Charles Simonyi: Space cadet

Charles Simonyi: Space cadet

Summary: I've been following the work of Charles Simonyi since his early days (Xerox Parc), Microsoft days (Word and Excel) and now Intentional Software days. In fact, I've been waiting for some news that Intentional, where Simonyi is President and CEO, has come up with the breakthrough technology to transform the act of programming.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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simonyi_01.jpgI've been following the work of Charles Simonyi since his early days (Xerox Parc), Microsoft days (Word and Excel) and now Intentional Software days. In fact, I've been waiting for some news that Intentional, where Simonyi is President and CEO, has come up with the breakthrough technology to transform the act of programming.

Reuters reports that the Microsoft billionaire has put up $20 million to become the world's fifth 'space tourist' riding aboard a Russian space ship to spend several days at the International Space Station. According to Forbes, Simonyi spends six months a year on his 233-foot yacht, and he is often seen about with Martha Stewart. Of course, his agile mind is free to work anywhere on the breakthrough, which he described in an interview I did with him in early 2004.

For the sake of argument, assume that we would ask the subject matter experts to write a nice PowerPoint presentation and give it to programmers so they can write the software. That would be a very modest improvement over current practices, which insist that the contributions of subject matter experts are organized in a decent way.

Our proposal goes further. We don't ask the programmers just to read the presentation and write a program. We'll ask the programmer to write a program that reads the presentation and writes the program! We are making a little twist to our request to the programmer: Don't convert the design into a program by hand, write a generator to write the program. We will be actively supporting the process by giving the subject matter experts a CAD (computer-aided design)-like program that the generator can read its input from and process it easily and without loss of information. 

Another way to think about it is that the programmers you would have employed anyway to solve your problem are now creating a domain-specific language for your problem. Programmers will admit that every big program is a language of its own. Microsoft Word is written in C++, for example, but if you want to work on it, your colleagues won't just ask if you know C++. Knowing C++ will get you 1 percent of the way toward learning about how Microsoft Word works. The other 99 percent is to learn all about Word's procedures, services and data structures, which all have names, relationships, internal logic and a kind of syntax.

The programmers are subject matter experts in how to turn designs that are not computer specific into a software program. Value semantics, variables, states or decision tables, sequential and parallel logic--all of those computer science ideas are part of their expertise. The design has to be expressed in those ideas to run on a computer.  

Topic: Microsoft

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4 comments
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  • Intentional progress

    Dan, it is great to see your continued interest in what we are doing at Intentional. I am incredibly enthusiastic about the progress our team is making. As for my space adventure, it is far in the future and takes very little of my time. The company is my primary focus (see full press release @spaceadventure.com)
    And, yes, I do work constantly while on the boat; in fact, sometimes I get more done there because of the very few distractions. I'm looking forward to talking with you soon and showing you what we've been working on here at
    Intentional. Best regards, c
    charless1
    • while on the boat

      http://www.analogstereo.com/vacuum/miele_vacuum_catalog.htm
      uk_forum@...
  • Word and Excel

    Are we expected to ooh and aah over Word and Excel? These are two of the mst hated and maligned applications. At best they are bad knock-offs of some tools that really had a lot of potential but were squashed by MS like little bugs. Now there's no (real) competition and no progress. I've been dealing with the same annoying problems with Word for 10 years.

    For this we are supposed to bow down and kiss this guy's ring?

    I do agree with the idea that it's an impossible dream to make non-programmers into programmers. The answer is to create better (more simple) languages and train people to use them. I don't know why people think that as our use of computers becomes more sofisticated, people are going to become more ignorant of how they work.
    jmwatson
    • Whoah..

      We just had the 20th anniversary of Excel's first release. I can't imagine what tool jmwatson is referring to: Jazz? 123? Symphony? There was not anything like Excel in the market in 1985, let alone something that could have been "knocked-off". Microsoft was innovating with the Mouse, (even before the Mac) and of course in supporting the Mac with a business-credible program like Excel that was critical for Mac's success at the time. These are just historical facts.

      On the other subject I have a difference of opinion in that I think that better languages can not hide the key complexities of computers - value assignment and control transfer. Use of any programming language needs "programming" so it can not be the answer. I think the answer is in completely separating the non-executable subject matter description and the program generation that is prepared by a programmer - a subject matter expert in software engineering.

      Best wishes,
      Charles Simonyi
      charless1