Electron considered harmful

Published 2016-11-24 on Drew DeVault's blog

Yeah, I know that “considered harmful” essays are allegedly considered harmful. If it surprises you that I’m writing one, though, you must be a new reader. Welcome! Let’s get started. If you’re unfamiliar with Electron, it’s some hot new tech that lets you make desktop applications with HTML+CSS+JavaScript. It’s basically a chromeless web browser with a Node.js backend and a Chromium-based frontend. What follows is the rant of a pissed off Unix hacker, you’ve been warned.

As software engineers we have a responsibility to pick the right tools for the job. In fact, that’s the most important choice we have to make when we start a project. When you choose Electron you get:

  • An entire copy of Chromium you’ll be shipping with your app
  • An interface that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the user’s OS
  • One of the slowest, least memory efficient, and most inelegant GUI application platforms out there (remember, we tolerate frontend web development because we have no choice, not because it is by any means good)

Let’s go over some case studies.

lossless-cut is an Electron app that gives you a graphical UI for two ffmpeg flags. Seriously, the flags in question are -ss and -t. No really, that’s literally all it does. It doesn’t even use ffmpeg to decode the video preview in the app, it’s limited to the codecs chromium supports. It also ships its own ffmpeg, so it has the industry standard video decoding tool right there and doesn’t use it to render video. For the price of 200 extra MiB of disk space and an entire Chromium process in RAM and on your CPU, you get a less capable GUI that saves you from having to type the -ss and -t flags yourself.

1Clipboard is a clipboard manager. In Electron. A clipboard manager. In order to show you a list of things you’ve copied, it uses an entire bundled copy of Chromium. Also note that despite the promises of Electron making cross platform development easy, it doesn’t support Linux.

Collectie is a… fancy bookmark manager, I guess? Another one that fails to get the cross platform value add from Electron, this only supports OS X (or is it macOS). For only $10 bucks you get to organize your shit into folders. Or you could just open the Finder for free and get a native UX to boot.

This is a terminal written with Electron. On the landing page they say “# A terminal emulator 100% based on JavaScript, HTML, and CSS” like they’re proud of it. They’ve taken one of the most lightweight and essential tools on your computer and bloated it by orders of magnitude. Why the fuck would you want to render Google in your god damn terminal emulator? Bonus: also not cross platform.

This is not to mention the dozens of companies that have taken their websites and crammed them into a shitty electron app and called it their desktop app. Come on guys!

By the way, if you’re the guy who’s going to leave a comment about how this blog post introduced you to a bunch of interesting apps you’re going to install now, I hate you.

Electron enables lazy developers to write garbage

Let me be clear about this: JavaScript sucks. It’s not the worst, but it’s also not by any means good. ES6 is a really great step forward and I’m thrilled about how much easier it’s going to be to write JavaScript, but it’s still JavaScript underneath the syntactic sugar. We use it because we have no choice (people who know more than just JavaScript know this). The object model is whack and the loose typing is whack and the DOM is super whack.

When Node.js happened, a bunch of developers who never bothered to learn more than JavaScript for their frontend work suddenly could write their crappy code on the backend, too. Now this is happening to desktop applications. The reason people choose Electron is because they are too lazy to learn the right tools for the job. This is the worst quality a developer can have. You’re an engineer, for the love of God! Fucking act like one! Do they build square airplanes so they don’t have to learn about aerodynamics, then just throw on an extra ten engines to make up for it? NO!

For the love of God, learn something else. Learn how to use GTK or Qt. Maybe Xwt is more up your alley. How about GNOME’s Vala thing? Learn another programming language. Learn Python or C/C++ or C#. Fun fact: it’ll make your JavaScript better, and once you have it in your toolbox you can make more educated decisions on the appropriate tool to use when you face your next problem. Hint: it’s not Electron.

Some Electron apps don’t suck

For some use-cases Electron is a reasonable choice.

  • Visual Studio Code, because it’s a full blown IDE with a debugger and plugins and more. It’s already gonna be bloated.
  • Soundnode, because it’s not like any other music service’s app obeys your OS’s UI conventions

Uh, that’s it. That’s the entire list.