[OSM-dev] The future of Potlatch

Richard Fairhurst richard at systemeD.net
Thu May 1 18:35:59 BST 2008

[warning - long ponderous e-mail follows!]

Hi all,

A fairly weighty issue concerning the future of Potlatch has arisen, 
and I'm completely baffled as to what to do - so I thought I'd "ask the 
community" for thoughts and advice.

CloudMade (Steve and Nick's VC-funded company set up to commercialise 
OSM data, www.cloudmade.com) wants to commission a new online Flash 
editor for OSM. It would, I believe, probably be written by developers 
from Stamen Design (www.stamen.com): some of you will remember that 
Stamen's Tom Carden wrote OSM's early Java editing applet, and they've 
also written a slippy map in Flash called Modest Maps.

As you can imagine, this has taken me aback a bit.

As I understand it, their main issue is a technical one. Potlatch is 
written in ActionScript 1, which is the same language as JavaScript, 
but for Flash. The latest version is ActionScript 3, which is much more 
like Java for Flash. The end user doesn't notice a difference, but the 
programming style is very different.

CloudMade believes this is holding back the development of OSM: that if 
the editor were written in the latest version of the language, more 
Flash designers would come to work on it, resulting in a better editor. 
Steve cites OSM's move from pure Ruby to Ruby on Rails as an example of 
how a contemporary language encourages more people to contribute. And 
they're also worried that if I were run over by a bus then no-one would 
be able to speak ActionScript 1 and maintain Potlatch.

I'm not so sure. I think people are beginning to contribute code to 
Potlatch; that as essentially JavaScript it's approachable enough; and 
that the problems of attracting developers is symptomatic of core OSM 
in general (as per http://trac.openstreetmap.org/log/sites/rails_port).

I hope that Potlatch, as something maintained by an active community 
participant _for_ the community, has demonstrated a pretty rapid rate 
of improvement anyway. It's meant to be small and compact, of course, 
not a a bells-and-whistles editor like JOSM: nonetheless, in the last 
few months, for example: it's become the only editor yet to offer 
revert/history, gained very good relations support, background layers, 
flexible GPX import, etc. And there's a lot of stuff on the way, mostly 
focusing on usability - from a generic 'undo' and pop-up help panel to 
a new, super-user-friendly tagging panel with draggable POI icons and 
things like that. It's got faults, everything has, but it's come a long 
way in the last year. For what it's worth I think it's the best thing 
I've ever coded.

For most purposes AS3 probably is a better language - except for the 
fairly major proviso there's no open-source player even in development. 
Indeed, if I were starting all over again I'd probably do it in AS3, 
and in a couple of years I may well migrate Potlatch to AS3 (or 4, or 
whatever) anyway. But right now it's more important to spend time 
improving usability for mappers, given that - like most people here - I 
do have a full-time job which isn't OSM (which isn't computer-related 
at all, in fact) and consequently time is not unlimited.

So I really don't know what to do.

Part of me thinks that the most important thing is that Potlatch is 
still available and users are offered the choice. Part of me thinks, 
well, if there's going to be a new Flash editor, there's no point in me 
doing any development on Potlatch from today forward. Part of me wants 
to say "well, screw you" and walk away. And part of me wants to take 
CloudMade up on its OSM Grants scheme (http://blog.cloudmade.com/) and 
say, ok then, I'll announce a medium-term feature freeze, take a few 
weeks' holiday, learn AS3 and recode it for a large amount of $$$. I'm 
utterly stumped and would welcome suggestions.

Thanks for reading. :)


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