to support deep-linking, because what if you wanted to share the game results with your friends? And of course, the UI had to present the data in a useful way: who’s in first place, who came in second, are there any ties, etc.

When I first described this project to one of my coworkers, his reaction was “that sounds like way more than a stub app.” Which is true – as soon as you exceed a certain level of complexity, you run into interesting problems, for which the frameworks are supposed to provide useful solutions. This is exactly the point of writing the app.

The end result of this experiment is the Imperial Score Calculator. It’s available as both a mobile-friendly webapp and an Android app (iOS version coming soon). And of course the source code is on GitHub.

Imperial Score Calculator desktop-sized screenshot

Imperial Score Calculator

I’ve learned something today

In the end, I’m very satisfied with the project. Not because the app itself is the best I’ve ever written (it’s not), but because it taught me some hard lessons that I’ll take with me to my next web project. For instance, here are some of the lessons learned:

  • Bootstrap does not magically make everything responsive. Do not design for the desktop and then hope that when you resize the viewport everything will “just work.” Some assembly required.
  • Angular is a godsend. It’s as if someone stepped out of a time machine and showed us what HTML6 will look like, today. I initially wrote the app in JQuery; a naïve Angular rewrite resulted in about 20% less code.
  • That being said, Angular does not instantly replace JQuery, unless you really grok directives. I still had to fall back on the good ol’ $ from time to time.
  • Lawnchair is a cool idea, but it’s poorly documented, and the asynchronous approach means you can’t save user data in the onbeforeunload event. In the end, I just went with LocalStorage.
  • PhoneGap is awesome. But man oh man, do not try debugging it without Weinre, unless you like pulling your hair out.

These are all opinions that I hold after working on this app. And I don’t expect you, dear reader, to swallow any of them just based on my say-so. The only way you can learn these lessons is to build a stub app yourself.

And perhaps you’ll have a totally different experience and come to totally different conclusions. Your mileage may vary. But you won’t know until you take the car out for a test drive.

Imperial Score Calculator mobile-sized screenshot

I ended up using a completely different layout for the mobile version.


JavaScript development is hard. The community is going through some growing pains, with everyone defending their cherished framework. The only solution to this problem of fragmentation and “There’s More Than One Million Ways To Do It” is time.

I do see some rays of hope in projects like Meteor and Yeoman, which are very opinionated meta-frameworks that attempt to combine multiple “best of class” JavaScript solutions into one easy package for web developers. In a sense, they’re trying to solve the problem that’s already been solved in Java Land.

But since Java Land is an increasingly irrelevant, fading power next to the ascendant hegemony that is the People’s Republic of JavaScript, the solution can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing stub apps.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Braden on May 18, 2013 at 6:07 PM

    Totally agreed. I like to use Google Trends to get a pulse (e.g. client-side model frameworks: ), but even that isn’t always conclusive.


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