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|By Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz|
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January 15, 1999: Source code as human language
"It'll be bigger than ever."
Most Regular Expressions readers already anticipate a bright future for scripting, but when Tim O'Reilly says this, it reflects a specific and important vision. He squeezed us into his overbooked schedule just before Christmas to explain his ideas.
'Infoware,' our real destiny
O'Reilly founded O'Reilly and Associates more than 20 years ago as a "technical writing consulting company." Now it's a publisher doing a few million dollars in sales annually (and growing) with the strongest brand in the industry: the "funny animals" books. O'Reilly's corporate history reflects his continuing "quest to tackle interesting problems," along with his aim that "we want anything produced with the O'Reilly name to be useful, interesting, and truthful."
One problem currently interesting O'Reilly is the historic transition he sees in our industry's center of gravity. Hardware originally dominated in this developmental scheme; that's when "computer companies" were such iron-mongers as IBM and DEC. More recently, software (think of Microsoft and Oracle) has had the highest profile. O'Reilly sees the excitement of the future attaching to "infoware." While waves of consultants periodically proclaim that content is king, O'Reilly has in mind a category more dynamic and active than online movies or digitized paintings. For him, as he explains in a piece called "The Open-Source Revolution," "infoware embeds small amounts of software in a lot of information." Those little, but well-integrated, pieces of intelligence make Amazon and comparable "information applications" the winners they are.
Scripting as product and expression
That architectural vision of small, well-integrated pieces of software is the central theme of scripting, of course. O'Reilly is right to characterize current infoware as "HTML plus scripting." However, this is far from the only scripting resonance O'Reilly energizes. Let's take a step back, into O'Reilly's perspective on software more generally.
He understands the rules well enough to be consistently profitable, but the most distinctive aspect of O'Reilly's vision of software is to see it as expression more than product. His delight is evident when he describes the progress the Electronic Freedom Foundation is making in its legislative goals by presenting software as speech rather than invention. He consistently talks about applications in the language of the theater or gallery.
Duct tape for quick-and-dirty jobs
O'Reilly recognizes that scripting is often dismissed as "quick and dirty stuff that is somehow less significant than the programming behind compiled commercial applications." Rather than fighting this aspersion, he inverts it, and explains that scripting is simply "closer to what people need ... Most speech is extemporaneous, not prepared. Conversation would be pretty stilted if everything one said was prepared, formal speech." Scripting is an extension of speech that powerfully matches the way people really learn and accomplish what they want when relating to computers.
He's equally proud when people talk about Perl as "the duct tape of the Web ... Duct tape is perfect for stuff at the edge." Crews specializing in performance or experiment setup know how to use throw away components to get a concert hall or laboratory in shape for special events. Scripting's flexibility also fits the temper of current management literature, which emphasizes quick response and not-necessarily-perfect solutions.
One of the motivations for O'Reilly's Unix Power Tools, for instance, is the "natural progression" in Unix from the command line to simple scripts to more powerful languages. Perl creator Larry Wall describes the linguistic thinking underlying Perl as a progression that mimics the way people learn and use natural languages.
As Wall puts it, languages that follow this natural "speech" progression are fundamentally more accessible -- more democratic -- than "languages that don't let you speak at all until you have the equivalent of a college education."
"Openness" is another favorite quality for O'Reilly. "Once you start thinking of computer source code as a human language, you see open source as a variety of 'free speech.' Free speech is not just a political ideal. It is the currency of science and of western civilization. It is a truism in the Western academic tradition dating back to the Renaissance that exposure to criticism and dialogue are the surest ways to refine ideas," O'Reilly said.
While such familiar open source products as "Linux, Apache, Sendmail, and BIND have had an enormous effect on the computer industry," O'Reilly argues that "scripting languages make the open source ethic even more universal. Because scripting languages are interpreted, their 'source code' is almost by definition open. This makes the community of discourse enabled by 'HTML-plus-scripting'... orders of magnitude greater than the community of hard-core developers working in higher-level languages."
There's a big world beyond scripting, of course. The O'Reilly & Associates catalog has strong entries in traditional system languages such as C and Java. However, as humans and digital processors come together, more and more of our interactions will model the abbreviated, idiomatic, introspective conversations scripting languages enable.
See the Resources section for related links.
Page 2. January 15, 1999: Source code as human language
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About the author
Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz manage their own software consultancy, Network Engineered Solutions, from just outside Houston, TX. Reach Cameron at email@example.com. Reach Kathryn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 1999