Friday, February 29, 2008

Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

I feel like I haven't even written a useful piece of code in ages because the mere thought of boilerplate code stops me in my tracks. This is one of the main motivations behind creating a new language free of hindering boilerplate code. But then you start running into other problems.

The egotistic developer will believe that creating a new programming language is the key, secretly striving for the silver bullet, even though he would never openly admit it because he is not even conscious that he is doing it. Some people believe that the silver bullet is Lisp, but for some strange reason, it has failed to slay the dragon for the past 50 years and counting.

The more seasoned developer, unambitious and static, will believe that creating a new language is a waste of time due to how many wheels have to be re-invented in a new language before it even approaches the usefulness of existing languages. Not to mention the fact that any feature could simply have been implemented in (or on top of) the existing language in the first place.

I think the only thing that makes sense is to strike a balance with something that allows (an order of magnitude) more succinctness and extensibility without sacrificing the millions upon millions of man-hours already spent by armies of programmers. We can stand on the shoulders of giants like IBM, Microsoft, Sun, and Google, and move forward without taking a giant leap back.1

On that note, we have people building things like Instapaper. And Instapaper is great; I use it. But it's silly that I now use 2 completely separate bookmarking services that are oblivious to each other.

Of course, upon closer inspection and further use, I realized that the way I use and the way I use Instapaper are completely orthogonal. That is, the set of links that I save to and the set of links I save to Instapaper are completely disjoint. Occasionally I will first save a link to Instapaper, read the article, and then save it to, but that is a rare exception.

However, it's completely obvious to me that the functionality of Instapaper is a proper subset of the functionality of In other words, everything that Instapaper can do, can do and more.

Why then didn't Marco build Instapaper over It seems like a perfect match.

With the Web 2.0 craze, APIs started popping up everywhere. Even tools like Pipes and Popfly to wire those services together. But who is using them?

Instapaper's value is solely in its amazingly simple interface. The reason I use it differently from is because its interface affords to different things. It makes different operations cheap, and that changes the way I think about those operations. But why doesn't Instapaper integrate with my account, simply tagging things with a "read-later" tag? When it comes to bookmarking, is king; there's no disputing that. Instapaper wouldn't have less value if it were built on top of, it would actually have more.

And this, in my humble opinion, is the next step for the web. People will finally start realizing that most of the functionality in their little web app to-be is already done — not in a library — but in a web service.2

Services that do single things — and do them right — will be indispensable to the web. And a glue language will be in high demand. But personally, as an entrepreneur, I'm not looking towards Yahoo Pipes or Microsoft Popfly (yes, in direct opposition to the idea of standing on the shoulders of giants). I want to own my mashups, and those services don't give me that at all.3
1. And this is why I have been very interested in Clojure — an extremely practical Lisp built on top of the JVM.
2. For example, I will almost never have to create my own charts, as Google already did it. Ditto for maps.
3. If you haven't heard me practically shouting this already, I want a glue language for the web! I will personally thank anyone who builds one that doesn't suck. But people, please don't comment here saying X is already that glue language. [Ruby on Rails people, I'm looking in your direction. ;-) ]

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Cost of a New Language

As I described in my post on tool-making, the most sensible thing to do is to minimize total cost to reach your goal. Accounting for all costs, it occurred to me that creating new tools such as programming languages can inadvertently increase total cost by reducing the usefulness of other tools designed to be used with other languages.

For example, gdb is an extremely useful tool for working with C code. But if you start using Java, the usefulness — or the amount of cost savings — of gdb is reduced so much that it is practically useless. What you really need is a debugger designed for Java. If you didn't have a debugger for Java, your total cost may have increased as a result of switching to Java. (I'm exaggerating of course, because it's not just gdb but other tools as well. And they all add up.)

I recently became aware of Google Web Toolkit (GWT) which basically compiles Java to JavaScript for use with AJAX web apps. At first this sounds right. Gain static typing and a unified server- and client-side language. However, this didn't sit right in my mind and I wasn't sure why. Then I realized it troubled me because, in a way, GWT was compiling from a lower-level language to a higher-level language.1 And the thought of that is just absurd. Once you take into account the reduction of usefulness of tools though that results from switching from Java to JavaScript, it all makes sense.

So when does it ever make sense for a small software company to create a new programming language? I'm beginning to think the answer is: never. Although there are inspiring words saying how much more productive a good programming language can be, there are also stories of people working with such languages their entire lives and how they became disillusioned.

The only sense I can make of all this is that people love to hear stories like Paul Graham's that hold the carrot of hope out in front; the idea of creating the ultimate programming language is extremely ego-boosting. But at the end of the day, if your goal is to create great software that you can live off of, then there are very real costs to using less popular languages, and the trade-off does not often make sense. GWT on the other hand, works because it enables rather than disables the use of well-developed tools of another language. A new language is just a tool, and it should help, not hinder, overall.

...Another burst of insight came to me. Say you created a new source language S but wanted to exploit the abundant, well-developed tools in a target language T. What if, when you wrote your compiler from S to T, you also wrote a translator for the tools. In other words, think of the API or data-structure that the tool works on as T', and create another compiler from S to T'. It all goes back to the idea that everything is a compiler.

I don't know if this is something feasible. Again, it's more of a what-if question. Is there a way to compile away the costs of a new language?
1. Another reason GWT seems weird to me is because instead of its source language being under-developed, its target language is.