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The Problem with Application Generators

There are some areas of the Visual Studio/.NET toolspace that I'll probably never review (or we'll recruit a guest reviewer who knows what they're talking about). I wouldn't feel comfortable about reviewing tools supporting developers creating Geographical Information Systems (GIS), for instance, because I don't think that I know enough about the field to have an opinion. I would, on the other hand, feel comfortable about reviewing tools that allow developers to incorporate GIS output into a business application because that is a kind of application that I've created for clients in the past.

Another example of an area that I'd feel uncomfortable reviewing is "application generator tools." I just got a press release for Iron Speed Designer, for instance, which generates .NET database and reporting applications. You provide the database and it provides the application. The product is timely (always a good feature in a review) and the price isn't unreasonable (actually, at $1,000 to $2,000 it's cheap for an application generator).

The problem is that I don't believe in application generators (I also don't believe in Ruby on Rails or Dynamic Data). Fundamentally, I don't think that application development has reached the stage yet where it's possible to create applications automatically from a set of specifications (a database design, an object model, a UML diagram). I think that we're still at the "craft" stage of this profession and not yet at the mass production, "assembly line" stage.

Perhaps I've just been burned as a child. Almost two decades ago, I did some work with an application generator that was intended to reduce the programming required to create a new application. It did reduce the amount of code we wrote (at the time, I was programming in PL/1). But, instead of programming in code, we just ended up programming in the specifications we submitted to the generator. We moved the problem around but didn't actually solve it. I've worked (briefly) with some application generators since then and faced the same problem.

And with all of those tools, no matter what I did I never really got what I wanted in the resulting application. There's a problem from a reviewer's point of view as well. Perhaps I wanted the wrong things. I always tell people that, whenever you adopt a new tool, you should first figure out what the designers of the tool thought you were going to do with it. Once you know that, you should do what the tool wants.

I've seen any number of developers frustrated because they were trying to "trick" some tool into doing something it wasn't designed to do. Life would have been much easier (and more productive) for those developers if they just did what the tool wanted. So, perhaps, with application generators, I've had the wrong set of expectations.

For whatever reason, I worry that I wouldn't give a fair review to an application generator -- not out of ignorance but out of prejudice. What's your experience? Are application generators something that makes sense to you? Am I just being narrow minded?

Posted by Peter Vogel on 07/08/2010 at 1:16 PM

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