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As the 1970s wore on, Simonyi grew impatient with Xerox’s inability to turn PARC’s pioneering research into successful products. One day a friend showed him VisiCalc, the new spreadsheet program for the Apple II. It thrilled Simonyi. Here was another application, like Bravo, that could change people’s lives, but unlike Bravo, it ran on a mass-market computer that people could afford to buy. PARC’s work, he realized, was never going to see the light of day. He asked his former PARC colleague Bob Metcalfe, who’d left the lab in 1979 to start 3Com, to recommend prospective bosses in the fledgling PC industry. At the head of the list was Bill Gates.

In 1981, Simonyi moved to Seattle to start the new-­applications group at Microsoft, which until then had sold programming languages and operating systems. He was 33, but that made him a grown-up among Microsoft’s striplings (Gates was then 26 years old, Steve Ballmer 25).

Through all the years that Simonyi oversaw the products that eventually coalesced into the “program suite” known as Microsoft Office, he continued to seek new efficiencies in new kinds of programming abstractions. Most notably, he schooled generations of Microsoft programmers in the discipline of keeping track of the myriad variable names used in big programs. In computer programming, variables represent information that can change as a program runs. For example, an online store’s shopping-cart program will have variables that represent the number of items of each type to be purchased, each item’s price, and the shipping costs and taxes. Using those variables, a programmer can write a simple line of code that multiplies quantity by price, adds shipping and taxes, and calculates the total cost–which becomes the value of yet another variable.

A large program can have thousands of different variables that a programming team must keep straight. Naming them carefully becomes crucial. Today, most code features variable names designed to convey meaning to the programmers who will read it–names like NumberOfItems or ShoppingCartTotal. In Simonyi’s naming scheme, which he’d invented for his own use years before, every variable name comes with a prefix that tells you useful information about it, like its type (integer, say, or decimal fraction, or string of letters). Some systems limit the length of variable names to eight characters; Simonyi simply left out the vowels.

The resulting code was dense and hard to read. ­Simonyi’s system came to be known as Hungarian notation, both in homage to its creator’s birthplace and because it made programs “look like they were written in some inscrutable foreign language,” according to programming pioneer Andy Hertzfeld. Hungarian is widely cursed by its detractors. Canadian Java expert Roedy Green has jokingly called it “the tactical nuclear weapon of source code obfuscation techniques.” Mozilla programmer Alec Flett wrote this parody:

prepBut nI vrbLike adjHungarian! qWhat’s artThe adjBig nProblem?

Hertzfeld, writing about an encounter at Apple with some Hungarian code written by a colleague who’d worked with Simonyi at PARC, said the names “looked like they were chosen by Superman’s enemy from the 5th dimension, Mr. Mxyzptlk.”

But while critics believe Hungarian makes code illegible, Simonyi remains proud of it and employs it to this day.

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Credit: Brian Smale

Tagged: Computing

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