About Jean-Louis Gassée

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A Salute To Solo Programmers

Photo: Dominic Alves, Flickr

Photo: Dominic Alves, Flickr

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Applied to software, this means that applications tend to bloatware, obese programs whose complexity makes them nearly impossible to debug and maintain. Today, we look at happier counterexamples, past and current, of ambitious products created by “hermit programmers”.

Once upon a time, we were awestruck by the “solo climber”, the programmer who could single-handedly write a magnum opus on a barebones machine such as the Apple ][ with its 64 kilobytes of memory (yes, kilo — not mega, let alone gigabytes), and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz (again, mega not giga).

Once such giant was Paul Lutus. By his own admission, he fit the stereotype of the hermit programmer:

“In the computer business I’m known as the Oregon Hermit. According to rumor, I write personal computer programs in solitude, shunning food and sleep in endless fugues of work. I hang up on important callers in order to keep the next few programming ideas from evaporating, and I live on the end of a dirt road in the wilderness. I’m here to tell you these vicious rumors are true.”

When I first visited Apple’s Cupertino offices in early 1981, Lutus had already won a place next to Jobs and Wozniak in the Bandley Drive Hall of Fame for his Apple Writer word processor. Admirers told how he would fly his own plane to come and collect his royalty check and then immediately fly back to his woodsy Oregon retreat.

Fresh from the word-processing industry (Exxon Office Systems and its Vydec “professional” workstation), I looked with disdain upon Lutus’ tiny, feature-deprived toy. Then I visited an Apple warehouse where I saw a forklift loading palettes of Apple Writer boxes. Palettes of software! A quick count, a couple of questions, and I experienced an epiphany: Apple Writer easily beat the number of word processor workstations shipped by all the “pros” combined.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was witnessing a one-man disruption.

(For the true geek, Lutus’ arachnoid.com website is filled with delightful “single climber” anecdotes and attitudes:

• He used GraForth, his graphics and sound extension of the Forth programming language to convince a certain individual to come and visit:

I once used the GraFORTH graphics language I had written to create a “computer letter” in the form of a diskette that displayed images and messages. In one of the sequences a cabin appeared on a hilltop, the door opened, then music played. It was designed to persuade a certain someone to visit me in Oregon, and it worked.

• At NASA, he wrote programs for the HP-25 and HP-67 hand-held calculators to compute space flight trajectories and “planetary ephemerides”:

Instead of dealing with the computer department and a 24-hour delay, one could get reasonably accurate results in seconds, using a device that sat on one’s desk. In the context of the times, this bordered on the miraculous.

Stay for the surprising digression about Wikipedia at the end of the “Programming Handheld Calculators” post.)

Bill Budge is another noted solo programmer. In 1981, Budge wrote a pinball game called Raster Blaster for the Apple ][, a remarkable feat considering that the 1MHz 8-bit processor was “clearly” unable to support the fast graphics, collision detection, and fun sound effects required for such a game.

The next stage in his ascent — and his ultimate claim to fame — was Pinball Construction Set, a set of modules that klutzes like me could combine into a custom pinball layout. At the time, 1983, this was (rightly) viewed as yet another astonishing achievement, a consummate way to use every 6502 cycle to delight users. (This was before marketeers hijacked the word and pimped it as Surprise and Delight™, using the phrase in feeble attempts to mask a product void.)

As an unnamed computer sage once put it, the programmer’s job is to slide under the user’s feet as s/he walks on water – and to make sure those feet never get wet. Pinball Construction Set did just that.

That same year, I happened upon Bill Budge while in line at an Apple event. After conveying my admiration for his superhuman programming skills, I expressed concern that he had disclosed the graphics algorithms inside Pinball Construction Set in a SoftTalk magazine article. Wouldn’t this unveiling undermine his business? The young sage’s unforgettable answer: A cookbook doesn’t a Chef make.

I can’t leave this part of my story without mentioning Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin, the duo authors of the epoch-making VisiCalc. VisiCalc begat Excel, which is to say VisiCalc’s influence is felt every day in every corner of businesses large and small.

Those were the days… Computers and their operating systems were simple and the P in Personal Computers applied to the programmer. He or she (mostly he at the time) could make a dent in the universe while sitting alone in a cabin in the woods.

Enough nostalgia. Today, such singular achievements appear to be no longer possible.

As I write this, I’m downloading the latest version Xcode, Apple’s programming environment and toolkit, onto my iMac. It needs 7.77 gigabytes of disk space.
The “obsolete” word processor I use to write this (Pages 2009) weighs in at 388  megabytes; the newer and dumber Pages version 5.5.3 takes up 478 Mbytes.

Operating systems have become so sophisticated, so tentacular that a single human being can’t possibly internalize their workings and write application code that keeps us users walking on water. There’s no place for a 2015 Paul Lutus.

But are things really that dire?

As it turns out, the size and complexity of operating systems and development tools do not pose completely insurmountable obstacles; we still find programs of hefty import authored by one person. One such example is Preview, Mac’s all-in-one file viewing and editing program. While the Wikipedia article is out of date and tepid, the two-part Macworld article titled The many superpowers of Apple’s Preview (here and here) does justice to the app’s power and flexibility. Read it and join me in my appreciation for this labor of love from a solo, unnamed programmer who, I’m told, has been at it since the NeXT days.

Preview will even render CAD files that have a .DAE extension, a.k.a. Collada files, an interchange format for CAD programs. This lets you play with the 3D image without the need for the original CAD program. Impressive —  and leading us to dark thoughts about the sorry state of iTunes (wags call it Apple’s Windows Vista), Pages, and even Mail, apps that are still buggy and crashing after all these years. Too many cooks?

Newer than Preview but no less ambitious, we have Gus Mueller’s Acorn, an “Image Editor for Humans”, now in version 5 at the Mac App Store. To get an idea of the breadth and depth of the app, scan the documentation on the company’s web site. In addition to “straight” tech doc, there’s an FAQ, pointers to the Acorn communities, and a wealth of video tutorials for beginners, intermediate, and advanced users. (Mueller calls his Everett, WA company a mom and pop shop because his spouse Kristin does the documentation when she isn’t working as a Physical Therapist.)

On my iMac, Acorn 5 is a mere 24.6 Mbytes. Compare this, fairly or not, to apps that weigh in at 1.5 Gbytes or more (Microsoft Word, Excel…), or Pages at 478 Mbytes.

There is bloat, and there is hope.


Google Car Challenges

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by Jean-Louis Gassée

Self-driving cars make an immensely attractive fantasy. But how far are we from seeing these hoped for vehicles become real products?

The sun has barely risen as we set out on the Hana Highway, headed to Maui’s “wet” side. It’s a long magical drive punctuated by sea vistas, waterfalls, Lindbergh’s grave, and, finally, the Seven Sacred Pools.

Mid-afternoon, we pack up for the drive back to Kaanapali. We can turn around and risk an unpleasant ride on the now congested Hana Highway, or we can forge ahead along the “dry” side of the island via the Piilani Highway:

 “[A] must drive road…a twisty, up and down roller coaster of a ride…in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and in many places bordered by a drop of hundreds of meters over the sea, unprotected by guardrails.” (dangerousroads.org)

Piillani it is.

Midway, we turn a slow corner and face a gravel truck coming towards us. As advertised, there’s no room to pass. Remembering the advice from a local waiter, I dismount, walk up to the truck with an embarrassed smile and ask the driver for help: ‘Sorry about being in your way. A friend said you’d know what to do…
The gent chuckles, ‘There’s more room than you think. Back up twenty feet, fold in your side mirror, I’ll guide you so you hug the hillside real tight.

A few minutes of slow motion terror as the massive vehicle inches past… and then a honk and a wave. The truck disappears around the corner.

Let’s revisit the scene aboard a fully autonomous Google Car, one that doesn’t have a steering wheel. [We’ll see if the Google Car moniker sticks, or if the Alphabet holding company gives it another name.]:

Google Car
What happens when we meet the gravel truck? How do we tell the car to squeeze within a breath of the hillside rock? Will its sensors even allow the maneuver?

This may be a fanciful example, but let’s consider a quotidian analog that I recently experienced when I came face to face with a Lexus on a narrow Mountain View street turned single lane road because of the curb parking.  We were both holding up a line of cars, but we negotiated the bottleneck through a combination of patience and courteous hand signals — this is California, not Paris.

A Google Car would have been checkmated. It can’t move forward, it can’t go back:


Narrow Strret

The autonomous car’s passenger has to get out with an embarrassed smile and ask the conventional car drivers to help him out, to clear the road so as not to confuse his vehicle. That’s not what I think of as self-driving.

In an ideal future world where all cars are autonomous, this checkmate situation wouldn’t arise. Our cars will “talk” to each other and get a “god’s view” of traffic all around. When and how we get to this world, how long we tolerate the transition, isn’t clear.

(The difficult intermediate period reminds me of an old joke. A European country considers changing their traffic from right- to left-side driving. After much back and forth and no resolution, a politician comes up with a genius idea: ‘Let’s take it a step at a time. We’ll start with just the trucks…’)

In a Slate article subtitled The Autonomous Google car may never actually happen, Lee Gomes describes some of the obstacles that stand between us and our dreamed-of autonomous cars:

“…before the company’s vision for ubiquitous self-driving cars can be realized, all 4 million miles of U.S. public roads will be need to be mapped, plus driveways, off-road trails, and everywhere else you’d ever want to take the car…The Google car can’t consistently handle coned-off road construction sites, and its video cameras can sometimes be blinded by the sun when trying to detect the color of a traffic signal…”

Gomes ends up surmising that the Google Car will someday be an exhibit in the Museum of the Future That Never Was.

Even if Sergey Brin’s prediction that self-driving cars will be a reality by 2017 isn’t about to come true, it’s a splendid PR exercise. The putative Google Car is consonant with the company’s achievements in Machine Learning and its preeminent position in computerized mapping. Google: Technically ahead for your well-being.

The exercise also validates the value of partial solutions, of computerized driver assistance solutions. One feature at a time, our cars are becoming semi-autonomous, performing safety and comfort tasks under the control of a driver sitting behind the steering wheel. This isn’t some hazy future, it’s a present we can buy today. No magic required, no science, no infrastructure changes, just applied technology that the marketplace will sort out.

For example, a Prius I once drove in France featured a smarter cruise control and collision avoidance system. As I came upon a slow moving truck in front of me, the Prius automatically decelerated from programmed speed to keep me at a safe distance. When I turned the wheel left to get into a passing lane, the car re-accelerated back to cruising speed. Nice, especially when looking at chain collisions on foggy freeways.

Newer high-end cars offer traffic sign recognition that notifies drivers of the traffic restrictions that are in effect. Other cars offer lane-departure warnings that, in the example of my spouse’s car, send a rumble through the steering wheel if you stray too far. (I’m a bit skeptical about this one because it cries wolf each time you switch lanes, voluntarily or not, thus diminishing the alert’s value.)

My next car offers autonomous driving in start-stop, bumper-to-bumper traffic and is loaded with a bevy of other driver assistance goodies such as infrared night vision enhancement and a 360º view and warnings. This will be a big jump from my five-year-old car from the same maker, and while I’m a bit concerned about the bugs that are sure to lurk in the massive increase in on-board electronics, it seems there’s no going back.

As luck would have it, a Guardian story titled Documents confirm Apple is building self-driving car just came out. According to the article, the Cupertino company appears to be in negotiations for access to a high-security testing facility near San Francisco, a fact that would give additional substance to past rumors of an Apple Car development project.

A few thoughts come to mind.

First: Bravo Google! Minds are now bent and any car development shrouded in some sort of secrecy must be a self-driving vehicle.

Second: The GoMentum station mentioned in the Guardian article is affiliated with a public agency, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. Besides an Autonomous Vehicle activity, the agency promotes a number of connected vehicles programs, some of which might be of interest to Apple’s Car Play developments:

Connnected Vehicle Programs
While many, yours truly included, would like to see an Apple Car, these rumors don’t mean that the company will actually ship a car. The experiment could be just that: An opportunity to learn what not to do, a chance to fail to great advantage.

If Apple is developing a production electric vehicle, the project will certainly include driver assistance functions — but it will definitely not be an autonomous, self-driving car. The company likes to ship products, not concepts.


Better Than The Apple MVNO Fantasy

by Jean-Louis Gassée

An Apple cellular network is a nice but unrealistic fantasy. Today we explore better ways of achieving the carrier-independence we dream of. More

What The Ad Blocker Debate Reveals


by Jean-Louis Gassée

iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 (“El Capitan”) carry ad-blocking technology that delivers an experience that stands in stark contrast to current advertising and tracking practices. Users are beginning to notice…and advertisers aren’t happy about it.


Home Automation Out of The Closet


by Jean-Louis Gassée

The Smart Home has been just around the corner for more than three decades. Now, an uneasy, not entirely frank move from one of the industry’s grandees signals a shift towards credible consumer-grade solutions. More

Human Curation Is Back

Version 2

by Jean-Louis Gassée

The limitations of algorithmic curation of news and culture has prompted a return to the use of actual humans to select, edit, and explain. Who knows, this might spread to another less traditional media: apps. More

Respect Your Salespeople: They Earn Your Salary

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Another people-in-tech Monday Note, vs. tech itself, in the spirit of The HR-Less Performance Review and Firing Well, this time about the value of competent, service-oriented salespeople, and the respect we owe them – with our own interest in mind.  More

Samsung’s Mobile OS Dilemma


by Jean-Louis Gassée

Scroogled if you do, HPed if you don’t. To differentiate itself from aggressive Android competitors, Samsung would need to build its own mobile OS…but can it overcome the odds? More

Apple’s Intriguing Developer Conference


by Jean-Louis Gassée

At this year’s Worldwide Developer conference, we were told about Apple’s new music streaming service and given hints about the iPad’s future… and we were left asking questions about Apple’s relationship with Google.

Apple’s yearly Worldwide Developer Conference has a well-established, festive tradition of announcing new software tools. One way to gauge reactions to the conference is to count the number of articles that imply that Apple is simply playing catch-up: “Apple finally does X that competitor Y has been doing for Z years.” More

You Don’t Need An Apple Watch – Part 253


by Jean-Louis Gassée

One more time, with feeling: You don’t need this [blank] Apple product. This time, pundits believe you shouldn’t buy an Apple Watch. But will the Greater We listen this time?

I’ve been professionally and sentimentally involved with tech products for more than six decades. Luckily, my affection for new technology has (mostly) been requited: The objects of my desire have rewarded me with fun and financial independence. More