It's a small small (basic) world.

It's a small small (basic) world.

Summary: There's a big problem facing the IT world: Where are all the new developers going to come from?I'm from the 8-bit generation.

TOPICS: Windows

There's a big problem facing the IT world: Where are all the new developers going to come from?

I'm from the 8-bit generation. We had our Spectrums and our BBC Micros, all with built in BASICs of all shapes and sizes, able to start programming from the moment that flashing cursor appeared on the screen, even if it was as simple as printing our name on the screen in an endless loop. Fire up Windows or Mac OS X or even Linux and you're there in a shiny happy world of windows and icons and apps. There's plenty of interaction, but no code.

Is it any wonder that developers have gone to the web? JavaScript is the new BASIC, a simple language that's easy to use and easy to get results. There are plenty of free development tools, and plenty of web hosts were you can show the world your code. But object oriented loosely typed languages like JavaScript are best thought of as secondary school languages, needing a reasonable knowledge of just what programming is before you get started. It's not very BBC Micro…

Microsoft's been making educational computing waves this week. First there was reference to engaging with the hobbyist community in the leaked Windows 8 planning slides. Getting hobbyist developers on board is something that Microsoft has been trying to do for some years now, with initiatives like Coding4Fun and the free Visual Studio Express tools. They've had some impact, but they still need work to get your code online and running.

A few years back Microsoft had a free development tool, Web Matrix, designed to make it easy to build and deploy ASP.NET web sites. It worked well, and was a tiny download – I actually ended up using it as a prototyping tool for the web development team I was running at the time, especially the bundled lightweight Cassini Web Server. Now Web Matrix is back, a set of tools for quickly building web applications. There's an IDE, Razor, a new syntax for ASP.NET, and an embeddable database, and a simple standalone test web server – as well as support for PHP alongside ASP.NET. It's all free and all very easy to use, coming as part of Microsoft's Web Platform Installer.

But it's still secondary school coding.

What's really needed is something that'll get the coding bug kicked off at primary school – and in a gender-neutral way that helps encourage more women into the profession. One option can be found on the Xbox and on the PC in the shape of Kodu, which goes beyond Logo to create interactive game worlds that make everything on screen an interactive object with methods and rules. It's a useful way of getting started, but it's a purely visual programing environment, more conducive to interactive story telling than anything else.

I came across something different yesterday, something that took me back to those 8-bit days. Small Basic is a step up from Kodu (though it shares some concepts, especially in the way it does Intellisense!), intended to teach basic .NET development. As well as delivering traditional windowed applications, you can use Small Basic to build Silverlight programs that'll ruin on both desktop and in browser. Programs can be quickly published to the web site, with a shot URL that simplifies You can even export programs as Visual Basic, ready for use in Visual Basic Express.

There's already quite a community developing around Small Basic, sharing code and programs, including teachers looking at using it in elementary programming classes.

Oh, and it's less than a 6MB download (not counting .NET and Silverlight!).

I can't help but be reminded of the sadly cancelled Popfly, which tried to do something similar for cloud and web development. However there's one big difference here – Small Basic is a desktop application with a web component, and a route to other widely available development tools. Even so, let's hope that Small Basic is a success, because it's something we surely need…


Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • "you can use Small Basic to build Silverlight programs that'll ruin on both desktop and in browser" Lets hope ruin is a typo and not prophetic.
  • "Plenty of interation, but no code". All too true if you are still drowning in the world of Windows and Mac OS X, where their primary (and only) objective is to reach into your pocket for more money. That's a bleak world indeed compared to any Linux system, where you have, or can get, pretty much any language, compiled or interpreted, with integrated development environments.

    "Where are all the new developers going to come from?" The vast majority of them will come from Linux.

  • Today's programming world is definitely more complex as you mention. Not only .NET but as Jamie mentioned, the Linux world has a lot to offer as well (Ruby, Python, PHP, etc.) I am skeptical of Microsoft's own development tools and libraries as in the past they've leveraged them to lock in customers to using Microsoft's backend servers to run their applications. In fact this is still the case today with .NET (Microsoft's own Windows operating systems MUST be used because their products are not cross-platform). While other open technologies like PHP are completely open and cross-platform (available on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, etc.). Tools and even the backend software for PHP are available for multiple platforms. For this reason, developers are now looking at a variety of languages all at once, which makes the situation even more complex.
  • I do think that both J.A. and apexwm are missing the point here. This isn't about MS vs the open world, it's about the sad lack of development tools to get the primary school and junior school programmers started. Currently the entry bar is too high - we're catering to 16 year olds and above, and we're losing potential developers and (worse yet) contributing to the perceived masculine nature of IT as a profession as a result.

    While Linux does provide plenty of development tools and languages, none of them really target that primary school demographic - the simple and easy 8-bit style of development tool that something like Small Basic gives. Would you really give an 8 year old Eclipse or EMACS? Or leave them to build the appropriate toolchain for their hardware?

    What's really needed, though, is something more like Alan Kay's Dynabook concept or the educational environment of Plato. The OLPC was a good shot, but hamstrung through its reliance on XUL which placed too much of an overhead on the hardware.

    Small Basic and Kodu are a start at getting things back where they should be. Now let's get the rest of the industry doing its share.