July 8, 2013

On The Sideline

Outliner pioneer Dave Winer writes an evocative lament: Engelbart was sidelined.

I seldom comment on weblogs, because comments are harmful. But this seemed to be an exceptional occasion. And because I found myself taking some care with the response, I’m editing and copying it here.

Winer writes that

I would have welcomed Engelbart if he had chosen to become a user of ThinkTank, MORE or Frontier -- and we would have implemented the features he needed to make augmentation of intellect conform to his view of how things should work.

Winer’s ThinkTank and MORE realized and popularized many of the ideas in Engelbart’s NLS/Augment. I don't believe I ever actually discussed this with Engelbart, but I think this is widely understood. Winer’s outliners advanced beyond what Engelbart’s could do along different axes: Engelbart had collaboration, but he also had interaction based on magic key sequences and mysterious chords that seemed like good ideas at the time.

What we need to keep in mind is that NLS ran out of PDP-10's just before we learned how to do emulation and virtualization properly. We know how to do that now, so the trauma of being stranded on an unsupportable platform is far, far less serious today.

There's plenty of NLS in Frontier. There’s a lot of Frontier in Tinderbox.

Smart people know the literature and scour it for great ideas. That's one reason we talk so much about The Demo: Engelbart was unusually bad at writing papers, so an unusually large part of his legacy rests on having seen and used the software. That’s true for Winer as well, in a way: the legacy is in the software. But there are thousands and thousands of copies of Frontier, there are articles and books, and Dave himself has written a ton and created an entire school of blogging. You could download Frontier and everyone did: to see NLS, you had to drive out to Menlo Park.

Winer hoped Frontier would see him through. It yet may. And there’s another thing to keep in mind: we're better programmers than we were back then. I'm currently in the midst of a complete rewrite of Tinderbox -- ten years of development recapitulated in months. New platform, new framework, new language: it's remarkable how much better the new code is. Part of that’s because computers are faster and IDEs are better, but part is because we've learned a ton about programming. I’ve added features in an afternoon that I spent a week trying (and failing) to implement only a year or two ago.

Things that once seemed inconceivably difficult to redo are now perfectly feasible, and things that used to be really hard to get right now work right out of the box. We’re still learning how to program, all of us, and we’re doing it better.