Computing is still in the dark ages

Despite all the talk of Web 2.0 and the shiny multicore machines with their gigabytes of RAM and billions of cycles per second, I sometimes can’t help feel that we are still very much in the dark ages of computing. This time around my dark gloomy feelings have been brought about by this message to a mailing list which in turn was sparked off by the announcement of the Go Programming Language. As a computer user and a programmer I feel that the actual use of computers is far below their potential.

As the years go by, it seems like we keep on piling layer on top of layer while the results aren’t proportional to what we have to learn to get things done. Now, I’m not proposing that we all start writing down-to-the-metal code or force everyone to become a programmer, but things are starting to look like a mess. Web programming is an interesting development, but it adds yet another layer on top of the existing kernel, operating system, libraries and GUI toolkits. Add to that the fact all browsers are still a bit different from each other and you can start to understand why I’ve yet to make a serious foray into web programming.

But even without the web and the many formats and barely interoperating systems out there, there’s enough on the desktop to get you depressed. Start with the fact that there are currently three major operating systems out there and if you want to write a program that runs on all three of them, you don’t have an easy task. You either embrace three different toolkits and programming methodologies and maintain 3 very different codebases, or you use something like Java which works on all three, but screams non-native on each one. Even though there are languages like Python that run on all of three, it really puts me off that there is still no top-notch multiplatform GUI library. wxWidgets tries pretty hard, but if you look at the screenshots you can pretty easily that they don’t look quite right. It’s not very surprising that lots of smart developers are flocking to the web, where things in comparison are a lot smoother.

There is also the fact that programming languages, like all other pieces of major software, suck more than others. I still stand by what I said in my last post, that it’s an exciting time for language enthusiasts, but I also feel that there are some lessons we really need to learn. I’m starting to have concerns that there may not be any true general purpose language, simply because there are so many different types of problems to be solved. I think we need to start creating broader categories: a set of systems languages similar to C going in the direction of D and Go. A set of hyper-optimizing VM-based languages designed for long-running, parallel server applications (the current JVM is a good example). A set of languages for writing end-user apps that are significantly high-level, but are still compiled to pretty fast native code (maybe not C or even optimized VM fast, but better than todays Python or Ruby). I’m thinking Python in its Unladen Swallow incarnation might fill this gap.

As a programmer, the state of tools that we have to use is really quite depressing. Tools like Emacs and Vi are powerful and all, but let’s face it: we could really be having much more powerful IDE technology. We should be having full blown incremental compilation with autocompletion and support for rendering documentation for every major language out there. We should also have seamless version control with granularity down to the undo level. Every change I make should be saved and I should be able to visually browse all these changes, see what they are and restore to an older state (or commit them if I want to). We have the raw computing power needed to do all this, but yet we remain stuck doing mostly batch-style edit-compile-debug cycles and mucking around in plain text. Eclipse with its incremental compiler makes things much easier, but there’s so much more we could be using our machines for.

As a user, what irritates me is the amount of manual labor we still have to do on a daily basis. We still have to carefully name and place files so that we can file them later. I have to manually hit the save button (see version control bit above). Even with the Internet collaboration is a mess with most people throwing around emails with increasingly larger attachments. Add to that the fact that most email clients are pretty dumb pieces of software. Google Wave is a step in the right direction, if enough people get around to actually using it (and if it can integrate to some extent at least with the desktop). Also I think the web and the desktop need to be brought closer together. Ideally I would be able to sit down on any computer with a live Internet connection and have my full custom work environment (or at least the most important parts of it).

I’m fully aware that none of the things I’ve mentioned are trivial. In fact, they’re probably very hard projects that will take expert teams a good few years to complete. One day I would like to seriously work on some of the programmer-related issues, especially the IDE part. I love Emacs, but there are some parts of Eclipse I really like too. For the time being I’m going to have to make do with what I have, but I’ll be sure to keep an eye for interesting things and movements in the right direction.


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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

One thought on “Computing is still in the dark ages”

  1. “Also I think the web and the desktop need to be brought closer together” This is what brought me here. Anybody that understand this is thinking in the future. We are working on top of an outdated foundation

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