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Meta-Euphoria

By the early 1990s, Microsoft’s success had made ­Simonyi’s fortune. (For several years, Forbes has estimated it to be $1 billion.) But he still felt the tug of unfinished business. Software’s confusion had made the creation of Office nerve-racking for Microsoft. But now, with computers more powerful than the Alto on every desk and the Internet linking them together, software’s crisis was everyone’s crisis. ­Simonyi began to think it was time to go meta again.

“Charles has always tried to build his systems in ways that raise the level of abstraction, so that you can manage the complexity of the system. Because complexity is death,” says Chuck Thacker, Simonyi’s old colleague from BCC and PARC, who is leading a research project on computer architecture at Microsoft. “And unfortunately, these days, providing the facilities people actually want results in a complex system. We’re hanging on with our fingertips right now.”

Moving to a position at Microsoft Research, Simonyi began to define the concept of intentional programming, or IP for short. Intentional programming would add an entirely new layer of abstraction to the practice of writing software. It would enable programmers to express their intentions without sinking in the mire of so-called implementation details that always threatened to swallow them. Like the “meta-programmers” of Simonyi’s dissertation, passing instructions to worker-bee coders, the intentional programmer would hand off the scut work–but not to a junior colleague. Instead, intentional programming called for a sort of code factory called a “generator,” a program that takes in a set of relatively high-level commands and spits out more-detailed working code. The goal wasn’t so much to ease the labor of programming as to let programmers clear their brains of trivialities so they could actually be creative.

From his programming initiation as a teenager punching opcodes into the Ural, Simonyi had been climbing the ladder of abstraction. But he felt he wasn’t high enough. In many ways programming still felt primitive. Why were programmers still saddled with incompatible programming­-language syntaxes? Why was it so hard to extend their preferred languages into new areas? Why did programmers still work with plain text, arranging a small number of characters into linear strings as they had in the punch-card past? Simonyi’s Wysiwyg work had liberated office workers to create and edit complex documents. Engineers and designers were using advanced CAD/CAM tools to design and modify blueprints for skyscrapers and airplanes. Why were programmers, the wizards who’d made all this possible, still pecking out their code one character at a time?

His Microsoft Research team got to work, and by March 1995 they had built a working system for constructing programs using the intentional-programming approach. ­Simonyi said IP had “achieved complete self-sufficiency”: that is, “all future work on IP would be done using IP itself.” He rewarded his team with T-shirts emblazoned with one of his favorite pictures from childhood: the image of Baron Munchausen lifting himself and his horse out of a bog by tugging at his own hair. Simonyi announced intentional programming to the world in a September 1995 paper titled “The Death of Computer Languages.” It was time, as he later put it, “for the cobbler’s children to get some shoes.”

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Credit: Brian Smale

Tagged: Computing

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