Programmer veterans ponder past, future

A panel of programmers famous for applications such as VisiCalc and Excel and the Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh operating system mused on where programming has been and where it is going during a panel session at the Software Development Conference & Expo West 2004 event in Santa Clara, California, on Tuesday.

The days are over when people become programmers to get rich, said Dan Bricklin, creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet. “There are people who got into programming because they wanted to become very, very rich,” Bricklin said.

“If you’re going to be a programmer now, you’re probably going to be in it because you really want to,” he said.

He also remarked that early programmers expected their software to become obsolete and rewritten, since it was intended for a particular computer. However, “Software turned out to be so expensive to make that they build emulators for the old software.”

One panelist, Charles Simonyi, credited with ushering in Word and Excel while at Microsoft Corp., said programming is antagonistic. “I really believe that software is the bottleneck on the digital world of plenty,” Simonyi said.

Another panelist, Jaron Lanier, who has been working on virtual reality software, praised the concept of open source but not the results, which have led to Linux, which he called “another Unix,” rather than something totally new.

“Here we have this wonderful opportunity of creativity in the open source movement,” but programmers built another Unix instead, he said. “What is this?” Lanier asked.

Panelist Andy Hertzfeld, developer of the Macintosh operating system, said stagnation has occurred in the browser industry since the end of competition. He did not mention Microsoft Corp. or Netscape Navigator by name, but Navigator, the early leader, now takes a back seat to Microsoft Internet Explorer.

From 1994 to 1999, “Web browsers got really far,” Hertzfeld said. “Competition stopped and the innovation stopped,” he said.

Asked where the best programmers are today, Lanier said he was “pretty impressed with some of the online gaming.”

Panelists stressed the future would be exciting and touted areas such as cell phone displays and the Internet.

“Eventually, the whole Internet is a resource that you can use to create a great experience for your users,” Hertzfeld said. Programmers have only scratched the surface of the ubiquitous network, he said.

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