Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Evolving a popular API

Authoring an API which later becomes popular can be both a blessing and a curse. If your design was imperfect, which it is bound to be, you will be frequently flamed for flaws. Except for the most trivial systems, it is outright impossible to get an API right the first time. You will several iterations to perfect your design.

Take Tapestry for example. It has evolved over seven years and five iterations to become what it is today. Unfortunately, some of these iterations were not backward compatible, thus purportedly negatively impacting Tapestry's adoption rate.

Offering a painless migration path to users may be necessary element to keep your existing user base, but as any developer who has attempted to preserve 100% backward-compatibility will tell you, such an ambitiuos goal will quickly begin to consume eons of your time.

Unless you are Microsoft or some other entity with serious resources, you will need to make a choice between 100% compatibility and innovation. In my experience, you can't both improve your design and keep 100% (absolute) compatibility.

However, if you aim a little lower than 100%, you can keep evolving your API without severely impacting your existing users. Most APIs have parts intended for internal use and other more public parts intended for use by the wider public. Changes to the internal parts may effect a handful of users, say one out of every thousand users. In contrast, changes to the public API will affect every user.

If such a distinction makes sense for your API, confine your incompatible changes to the internal part of your API. As mentioned earlier, these changes may affect a small proportion of your users, which may still number in the hundreds. Nevertheless, causing discomfort to a tiny minority of your users is still much better than a dead, i.e. non-evolving, API.

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