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The Flying Car Problem

3 min read

Many free/open-source projects often suffer from a very specific feedback where it is assumed that a certain feature will not be implemented because of a philosophical reason. It is what I called as the “flying car” problem.


As an illustration, with a lot of users and very few contributors, PhantomJS was bound to have that problem. In fact, it does already and it will continue to have it. I don’t have a clear idea why it happens, however I suspect that it is caused by the practical impedance mismatch between the fundamental core implementation and its users. As you can imagine, most PhantomJS users are web developers who are not always exposed to the intricacies and the challenges of what happens behind the scene. This is pretty much like an automatic gearbox, my car mechanic and I might have a completely different idea of how such a gearbox should operate.

In a mailing-list thread over a year, I summarize the situation as:

Any “why PhantomJS can’t do this” situation should be (at first) treated the same way as

“why my car can’t fly” question. A car designer loves to have it, but the technology might not be there yet.

Another example is this remark on Hacker News (I don’t regularly follow HN, but from time to time certain comments were brought to my attention):

I believe phantom made a fundamental mistake of not being nodejs based in the first place.

This is despite the subject itself is mentioned in the FAQ and has been discussed in the mailing-list (several times). I won’t go into the technical details (not the point here), but surely you can’t help but to notice a similar pattern here.

An engineering project is always handicapped by a certain engineering constraints. Many times the developers want to be pragmatic, there is nothing opinionated or philosophical about it. The recent Cambrian explosion of social media forums highlights the loudest noises and provokes heated flame wars to a different level. It is easy to fall into the trap whereby we assume (by means of extrapolation) that every project owner is hotheaded and opinionated. The calm and reasonable ones fade into the background.

Every sport team will welcome useful and constructive feedback. An emotional knee-jerk reaction from a trigger-happy armchair quarterback however hardly makes it to the prioritized items. As I have often expressed, we are not in the kindergarten anymore, screaming does not make the solution appear faster. While it is an opportunity to polish the art of self-restraint, any kind of flying car problem unnecessarily drains the energy of every project maintainer. The optimal win-win compromise is for both sides to always practice the principle of Audi alteram partem. The very least, give it five minutes.

Enough rambling already, I need to go back to my garage to fix that damn hoverboard…

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