Programmers Who Defined The Technology Industry: Where Are They Now?

The future of the computer... circa 1986.

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Today: Carr has wandered in and out of the computer industry. He took breaks to participate in Ironman triathlons and, between Xerox and Context MBA and starting Forefront, to explore Mexico.

However, he's never gotten very far from the innovations we later took for granted. In 1987, Carr co-founded the high-profile mobile communications startup GO Corporation, where he led all software development, including the ground-breaking PenPoint operating system, earning two patents on pen-based computing and object-oriented operating systems. He was vice president of the AutoCAD Market Group at Autodesk. And he spent a few years as managing director at Sofinnova Ventures, where he invested and co-managed $550 million in early stage high-tech venture capital funds (though 1998-99 didn't turn out to be a good time to do that).

These days, he's CEO of KeepandShare which aims "to support your busy life by making group information sharing easy, secure and instantaneous." And he's back programming for the first time in 20 years.

Bill Gates, BASIC on the Altair

Then: In 1986, Bill Gates was already "considered one of the driving forces behind today's personal computing and office automation industry" (at least when being interviewed for Microsoft Press) and lamented that he didn't have time to write code personally anymore.

On programming: "We're no longer in the days where every program is super well crafted. But at the heart of the programs that make it to the top, you'll find that the key internal code was done by a few people who really knew what they were doing.

It's not quite as important now to squeeze things down into a 4K memory area. You're seeing a lot more cases where people can afford to use C, instead of using assembly language. Unfortunately, many programs are so big that there is no one individual who really knows all the pieces, and so the amount of code sharing you get isn't as great. Also, the opportunity to go back and really rewrite something isn't quite as great, because there's always a new set of features that you're adding on to the same program."

On software performance: "It's true that we're going to allow programs to be a little fatter than they have been. But in terms of speed, it's just laziness not to allow something to be as fast as possible, because users, even though they might not be able to say so explicitly, notice programs that are really, really fast. In the most successful programs, the speed of execution is just wonderful."

On the future of programming: "People still get great satisfaction out of the fact that a compiler, like the C compiler, still can't write code as well as a human being. But we may mechanize some parts of the process quite a bit over the next three or four years. People will still design algorithms, but a lot of the implementation could be done by machines. I think that within the next five years we'll have tools that will be able to do as good a job as a human programmer."

On Microsoft's future: "Even though there'll be more and more machines, our present thinking is that we won't have to increase the size of our development groups, because we'll simply be making programs that sell in larger quantities. We can get a very large amount of software revenue and still keep the company not dramatically larger than what we have today. That means we can know everybody and talk and share tools and maintain a high level of quality."

On the future of computing: "One of the new areas we're focusing on at Microsoft is compact-disk applications. CD ROM is the technology we're going to use to get personal computers into the home.... CD ROM is totally different. We hope with CD ROM you'll be able to look at a map of the United States, point somewhere, click, zoom in and say, "Hey, what hotels are around here?" And the program will tell you. And if you're in the encyclopedia and you point to one of Beethoven's symphonies, the computer will play the song. It's a new interface; it's got nothing to do with productivity tools like word processors or spreadsheets."

Today: Duh.

Charles Simonyi, Multiplan, Alto Bravo, and Hungarian Notation

Then: Hungarian-born Charles Simonyi already had an impressive background before he joined Microsoft in the 1980s. Like so many other programmers of the early microcomputer era he was an alumnus of Xerox PARC, during which he created the Bravo and Bravo X programs, the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) text editors, for the Alto personal computer.

[ See also: Xerox PARC turns 40: Marking four decades of IT innovations ]

At Microsoft, Simonyi organized the company's Application Software Group, which produced Multiplan, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Excel. He's also well known in programming communities for instigating the Hungarian Notation: a formulaic way to name programming variables inside an application.

On code lifetime in software development: "Really good programs will live forever and take forever to write, at least as long as the hardware exists, and maybe even longer. Certainly, Bravo lived for as long as the Alto existed.... There were about fourteen releases over about a five-year period.... The same thing is going to be true for Multiplan. When you consider that Multiplan lives in Microsoft Excel, then Multiplan is going to be a continuing story. And Microsoft Excel on the Macintosh is not going to be the last application in the chain either. It's going to continue on Windows."

On computing future: "Who knows? Maybe computer science will help decode DNA, and not just by supplying tools. Disassembling DNA could be a hacker's ultimate dream."

Today: Simonyi stayed at Microsoft until 2002, and ended up as Director of Application Development, Chief Architect, and Distinguished Engineer.

Today, Simonyi is chairman, CTO, and founder of Intentional Software Corporation which, according to its website, "accelerates innovation by integrating business domain experts into the software production process." Simonyi has been a member of the National Academy of Engineering since 1997, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2008, and a Correspondent Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. According to the corporate bio, he is an avid collector of modern art, enjoys classical music, and is an experienced pilot.

The other 14 programmers

What about the rest of the programmers Lammers interviewed? Some seem to have disappeared entirely; I don't know what happened to John Page, who wrote PFS:File. Others are obscure to the average programmer today, such as Jaron Lanier, who wrote Atari games and was an early proponent of virtual reality worlds, or LucasFilm SoundDroid's Michael Hawley. For similar reasons, I didn't try to find Peter Roizen (T/Maker), Butler Lampson (Alto PC), or Scott Kim (Inversion).

But here are short updates about the rest, based on my online research:

Toru Iwatani, author of Pac Man, is now, according to Wikipedia, a full-time lecturer at Toyko Poly-Technic.

Andy Hertzfeld (MacOS) worked at Apple until March 1984; he was interviewed in the book as author of a program called Switcher for the Macintosh and a low-cost, hi-res digitizer, ThunderScan. Since then, he co-founded three companies: Radius (1986), General Magic (1990), and Eazel (1999). In 2002, according to Wikipedia, he helped Mitch Kapor promote open source software with the Open Source Applications Foundation. He also started a site,, to share anecdotes about the development of Apple's original Macintosh computer, and the people who created it. Hertzfeld joined Google in 2005.

Ray Ozzie was interviewed for the book because of his affiliation with Lotus Symphony (which beat out Ashton-Tate Framework in the marketplace, at the time). You might know him better because of Lotus Notes, which would have been a quiet twinkle in his eye in 1986. Now, of course, he is stepping down from his role as chief software architect at Microsoft.

John Warnock (Adobe PostScript) is among the few who are still affiliated with the same company (though Adobe is no longer known primarily as a printer OEM). He was president of Adobe for the company's first two years and CEO for the next 16 years. Warnock retired as CEO in 2000 and as the company's CTO in 2001, according to Adobe's website. Today, he is co-chairman of the board with Charles Geschke, continuing to shape direction for the nearly $3 billion company.

Bob Frankston (VisiCalc, along with Bricklin) joined Lotus in 1985, where he created the Lotus Express product and a Fax facility for Lotus Notes. He worked for Slate from 1990-1992 on mobile and pen-based systems, then at Microsoft (1993-1998) with particular attention to home networking. He's still thinking about networking.

We have lost at least two:

Apple's Jef Raskin, instrumental in the Macintosh project, died in 2005 from pancreatic cancer.

Digital Research's Gary Kildall, best known for the CP/M operating system, died in an accident in 1994. Before that, he worked on an early GUI environment that competed with Windows, GEM (remember the original Ventura Publisher...?). He sold the company to Novell in 1991 for $120 million, and started another company, KnowledgeSet, which adapted optical disk technology for computer use.

My most frustrating search was for Wayne Ratliff, best known for dBase II. According to a 2007 interview, he had retired and was working on his boat, along with computer systems for competitive sailboat racing. I found no Ratliff spoor since 2007, however. Which, given the age of some of these guys, gives me a bad feeling.

Looking back on looking forward

In these quotes I concentrated on the programmers' ideas about programming, its intersection with the world of business, and their predictions of the future. They spoke about many other things: whether artificial intelligence was a reasonable goal, the first program they were paid for, the connection between music and programming. But topics I chose attracted me because I wanted to see how the craft-or-science changed (or didn't), and whether these brilliant men, each of whom invented something meaningful, could also envision where our industry was headed.

In some ways, they did extremely well -- particularly when it came to hardware. As WordPerfect's Pete Petersen said in a keynote address to my Island/Reach Computer User Group in Maine, a year or two later, one should always bet on computers getting smaller, faster, quieter, cheaper, and more reliable. Notebook and mobile computing was, perhaps, an inevitability.

But they were very centered on the client PC. None of these programmers predicted the Internet, or even the long-term effect of computer networks. That wasn't surprising (except in these sense that we expect brilliant people to be smart about everything); in 1986, there was no worldwide web, the Internet was primarily Usenet, and we relied on proprietary online services like CompuServe, available only on dial-up connections.

However, the attention only to client PCs had long-term implications. These developers were thinking about designing component software, which led to OLE (object linking and embedding) and OpenDoc. Whereupon the Web made most of those issues moot, from early uses of graphics embedded in webpages to today's mashups. There's a conclusion to be drawn from this, though I'm not sure exactly what it is.

I saw one trend that perhaps is a bit frivolous, but might also be a view into a hacker's mind. Many of these programmers were attracted to flying and boating. These are expensive hobbies suited to guys who have plenty of money to spend, but I saw a strong correlation with these endeavors and the programmers who moved into management. Aha: sailboats and airplanes made sense. Both involve going fast in a powerful, complex, engineered device that takes expertise and dedication to master. Much like an early computer, in which you needed to know everything about the machine to be effective. If you can't hack code anymore, you certainly can appreciate the beauty of hardware.

Simonyi is the best example. In his interview (which he later mused about), Simonyi had just gotten into flying helicopters. That was only the beginning of his "flight" experience, however, as Simonyi joined the small set of "space tourists" when he participated in the Soyuz TMA-10 mission in 2007 and the Soyuz TMA-14 mission in 2009 to the International Space Station. (Another computer industry based space tourist is Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth.)

Most of these programmers had (and have) a programming methodology that today would be called Agile. They mostly created a prototype that worked, and kept adding functionality until it was ready to ship. They worked iteratively in small teams. And, as Bricklin's current thoughts indicate, these developers were always cognizant that at some point you have to quit adding to the software and send it out the door. I found myself wondering how many readers imagine that "Agile" is something new.

At a personal level, there seem to be two paths for these accomplished developers. Either they grew along with the companies they started, moving into management and giving up programming. Or they went back to a small shop where they could do whatever they wanted, as both Bricklin and Sachs have done; some appear to have found corporate jobs where they could continue to research and innovate on their own terms, which is pretty cool.

All in all: This generation of computer industry pioneers -- who are figuring out how to exploit the Internet, make software mobile, and keep the user interface intuitive -- can be proud of the early microcomputer programmers.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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