Boffins: Dark times for application development
Ex-Microsoft man holds flashlight
You know it's bad when two top programmers at different conferences in a two-week period say we're in the dark ages of software development.
Speaking at MIT's Emerging Technologies conference in Cambridge last week, Charles Simonyi - creator of Microsoft Office, friend of Bill Gates (and Martha Stewart - thanks ZDNet's Dan Farber), cosmonaut and all-round achiever - said current paradigms and tools for developing applications are primitive and must evolve beyond languages and methodologies.
Evolve to what? To include code written by business analysts.
"They are still in the dark ages," Simonyi said of current programming techniques, including model-driven development paradigms such as Unified Modeling Language (UML) and Domain Specific Languages (DSLs) - lately favored by Microsoft. They invite more input from domain experts and business analysts, but that still fails to encapsulate the business problem within the code.
"We are on the verge of the renaissance but we are not there in the practical world," the billionaire told hundreds gathered at MIT's Krege Auditorium.
That's the intent of Intentional Technology, a company Simonyi co-founded in 2002 after a 25-year career with Microsoft. The 20-employee start-up in Microsoft's Bellevue, Washington, has developed a platform and workbench technology that allows programmers to create generic "generators" that ordinary business analysts use to project a representation of the business problem in terms they understand.
"It's like a super-duper PowerPoint because it projects something that is machine processible," said Simonyi, who invented the first What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) word processor, dubbed Bravo - the precursor to Microsoft's evergreen Word.
This approach, which is platform-independent and not wedded to Windows, focuses on the recipe - and how to mix and cook the ingredients - rather than the meal itself. According to Simonyi programmers today spend too much time rearranging or adding ingredients rather than on finding better ways to mix them.
Over to Anant Agarwal, noted MIT computer science professor, co-founder and CTO of semiconductor startup Tilera and quite the catch on Ratemyprofessors.com. He also believes we're living in the dark ages, only this time when it comes to software development tools for multicore processors.
Most PCs and servers coming out of the factories today use dual core or quad core processors, but Agarwal - and others who'd gathered at Boston's embedded systems conference - expect chips with hundred and thousands of cores to be available within two years. Yet there are still no mainstream tools to write applications capable of exploiting their power.
"Multicore has hit us all like a big two-by-four and we're all reeling. Never before has a technology hit so hard, and so fast. And we're all unprepared," Agarwal said. "The current tools are where VLSI design tools were in the 90s. Tools are in the dark ages."
Tilera in August launched its first product, TILE64, a 64-core processor and multicore development environment designed for the embedded systems market.
Still, says Argawal, there are no mainstream tools yet available. He has spent decades focused on parallel processing and led a group that 15 years ago developed Sparcle, an early multithreaded microprocessor based on the SPARC architecture.
On the upside, these obstacles create vast opportunities for innovative start-ups, the co-founders of Intentional and Tilera told their respective mostly-programmer audiences. "Software programming for multicore is hot, and some of you have the opportunity to be the next Microsoft if you can solve these multicore issues," Agarwal said.
The Register took the chance to ask Simonyi about Gates and his plans to step back from Microsoft next year. Simonyi was quick to point out his friend is leaving behind his day-to-day duties at the company to focus on the Gates Foundation, solving bigger problems than software development. "He's just a great humanitarian and person," Simonyi told us. "But he's also the hardest working person that I know."