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Fri, 26 May 2006
I’ve been reading Adrian’s series of articles on XP with considerable interest. I’ve found it interesting to see how somebody I know has got involved with this approach to software development and I’ve felt that there were lots of good lessons there.
But I was a bit taken aback by something in a recent entry, Framing The XP Principles:
Netscape has all but gone out of business because of one bad technical decision to rewrite their entire browser instead of taking small steps and fixing the existing one.
Now, before I launch into my speculations here, I should point out that I’ve never worked at Netscape and I’ve never worked on any of the Mozilla products—although I have occasionally skimmed parts of their source code. So what follows is purely my guesses, based on what I can see from outside.
On the other hand, I have worked on a number of big projects where a decision was made to throw out some existing implementation in favour of a complete rewrite—and I’ve seen such projects succeed.
I am satisfied that the old Netscape code base was rubbish. I am also convinced that it would have been insane to attempt to fix it. Where I think Netscape went wrong was in failing to learn anything from the first time through. From where I stand, they seem to have embarked on another gigantic piece of junk without getting hold of the right people or developing a sensible plan. It’s clear to anybody who uses or who has the misfortune to need to build something like the current version of Firefox that this new code is pretty nearly as bad as the old code. Of course, it is better—but not significantly better. It’s much more like the old rubbish than like something that we’d all be proud to be a part of.
I have no way of proving my point, of course. And I don’t care that much about the specific case. And I certainly agree that it’s better to refine a code base as a general principle rather than to automatically throw it all away. But I think it’s important to recognise that there are real cases where it is better to discard even a huge code base than to get lost in a vain attempt to “fix” it.
Naturally, if the decision to rewrite is taken, it should only be done if there is a clear commitment to first learn the lessons from the failed implementation and to create a design and a methodology that have a reasonable likelihood of success.
Having said that, I now await Adrian’s next instalment with interest.