Why Beginners Shouldn't use MFC

 

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Its my view that MFC is the best library for professional developers. Its comprehensive, well documented, and officially supported by Microsoft. WTL is also a very impressive body of work. Its a good alternative to MFC for the experienced programmer who wants to work more closely with the Windows API. Even so, I doubt that either of these platforms are an ideal choice for novice C++ programmers.

The reason I take this view is that I believe that both MFC and WTL are tailored more for the professional or experienced programmer than the beginner. Speaking from experience, they don't necessarily meet the requirements of someone looking to teach themselves to program windows in C++. The requirements that I believe a novice programmer is likely to have from a windows library are somewhat different from the experienced programmer. They include:

  • The library should make it easy to get started.  To be fair, MFC attempts to help here by providing wizards to automate some of the programming, and macros to hide some of  the complexity. For the experienced programmer these work well.  The wizards speed the initial code development, and the macros keep the code tidy and easy to read. The problem for the novice programmer is that they end up with code in their source files they simply don't understand, and that's not a good thing.
  • The library itself should be simple and easy to understand.  WTL fails this rather badly. Yes it's neat and brilliantly written, but that's actually its problem. The dependence on templates will put its actual workings beyond the comprehension any normal novice user. MFC also fails this test, simply because its so vast.
  • We shouldn't need to learn a lot of new things in order to use it.  MFC in particular fails this test. It is a vast and comprehensive library, but this makes it all the more difficult for beginners to get started with it.
  • The library should compile on free compilers, not just Visual Studio. Visual Studio is not cheap, and novice programmers probably won't want to spend lots of money to experiment with C++ and learn to program. Some are probably still at school. Their first choice of a C++ compiler/IDE will probably be a free one like Dev-C++.
  • The library should be freely available and free of charge.

Whether we're a novice programmer or an experienced one, I believe its important that we understand each line of our source code. This applies both to the code we write by hand, and any code written for us by wizards. For me, the thing which separates computer programming apart from many other disciplines is that its a precise science. A well written program is one that (among other things) behaves precisely as the programmer intended.

The problem for beginners with libraries like WTL and MFC is that they are likely to end up with source files that includes lines of code that they don't actually understand. The convenience of wizards in MFC can actually make this problem worse. Novice coders are perhaps encouraged to think that they don't need to understand all the lines of code in their source, since a wizard will do the work for them. When this happens, programming becomes less of a precise science, and more of a black art. Worst of all, the failure to understand their own code is rather likely to hold the novice programmer back, and cause them to gloss over fundamental concepts, like message maps.

In my case, after using MFC for a while I realized that I didn't thoroughly understand the code I was writing. I wasn't happy with that so went back to working with the windows API directly. This library was the result. I imagine that others who teach themselves to program for windows using C++ would also face similar challenges, and I hope they find the library I developed useful.