Monday, March 19, 2007

Does Not Compute

I grew up with an Apple IIe. Six expansion slots, color graphics, dual 5.25" floppy drives, but most importantly, BASIC in firmware. I was writing programs before I even really understood what that meant. To use the computer was to program it, and I couldn't have been happier. Sure, pre-compiled programs like Print Shop and Mario Bros were fun, but making my own stuff, that's what I liked best. That's where the magic was.

I was really, really lucky. I grew up at just the right time. To own a computer was to be a computer enthusiast. It wasn't a means to an end; the point of having the thing was to mess around with it. It could certainly be used to do useful work, but it was every bit as common (and easy) to use it as a toy.

(Begin hearing the "old man" voice in your head at this point.)

Modern computing does not compute! Computers nowadays don't come with any (programming language) interpreters built into ROM. Or pre-installed on their hard disks, as might be more appropriate. The closest you can come to writing programs out-of-the-box today is to use a featureless text editor to write some javascript and run it in a web browser.

<script type="text/javascript">
alert("Hello World, this sucks!");

Now, the way I learned to be a programmer isn't the only right way. But doing BASIC, being taught C, and picking up on everything else was a pretty fun and natural progression. There are entire college computer science tracks now that don't teach C at all anymore, instead using Java or something. It's not bad to learn Java, but I would argue that learning C is more important, if what you care about is computer science. If you care about crafting cookie-cutter corporate apps quickly, Java's where it's at. But if you care about what's going on, or if you like the idea of a computer as a toy, C is really important. The rub is that it's an awful language to write your first program in. My brain, anyway, wasn't ready for it until I'd done something simpler first.

That's where BASIC came in, and where something like Python could come in today. A person's first program shouldn't be graphical. It shouldn't be run in a web browser. It would be nice if it didn't have to import any libraries. And it would be great if there was a realtime interpreter console, something to try out commands and code chunks before saving them in a file. Apple's flavour of BASIC did all of that, and Python does too.

Python is free in all senses of the word, and runs on any platform. The only problem is, it's not just waiting there on any computer one might buy. Before you can do anything with it, you must learn of its existence, find it, download it, and install it. To me, that's tragic. That's depriving little 5-year-old me's all over the world of something really special. It would be trivial to include in any desktop operating system, and could be presented much more nicely than BASIC was back in the day. In the Start menu, or the Apple menu, or on the desktop, or at whatever handy spot user consults regularly, there ought to be a "Create Programs" menu/folder/whatever. It should contain an interpreter, a decent text editor, a language reference, and a quick start guide to explain what those other things are and how to use them. Why isn't this done?

I understand there's not much consumer demand for this kind of thing. Joe Schmoe wants to buy a computer in order to click around on web pages and print term papers, not as a toy to write his own programs for. But I think that could change, if it was widely understood that software can be made by individual people in a matter of minutes. Sure, it won't be the same as software that comes from big corporations on 18-month release cycles, but why does that matter? MySpace pages, YouTube videos, and blogs, aren't the same as designer-comissioned websites, Hollywood films, and professional journalism. It doesn't matter. Joe Schmoe cares about that stuff anyway.

Microsoft, Apple, Dell, HP, somebody... Put Python on the desktop! Add a notice that you don't provide Python support, with a link to, and you can forget all about it. It wouldn't even have to be Python, that's just my opinion of a good introductory programming language. But for cripe's sake, make it happen! There should be a way to be introduced to programming on every computer out there. The fact that there isn't, just doesn't make sense. It's illogical. It doesn't add up. ... Oh, surely there's a phrase that explains the situation.

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