All evidence points to OOP being bullshit

February 21, 2013 John Barker

This is the second part in a series I’m writing about lessons that can be learned from functional programming. Find the first part here.

Object Oriented Programming (OOP) as an idea has been oversold. The most commonly used languages in use today are designed around the idea of OOP. Extremist languages like Java force you to think of everything in terms of objects. But is Object Orientation (OO) a good idea? Does it have problems? Is it the right tool for everything? Let’s explore some of these questions in a slightly tongue in cheek and cathartic rant.

Imperative vs Declarative

The object-oriented model makes it easy to build up programs by accretion. What this often means, in practice, is that it provides a structured way to write spaghetti code. — Paul Graham

Procedural programming languages are designed around the idea of enumerating the steps required to complete a task. OOP languages are the same in that they are imperative—they are still essentially about giving the computer a sequence of commands to execute. What OOP introduces are abstractions that attempt to improve code sharing and security. In many ways it is still essentially procedural code.

Declarative languages on the other hand are about describing computation. While a declarative language necessarily maps down to imperative code, the resulting code often reveals less incidental complexity and can sometimes be much more easily parallelized.

State

The problem with object-oriented languages is they’ve got all this implicit environment that they carry around with them. You wanted a banana but what you got was a gorilla holding the banana and the entire jungle. — Joe Armstrong

State is not your friend, state is your enemy. Changes to state make programs harder to reason about, harder to test and harder to debug. Stateful programs are harder to parallelize, and this is important in a world moving towards more units, more cores and more work. OOP languages encourage mutability, non determinism and complexity.

As someone who was initially hostile to the idea that state is the root of all problems, I initially greeted this idea with skepticism. Mutating state is so easy and fundamental in OOP that you often overlook how often it happens. If you’re invoking a method on an object that’s not a getter, you’re probably mutating state.

Nouns and Verbs

Java is the most distressing thing to happen to computing since MS-DOS. — Alan Kay

The typical college introduction to OOP starts with a gentle introduction to objects as metaphors for real world concepts. Very few real world OOP programs even consist entirely of nouns, they’re filled with verbs masquerading as nouns: strategies, factories and commands. Software as a mechanism for directing a computer to do work is primarily concerned with verbs.

OOP programs that exhibit low coupling, cohesion and good reusability sometimes feel like nebulous constellations, with hundreds of tiny objects all interacting with each other. Sacrificing readability for changeability. Many of OOP best practices are in fact encouraged by functional programming languages.

Inheritance vs. Composition

Object-oriented programming is an exceptionally bad idea which could only have originated in California — Edsger W. Dijkstra

Inheritance is one of the primary mechanisms for sharing code in an an OO language. But this idea is so problematic that even the keenest advocates of OO discourage this pattern. Inheritance forces you to define the taxonomy and structure of your application in advance, with all its connections and intricacies. This structure is resistant to change which is one of the primary problems software developers face every day. It also fails to model some pretty fundamental concepts.

Further Reading

This is far from an exhaustive list of the criticisms leveled at OOP. While I believe the problems with OOP are extensive, I do think it is a valuable mechanism for developing software. But is certainly not the only one. The biggest problem in my mind is thus:

When people overcome the significant hurdle of fully appreciating OOP, they tend to apply it to every problem. OOP becomes the solution, and every problem looks like a nail.

There’s got to be a better way…

 

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