Why software still stinks

Programming must change -- but how? At a reunion of coding pioneers, answers abound.

Topics:

In some quarters today, it’s still a controversial proposition to argue that computer programming is an art as well as a science. But 20 years ago, when Microsoft Press editor Susan Lammers assembled a collection of interviews with software pioneers into a book titled “Programmers at Work,” the idea was downright outlandish. Programming had long been viewed as the domain of corporate engineers and university computer scientists. But in the first flush of the personal computer era, the role of software innovator began to evolve into something more like the grand American tradition of the basement inventor — with a dollop of the huckster on top and, underneath, a deep foundation of idealism.

It made sense that the people writing the most important code for the new desktop machines were ragged individualists with eccentric streaks. At a panel on Tuesday (sponsored by the SDWest conference and Dr. Dobb’s Journal) that celebrated Lammers’ book, seven of the 19 original subjects of “Programmers at Work” lined up on stage to talk about what’s changed in software over the past two decades — and demonstrate that they have lost none of their cantankerous edge.

In “Programmers at Work,” Lammers told the crowd, “I looked at the programmer as an individual on a quest to create something new that would change the world.” Certainly, the panel’s group lived up to that billing: it included Andy Hertzfeld, who wrote much of the original Macintosh operating system and is now chronicling that saga at Folklore.org; Jef Raskin, who created the original concept for the Macintosh; Charles Simonyi, a Xerox PARC veteran and two-decade Microsoft code guru responsible for much of today’s Office suite; Dan Bricklin, co-creator of VisiCalc, the pioneering spreadsheet program; virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier; gaming pioneer Scott Kim; and Robert Carr, father of Ashton-Tate’s Framework.



But for all their considerable achievements, this was not a group content to snooze on a heap of laurels. In fact, though the hour-and-a-half discussion was full of contention, one thing all the participants agreed on was that software today is in dire need of help. It’s still too hard: not only for users struggling to make sense of poorly designed interfaces, but for programmers swimming upstream against a current of constraints that numb creativity and drown innovation.

These veterans shared a starting-point assumption that the rest of the world is only slowly beginning to understand: While computer hardware seems to advance according to the exponential upward curve known as Moore’s Law (doubling in speed — or halving in cost — every year or two), software, when it advances at all, seems to move at a more leisurely linear pace.

As Lanier said, “Software inefficiency can always outpace Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law isn’t a match for our bad coding.”

The impact of this differential is not simply a matter of which industry gets to collect more profits. It sets a maddening limit on how much good we can expect information technology to achieve. If computers are, as it has often been put, “amplifiers for our brains,” then software’s limitations cap the volume way too low. Or, in Simonyi’s words, “Software as we know it is the bottleneck on the digital horn of plenty.”

Most successful programmers are at heart can-do engineers who are optimistic that every problem has a solution. So it was only natural that, even in this relatively small gathering of software pioneers, there were multiple, and conflicting, ideas about how we should proceed in order to break that bottleneck.

Simonyi believes the answer is to unshackle the design of software from the details of implementation in code. “There are two meanings to software design,” he explained on Tuesday. “One is, designing the artifact we’re trying to implement. The other is the sheer software engineering to make that artifact come into being. I believe these are two separate roles — the subject matter expert and the software engineer.”

Giving the former group tools to shape software will transform the landscape, according to Simonyi. Otherwise, you’re stuck in the unsatisfactory present, where the people who know the most about what the software is supposed to accomplish can’t directly shape the software itself: All they can do is “make a humble request to the programmer.” Simonyi left Microsoft in 2002 to start a new company, Intentional Software, aimed at turning this vision into something concrete.

Frederick Brooks, in a famous 1987 essay, declared that the prospect for a programming “silver bullet” — to slay, once and for all, the monster-like characteristics of so many software development projects — was dim. But Simonyi said he believes his project will provide that very silver bullet.

You can’t fault him for ambition. Or can you? Jaron Lanier, sitting appropriately at the opposite end of the stage from Simonyi, argued that there’s a deeper failure of vision in the software world that requires even more radical change. “A lot of stuff in the Mac and Windows world was supposed to be temporary and got wedged into place,” he said. “Making programming fundamentally better might be the single most important challenge we face — and the most difficult one.” Today’s software world is simply too “brittle” — one tiny error and everything grinds to a halt: “We’re constantly teetering on the edge of catastrophe.” Nature and biological systems are much more flexible, adaptable and forgiving, and we should look to them for new answers. “The path forward is being biomimetic.”

What about the open-source movement, which over the past decade has won considerable loyalty and enthusiasm in many programming quarters?

“There’s this wonderful outpouring of creativity in the open-source world,” Lanier said. “So what do they make — another version of Unix?”

Jef Raskin jumped in. “And what do they put on top of it? Another Windows!”

“What are they thinking?” Lanier continued. “Why is the idealism just about how the code is shared — what about idealism about the code itself?”

At this point, Andy Hertzfeld, who has devoted himself in recent years to open-source projects like Eazel and Chandler, spoke up for the maligned legions of Linux-heads. “It’s because they want people to use the stuff!”

His comment underscored something that’s frequently misunderstood about the open-source approach, which is often wrongly stereotyped as loopily communal and out-of-touch with business reality. There’s an essential pragmatism to the notion that programmers work best when they can share, and learn from, one another’s work. After all, every other field of human endeavor works that way.

Bricklin sent waves of laughter through the auditorium by reading a passage from Lammers’ interview with Bill Gates in which the young Microsoft founder explained that his work on different versions of Microsoft’s BASIC compiler was shaped by looking at how other programmers had gone about the same task. Gates went on to say that young programmers don’t need computer science degrees: “The best way to prepare is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written. In my case, I went to the garbage cans at the Computer Science Center and I fished out listings of their operating systems.”

Bricklin finished reading Gates’ words and announced, with an impish smile, “This is where Gates and [Richard] Stallman agree!”

The “Programmers at Work” panelists were full of optimism about new opportunities to reinvent software — in the mobile-phone world (where, Scott Kim noted, the constraints of small screens and tiny memory made it feel “like the early days” again), in the new universe of RF tags, and in the still-unfolding saga of global networking. Bob Carr reminded everyone that technology transformations usually take 20 years to unfold — “I remember thinking in 1987 that the PC industry was mature, it was over” — and that the Internet is only halfway through that cycle.

Still, that picture of Bill Gates dumpster-diving for operating-system code was hard to shake. Finding new ways to think about programming and to make better software demands a willingness for pioneers to open up their work so others can learn from it. “Getting the software industry on a more open, fair and level playing field,” as Hertzfeld put it, is a prerequisite for any leap forward in the programming world. Software patents are a looming train wreck; competition in most “end-user” software is largely a distant memory. Simonyi’s technical bottleneck is also a social, political and business logjam.

In the era of “Programmers at Work,” it was possible to imagine the lone-hero programmer as a genius operating beyond the reach of political and social forces. Today, even the best programmers can’t ignore the vast web of interdependence their own work has helped shape.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>