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Thread started by Dave Winer on Saturday, July 06, 2013.

Engelbart was sidelined

Tom Foremski wrote an interesting piece about his encounter with Doug Engelbart, and how the personal computer effectively sidelined him. He couldn't get funding for his work because his software ran on minis. However there is another side to it.

It's hard to fight a wave of technology. People who do it, almost always end up sidelined, unless they give in and go with the new wave. I've had to make the kinds of decisions Engelbart faced, quite a few times. Sometimes I fought the change, only to lose, and other times I embraced the need to start over and give up on your total vision and settle for part of it.

In fact, I'm doing exactly that right now.

Frontier, the scripting environment I developed starting in the mid-80s, which I intended to be the environment I would use for the rest of my career, is probably going to break in an upcoming release of the Mac OS. It is open source, GPL, so it's possible someone might adopt it and bring it into the future, but I'd say the chances aren't good.

It will continue to run on Windows. But even that's going through a big change, with the deprecation of Windows XP next year.

I invested a huge portion of my development life in this environment, and have traded it for an environment that is in many ways a big step backwards. I'm now developing in JavaScript and HTML/CSS. Both server and client. And even though it's step backward in data storage and debugging tools, I love the new environment, for one simple reason -- it's where the users are, for now at least.

My fear is that the users will go somewhere else at some point, and leave us stranded again. Or that one browser vendor will come to dominate, and will start deprecating features the way Apple has been, and will break our software.

You can still listen to a Rolling Stones or Doors song recorded in the 60s, but there is no current platform that can run Engelbart's Augment system today. That's the difference between this art form and others. We, imho, gratuitously break systems, just so a new generation can re-invent everything the previous generation had already invented.

We marvel that the runtime environment of the web browser can do things that we had working 25 years ago on the Mac. The performance of our systems today are not much better than those systems, even though our CPUs have orders of magnitude more storage and run a much higher clock rate.

If you want to get the most out of great developers like Engelbart, who are productive well into their 80s, you have to stop digging up the streets, moving the goalposts, bombing the cities, starting over just for the sake of starting over.

I had a slogan in my early days programming: Discontinuities suck. I want steady evolution that builds on all past work, and invalidates nothing. Let people continue to develop as they please, even if you don't understand what they're doing. And remember that brilliance does not become obsolete. Engelbart had a twinkle in his eye, even through all the frustation. He wanted to see human intellect soar. Too bad we didn't achieve that with his help, during his lifetime. But maybe we still can.

On the other hand, it seems likely that this will not change. So if you want to move the minds of people, you have to move with them, where they go. Today that means JavaScript and HTML. I hope that lasts a while. :-)

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