May 99 Viewpoint
Volume Number: 15 (1999)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: Viewpoint
Sep 98 Viewpoint
by Andrew Downs
Continuing from last month, we're inviting the contributing editors of MacTech to introduce themselves and their areas of interest to our readership, to share their Viewpoints with us. This month we've asked Andrew Downs to talk to about what makes him tick. Andrew programs in everything from Assembly, to Java, to AppleScript. Feel free to write to Andrew, with article ideas or opinions on these and other subjects. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick DeMello, Editor
Hey, is this thing on? Okay, here I am at open-mike night on the MacTech Viewpoint page. I would like to say a few words about several of my favorite topics: Java, scripting, assembly language, and MacHack. I would also like for you to consider writing an article for MacTech. More on this later.
One of the things that attracted me to Java three years ago was its relative compactness. The syntax was straightforward and the core API took months (but not years) to master. Since Java was so new, few people understood how to use it effectively. Applets were the rage, but in my mind the real power lay in the ability to easily write multithreaded, network-enabled applications. If I could firmly grasp those pieces, the rest would be easy, and I would be king of the Java world...
Or so I thought. Over the next few years, I was overwhelmed with all the additions to the core API, language extensions, integration and bridging of other technologies, a new component model, and even an entire operating system. But this hasn't resulted in erosion of my original skill set; rather there are numerous new areas to explore, and they complement each other. Sun seems to be turning out new technologies faster than most developers can absorb them. We should be thankful, since it means more opportunities in development, training, and documentation. This phenomenon also implies that most of us may end up being specialists, as the scope of Java technology expands beyond the grasp of mere mortals. Oh well, that's the relentless march of technology for you.
In the Macintosh arena, the Apple MRJ team has done a great job of bringing the Macintosh Java runtime environment up to or beyond industry standards. Java has a great future on the Macintosh.
Several things impress me about the scripting languages (AppleScript, Perl) with which I am familiar: their power, compactness, and versatility. By "power" I mean a language that gives you access to system resources, network connections, files, and (ideally) threads. Compactness allows you to do so using only a few lines of code. Versatility manifests itself in the types of scripts you can write, and how close those scripts come to acting like full applications. Add-ons also enhance the versatility of scripting languages.
Scripts can act as wonderful "glue" to tie applications together. This is certainly true of AppleScript. We also see it in web development, with the use of Perl for CGI processing.
Since scripts are essentially interpreted (or compiled on-the-fly), I find scripting to be a bit more relaxing than the usual compile-link-run approach. If you haven't looked into scripting yet, consider it. You might be surprised by what they have to offer.
What? Who programs in that anymore? Some people do. While I doubt many applications are written entirely in assembly, there are opportunities for using assembly code in projects. Plus, having an assembly listing available (and understanding it!) can be a great timesaver when the MacsBug "welcome" screen appears ten minutes into testing your new program.
I finally got around to reading "Where Wizards Stay Up Late", which is about the origins of ARPAnet and the Internet. The book contains a sentence or two about how early programmers really had to understand how specific computers worked, since most of the programs were written in machine language (of which assembly language is a much more legible abstraction). I think we may be in danger of losing this skill, since high-level languages (and their accompanying IDEs and debuggers) can do just about anything these days, including write the code for you! And those languages tend to attract new programmers. (By the way, I am pro-IDE, since in the right hands those tools are tremendous productivity enhancers.)
Besides, some of us think assembly language is fun. Cross-platform products may enhance revenue, but writing or debugging assembly code is more rewarding. Call me crazy.
Aside: I would like to see a PowerPC update to the book "Debugging Software with MacsBug". Is anyone working on this?
Finally, I want to encourage you to consider writing an article for MacTech. Why? Here are a few reasons:
Sharing: Mac developers form a fairly small community. But we also tend to be open. I don't mean giving up the source code to your company's sole revenue source. Rather, I am referring to showing techniques, programming style, and how to use emerging (and battle-tested) technologies.
Learning: this applies not only to the reader, but also to the author. I usually learn something new when I sit down to write an article, even if it's a topic with which I am already familiar. Continual learning is important to a programmer's career. How many of us are still doing exactly what we were doing three years ago? Not many: the industry changes too quickly.
Publicity: most programmers like to show their stuff now and then. Plus, you never know what may result: anything from a friendly email exchange to a job referral.
Whew, that was easier than I expected. Thanks for listening! Feel free to send me email containing article ideas, rebuttals, or even programmer jokes. My address is email@example.com.