Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brains, bucks and programming languages

The title is supposed to be a paraphrase of "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" in a geeky context.

This autumn I went to see Paul McCartney in concert - a lifetime dream come true. For most people Paul McCartney is first of all an ex-Beatle. Indeed, during the concert he played many classic Beatles tunes to please the audience. And the audience was very pleased. Then, he cashed in the multi-million-dollar cheque and went back to England to do what he really likes - which at this point seems to be composing experimental electronic music.  To me it looks pretty fair. 

Recently I listenned  to James Gosling's keynote at the JVM Language Summit. I actually enjoyed the presentation very much. One of the things he said, was something like "My dream would be to implement Fortran over JVM ... ah, but I have a day-job".  Now, not that JVM really needs a Fortran IMO. But think about it for a second. How many people in the world can design a programming language? How many of them can design a good programming language? And a popular one? Java is more popular than Beatles. Uhm, well... even if it's not, you get the idea.  Now what can be more important for James Gosling to do during his day job than design a programming language of his choice, I should ask his employer? What? Throwing T-shirts at JavaOne attendants? No, really. Why is it that James Gosling can't do anything he freaking likes for the rest of his life?

I think something in our business is unfair. I am not saying Microsoft model is right, I am very pro open-source and free software and all that. But I'm confused - something about it isn't right. Large IT companies make loads of money, and waste a lot of it on complete crap - I've seen this from inside. So how come Gilad Bracha cannot find funding for Newspeak development? This is totally surreal!

There goes another angry post.


Paul said...

Hi Yardena,

I watched a documentary on the browser wars last night and it fits in with what you say here.

Software companies aren't about producing cool new software. No, what they want to do is ring fence and protect markets. This has been going on ever since IBM decided that the EBCDIC character set was a good idea :)

They know in the words of Alan Kay that "the software revolution hasn't happened yet" and that's their biggest fear. They are worried that a bunch of upstart kids may come up with a new cool idea and steal their crown. Revolutions like this have happened several times before in the fledgling computer industry. Unix for example wasn't meant to happen. The current incumbents know this history and are hell bent to ensure that they aren't caught out by it.

So along comes Smalltalk produced by a small startup offshoot of Rank Xerox called ParcPlace Systems. Was IBM, Microsoft et al going to allow them to dominate the world?

The tactic as always is to leverage peoples investment in the current incumbent technology base to keep out the outsider. The incumbent was C/Unix/Windows so the weapon of choice was C++.

The same with the browser wars. The incumbent was Windows the weapon, bundle IE for free with Windows and steal Netscapes air.

The world is changing and it is becoming more difficult to control markets this way and make such power plays, but it doesn't stop them trying. In fact they are obliged to behave this way because they have share holders to satisfy that demand such behaviour.

The whole Java thing was just one big power play to ward of Microsofts move onto the server. The web services and .NET thing was another power play by Microsoft to ward off Java and so it continues.

The web has had an interesting side effect. There is no longer just one version of the truth, payed for by marketing dollars. There are now multiple truths and we are all free to pick any truth we like. Opinionated voices like DHH can attract as big an audience as Bill Gates, even bigger.

Two things need to happen before things get better. The consumers of IT need to take responsibility for their own futures rather then buying into a vendor backed strategy.

And these same organisations need to realise that they are better off investing in their own people rather then vendor products.

This is the central message of the Agile movement (people over processes and tools), and whilst Agile is being mis-sold like everything else, there are signs that this central theme will win through.

Good knowledgeable people free to make their own technology choices. Sounds like a free market, now wouldn't that be a wonderful thing.


Yardena said...

Hi Paul, glad as always that you stopped by and responded to the post. :-) I can't say though that I share your optimism. Web is also dominated by large corporations, maybe just not the same ones as the desktop. I also believe in Agile principles, but having seen it turned inside out and upside down, I am not as excited as I used to be.

Paul said...

Yes. The future prognosis is mixed at best :) Here is a link to a discussion that made me feel slightly more optimistic about the future of Agile:

I was trying to cheer you up, but I agree that it is way too early to start declaring a new dawn :)


Itay Maman said...

I found some comfort in Paul's point about agility making the corporates trusting their employees. Still, being pessimistic by nature, I expect companies to be more and more conservative (and less innovative) over time.

The equation of "company grows => less innovation" is deeply embedded into the modern social/economical system. It seems as if you (Yardena) say you want a revolution.

Well, you know,
We all want to change the world.

Yardena said...

Hi Itay,

Now it was you who made me smile :-)

Revolutionary? Yeah, cool, why not... Let's say I'm a Marxist, in the sense described by Engels: "For the final victory of the ideas laid down in the Manifesto Marx counted only and singularly on the intellectual development of the working class". As for Lenin's ideas of winning where "productive powers are least developed, in a backward country" (in other words - corporate IT) by "seizure of power by a party of whole time devoted revolutionaries", I will take Lennon's stand - "don't you know that you can count me out... in?"

Paul said...

Hi Guys,

I sense revolution brewing :) Good on you guys. When you become a boring middle aged fart like me life has worn you down sufficiently that you become resigned to the status quo.

Change is the war cry of youth. Its great hearing you guys speak this way !!!


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