Here’s an idea

But first, let me ask you a question: How many ways can you skin a cat?

Note: No cats were harmed in the writing of this post

import antigravity

One of the foundations of programming is DRY, which stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” Yet, how many ways are developers required to know to add a library or package to a project? NPM has become pretty popular, at least for JavaScript and some front-end stuff. Then there’s Composer for PHP. Oh, and don’t forget about pip, gem, and who even knows how many others. Seriously, I think we need a package manager manager!

For CSS and JavaScript, there’s also <script> and <link> tags to use and load resources directly from an external source such as a CDN. That’s a best practice that has become somewhat abused, in my opinion.

Let’s not forget the major contender that is Git. You’ll probably be using this too, but for your own code instead of code that somebody else wrote. You’ll probably use .gitignore to exclude vendor/, node_modules/ and whatever else from your repository, having all of the dependencies listed in some config file.

Oh, and let’s not forget add-ons for things WordPress. This has plenty of siblings in its family too.

You might even make use of Git’s submodules feature. This performs a similar function to all of the other means of getting code, but is lacking in support for such things as handling multiple versions of the same package and controlling the directory structure.

Yes, these are all useful and, in a sense, essential for any sufficiently complex project. I must admit though that I’ve always felt that I was doing something wrong in using NPM in a PHP based project.

Why do we do this?

Pretty much every major language has a package manager and system for importing code.

# Python
import antigravity
// JavaScript
import './antigravity.js';
// Or...
// PHP
require_once 'antigravity.php';

// Or
new \Vendor\Package\Antigravity();
/* Even CSS */
@import url("./antigravity.css");
<!-- And a deprecated spec for HTML -->
<link rel="import" href="antigravity.html" />
<!-- And this kinda does a similar thing too -->
<iframe src="//"></iframe>

This is, of course, far from an exhaustive list of ways to import code.

Then there’s package managers. npm install this. composer require that. gem install stuff.

So, here’s my question: “Why do we reinvent the wheel so many times?” Developers are pretty much required to work in multiple languages, and the more languages I’ve worked in, the more I wonder why this needs to be done in so many different ways. Why can we not agree upon a single package manager that is not specific to any given language?

My solution to the madness

We pretty much all use Git, right? Git has submodules, even if nobody uses them. Git can also have plugins that add new functionality (Git LFS is a great example of this).

All of the installation of packages could then be done through git submodule add. Installing all updates is git submodule update. Getting the latest version becomes as easy as git submodule update --remote.

Assuming you are already using Git, there’s nothing more to install either!

This is how I prefer to manage my packages. I get all CSS, JavaScript, fonts, and SVG images from submodules. Sometimes, since something like Normalize.css is expecting to be installed through NPM, the directory structure isn’t quire ideal, but it certainly works well enough.

What if we were to extend the functionality of submodules to fulfill the needs of all these package managers? I mean, submodules can already be used as-is for the simple cases, up until you get into dependencies and versioning. Even then, it could arguably be used if each package adds all of its dependencies as its own submodules (which might just result in a black hole, but how exactly would that be any worse than NPM is already?).

Alternatively, packages could be installed with a very strict directory structure, such as /:lang/:vendor/:package/:version. A package would specify its packages and versions, similar to the way things are now, and all dependencies would be installed to the correct paths accordingly.

Obstacles to overcome

This almost works. The problem comes in languages that import code using some specific syntax that restricts characters. In JavaScript, import '/js/vendor/package/1.2.3/file.js'; works just fine, but it wouldn’t work for PHP to use new \Vendor\Package\1.2.3\File. Use of hyphens or underscores might fix this problem sometimes, but in any language, developers would not want to have to always specify a version and have to update all of that whenever a package gets updated.

Resolving this is not an insignificant amount of work to do, but it’s not something that hasn’t already been done at least a dozen times. Having so many language-specific implementations gives us a diversity in inspiration, giving us the potential to create something better than all others. Think of it as an opportunity to take the best features and, hopefully at least, avoid the annoyances.

As an added bonus, this would consolidate efforts to create and improve package managers, which should result in something more stable, performant, and secure.

My idea is to extend Git into a universal package manager, complete with dependency managment. I know it wouldn’t be easy and there are problems that I personally cannot solve. But I know that figuring this out would be well worth it. It would make setting up, maintaining, updating, and publishing code so much easier, especially for developers who work in multiple languages. I imagine that GitHub and Bitbucket would be glad to become markets for packages too.