A Programmer's Perspective

The Javascript Ecosystem Can Be Frustrating to Work With

Published on: 21 December 2021

I have been working with Electron for the past two months or so — building Apollo (open-source RSS aggregator). And working with Electron meant I had to work with the Javascript ecosystem.

And boy is the Javascript ecosystem a confusing beast. From trying to bundle Electron via Webpack, to installing React, to getting hot reloading to work, everything has been a hassle.

To give even more context, lately, I had finalized the majority of the core functionality of Apollo — which included things like adding a new feed, and bookmarking feeds. I wanted to polish the application and so I started to modifying the styles of the React components. However, as I hadn't setup Electron to allow for hot reloading of the renderer, it was taking minutes to build and render the changes. This was not very economical as I could be changing a single text color and have to wait minutes to view the changes.

So, I did what any sensible developer would do and look for ways to hot reload an Electron app. I stumbled upon electron-reloader and tried it out. No dice. Apparently, it did not work really well with Webpack + React.

So, I tried the next best thing, using a pre-packed Webpack plugin for electron-reloader. Again, no dice. The changes simply were not rendering.

Exasperated, I decided to re-write my Webpack to use electron-webpack as it had promised hot reloading out-of-the-box. But this time, I could not get my existing Webpack configurations to work. electron-webpack was simply too abstract for my liking.

The same happened with electron-forge.

Frustrated with the lack of flexibility and documentation for both electron-webpack and electron-forge, I decided to roll my own "minimal" Electron setup.

I decided to hardcode the tech stack to be Typescript, React, Tailwind.CSS, and TypeORM. This was the stack that was already working for me with Apollo and I did not want to rewrite Apollo.

So, I started reading the documentation and looking at various posts about setting up these tools. I cannot express just how many times I would follow a guide to the tee and have some random error message appear because the tutorial was like three months old.

THREE MONTHS

Only in Javascript will you get breaking changes by following a three-month old article...

I was pulling my hair at the multitude of errors with just setting up Webpack to work with every single technology. The implementation of Apollo was never a trouble, but the setup was the one giving me the most amount of problems...

Finally, after nearly eight hours of repeated trial and error and constant Google-fu, I finally got the minimal setup working.

I think this experience really speaks to the almost tragic state of Javascript. Everything is moving so quickly that three-month old articles can go obsolete. Tools are so abstracted that it's almost impossible to make flexible decisions without needing to pull everything apart. There are so many tools that perform the same operation but differ ever so slightly that using one over the other would cause red errors to fill your screen. And yet, we are recommending web development as a "beginner" domain. Sure, having opinionated tooling can make it easy to start out with — but staying within the confines and diction of each opinion can become stifling and frustrating.

Sure this whole process has been eye-opening and has taught me a lot about Webpack and Babel. But maybe it's just me, but I think that development should be less about confusing setup and debating standards and more about actually developing a product that matters. I just feel that time can be better invested elsewhere if the ecosystem and tooling is a lot more cohesive and complete.

I know my new "minimal" Electron setup is contributing to the problem, but for me, working with the tools at the most fundamental level — away from the abstracted nonsense — is the easiest way for me to get something working.

Standards

Of course, Electron development is not exactly the traditional starting point for web development and my past experiences with these libraries have always been less problematic. I think I am just frustrated at the fact that just by adding a new framework or feature to the mix, all of these tools suddenly stop working properly and the debugging process is doubly difficult because of the lack of proper documentation.

So what can we do about this? Well, I believe that this problem stems from a lack of proper documentation. Rather than adopting the traditional mindset of "This works with a single click", we should be striving to document how a layer of abstraction works behind the scenes. What dependencies does it rely on? How do we properly add new dependencies that don't strictly play into the tight integration? How do we use this library, add new features, and maintain it as our project grows? By taking this first step to making libraries easily understandable and modifiable, we minimize the need to double down on previous standards and can instead, just stick to a single modular library that just works.

In case you are interested, my "minimal" Electron setup can be found here.


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