A look at curl history shows that on average we’ve added more than ten new command line options per year for very long time. As we don’t see any particular slowdown, I think we can expect the number of options to eventually hit and surpass 300.
Is this manageable? Can we do something about it? Let’s take a look.
Why so many options?
There are four primary explanations why there are so many:
- curl supports 24 different transfer protocols, many of them have protocol specific options for tweaking their operations.
- curl’s general design is to allow users to individual toggle and set every capability and feature individually. Every little knob can be on or off, independently of the other knobs.
- curl is feature-packed. Users can customize and adapt curl’s behavior to a very large extent to truly get it to do exactly the transfer they want for an extremely wide variety of use cases and setups.
- As we work hard at never breaking old scripts and use cases, we don’t remove old options but we can add new ones.
An entire world already knows our options
curl is used and known by a large amount of humans. These humans have learned the way of the curl command line options, for better and for worse. Some thinks they are strange and hard to use, others see the logic behind them and the rest simply accepts that this is the way they work. Changing options would be conceived as hostile towards all these users.
curl is used by a very large amount of existing scripts and programs that have been written and deployed and sit there and do their work day in and day out. Changing options, even ever so slightly, risk breaking some to many of these scripts and make a lot of developers out there upset and give them everything from nuisance to a hard time.
curl is the documented way to use APIs, REST calls and web services in numerous places. Lots of examples and tutorials spell out how to use curl to work with services all over the world for all sorts of interesting things. Examples and tutorials written ages ago that showcase curl still work because curl doesn’t break behavior.
curl command lines are even to some extent now used as a translation language between applications:
All the four major web browsers let you export HTTP requests to curl command lines that you can then execute from your shell prompts or scripts. Other web tools and proxies can also do this.
There are now also tools that can import said curl command lines so that they can figure out what kind of transfer that was exported from those other tools. The applications that import these command lines then don’t want to actually run curl, they want to figure out details about the request that the curl command line would have executed (and instead possibly run it themselves). The curl command line has become a web request interchange language!
There are also a lot of web services provided that can convert a curl command line into a source code snippet in a variety of languages for doing the same request (using the language’s native preferred method). A few examples of this are: curl as DSL, curl to Python Requests, curl to Go, curl to PHP and curl to perl.
Can the options be enhanced?
I hope I’ve made it clear why we need to maintain the options we already support. However, it doesn’t limit what we can add or that we can’t add new ways of doing things. It’s just code, of course it can be improved.
We could add alternative options for existing ones that make sense, if there are particular ones that are considered complicated or messy.
We could add a new “mode” that would have a totally new set of options or new way of approaching what we think of options today.
Heck, we could even consider doing a separate tool next to curl that would similarly use libcurl for the transfers but offer a totally new command line option approach.
None of these options are ruled out as too crazy or far out. But they all of course require that someone think of them as a good ideas and is prepared to work on making it happen.
Are the options hard to use?
Oh what a subjective call.
Packing this many features into a single tool and having every single option and superpower intuitive and easy-to-use is perhaps not impossible but at least a very very hard task. Also, the curl command line options have been added organically over a period of over twenty years so some of them of could of course have been made a little smarter if we could’ve foreseen what would come or how the protocols would later change or improve.
I don’t think curl is hard to use (what you think I’m biased?).
Typical curl use cases often only need a very small set of options. Most users never learn or ever need to learn most curl options – but they are there to help out when the day comes and the user wants that particular extra quirk in their transfer.
Using any other tool, even those who pound their chest and call themselves user-friendly, if they grow features close to the amount of abilities that curl can do, such command lines also grow substantially and will no longer always be intuitive and self-explanatory. I don’t think a very advanced tool can remain easy to use in all circumstances. I think the aim should be to keep the commonly use cases easy. I think we’ve managed this in curl, in spite of having 230 different command line options.
Should we have another (G)UI?
Would a text-based or even graphical UI help or improve curl? Would you use one if it existed? What would it do and how would it work? Feel most welcome to tell me!