Spolsky: It's your Skype buddy
Atwood: Yeah, we're Skype buddies. That's awesome. Someone on Twitter told me to say hello to you.
Spolsky: Oh, hello Twitter.
Atwood: Hello. [laughing] I just do what people, you know, on Twitter tell me to do.
Spolsky: I posted a question on Twitter asking the people what I should get, because I dropped my DVD player on the ground yesterday and it...
Atwood: Wait, wait, wait... You have a DVD player?
Spolsky: You know, yeah—
Atwood: Is that sort like an 8-track player or like a VHS?
Spolsky: Well, it's from the past.
Atwood: Do you have a reel-to-reel tape machine by any chance? Do you have any machines with all those flashing lights on the front that you see at the movies?
Spolsky: Waaaa. [laughing] You think I'm old.
Atwood: Just kidding. Just giving you a hard time.
Spolsky: I had an idea for my StackOverflow question this week is going to be all about computing in the 1980's, so we can talk about being old later. That's foreshadowing.
Atwood: Okay. Well, let's get... Well, we had a... I don't know if you saw, but Alan Kay was on, and we think it's the real Alan Kay too, not, you know, a fake doppelgänger. And he actually answered... I think at first he was doing and ego surf, which is fine, cause I think everyone does that... you just have a search term setup for your name and it alerts you. Which I'm sure, if you are Alan Kay, must have like lots of results everyday.
Spolsky: Keep checking everyday to see if anyone invents anything called the Dynabook.
Spolsky: You are star-struck.
Atwood: Yeah, he posted a question on StackOverflow, which was awesome, which is about significant computing innovations since like 1980, like what would be a significant—
Spolsky: Yeah, that was the question that was going to be my favorite question.
Atwood: Oh, I'm sorry.
Spolsky: Should we talk about it now? We've been foreshadowing the heck out of this thing. That was posted by Alan Kay, really?
Spolsky: My question was, I didn't even realize this was Alan Kays... His question is "What are some of the significant new inventions in computing since 1980?" This must be Alan Kay, because if he thinks 1980 was 50 years ago... [laughs]
Atwood: That's awesome that you were able to identify this, not knowing it was Alan Kay, but the number is 432922.
Spolsky: I'll just list some. The number one answer was the World Wide Web. Number two was the Free Software Foundation. Desktop publishing, color, package management... Wait, how come there's somebody here quoting me? Oh, I see, that's from the transcript. Just-in-time compilation.
First of all, I don't really like this list. If I had to say the significant new inventions in computing, maybe it's not an invention, I would say probably the most significant thing in programming, specifically, is garbage collection, which clearly was invented before 1980, but really didn't start appearing until Java, did not get mainstreamed until Java, 1995.
Atwood: That's one of the lessons of this question, is how much of this stuff we think of as new now isn't really new at all, it's just becoming somewhat mainstream. This is how long it takes.
Spolsky: It takes forever.
Atwood: It takes forever. And we're in an industry where things happens so fast. We're like, "Oh, that's a year old, that's ancient," and yet there are these truly ancient concepts from 20+ years ago. So you forget. You literally forget how long it takes and how old some of this stuff is.
Spolsky: There's still people... Like, Ruby and Python still don't have type inference, do they? This is a technology from the 90's which would make those languages much, much faster.
Spolsky: So, anyway, yeah. They're about 20 years behind academia, usually. It can vary.
What I thought I would do for my answer to this question is tell you what computing was like in 1980...
Spolsky: Because this was a theme about how I'm extremely...
Atwood: You're old.
Atwood: You're not that old. But go ahead.
Spolsky: And crotchety. So 1980, let's see, I was in tenth grade. Well, Ok...in 1979...
Spolsky: OK, you could buy home computers. But the home computers that you could buy were like the Radio Shack TRS-80. I don't think the Apple II had come out yet. Or, maybe...just, 1980? Maybe that was when it just came out.
Atwood: Well, remember that there was the Apple I, which not many people had; Apple II was really the big one.
Spolsky: The Apple I was a kit that you bought; there were only like 600 made.
Atwood: And this came out of the club scene in Silicon Valley
Spolsky: I really with I knew when the Apple II came out...Let's look this up...I'll use the Box Of Knowledge. The Apple II...1977. So the Apple II had sort of come out; It wasn't really starting to show up in people's homes that much. There was the TRS-80. These computers had 16 K. Kilobytes, of memory. And you turned it on, and you were looking at a BASIC interpreter, and you could type a BASIC program and run it. That was just about it. Eventually...when did VisiCalc come out? That's a good question. Because VisiCalc was probably the first program that actually got people buying desktop computers.
Atwood: Oh, it was definitely a killer app. There's not that many killer apps. That's one thing you learn is that there--the killer app is relatively rare. But they're huge events when they happen.
Spolsky: So, VisiCalc, it looks like, 1979? According to Wikipedia here. So that wasn't mainstream; it wasn't yet starting to show up. Mostly, though, home computers were these funny things that you programmed the very simplest BASIC games on. You would go to the bookstore, and you would get a copy of Creative Computing Magazine, and it would give you these games written by David Ahl. And you would type them in, and then the games would be like, "You are on a rocket ship, landing on the Moon. How many pounds of thrust do you wish to use?" And then you would crash into the Moon...
Atwood: I loved those games!
Spolsky: That was the thrill of that thing, and the the TRS-80 came with a big fat spiral bound book with all sorts of games that you could type in. And a typical game would be like, displaying a Robert Frost poem on the screen. That was like, a typical program. And you would spend a lot of type typing in, PRINT... quote... OK, now, was that 8 spaces or 9 spaces? To make it formatted nicely.
And, so, my access to computers was that the schools were starting to get them, and trying to figure out how to use them for educational purposes. And in Albuquerque, there was a single, the whole Albuquerque public school system had a minicomputer, which was a Digital, Model 10? System 10? I'm not really sure; it was a minicomputer. It looked like a mainframe, because it filled up a whole room. It was not a real minicomputer. It was smaller than a mainframe, but, there was a big dedicated room, with air conditioning and stuff, with about eight gigantic racks of equipment, and one of the big super large hard drives, that looks like a washing machine. That was the System 10 and it had an operating system, and the way you accessed it was on these dot-matrix terminals that were Teletypes. So, you had a keyboard, and a print head, and it printed everything you typed. A dot matrix, on fan fold paper. And you typed commands and you hit enter, and it would execute the commands and print back the results to you. I think the operating system was called SOS? Maybe that was the editor that we used, SOS? The operating system was, R S T something, Rasta-something? Someone will have to write in. And these things could support about 20 or 30 kids, all sitting at different terminals, typing in their BASIC programs, which is all you could really do, is type in those same BASIC programs.
Atwood: There's a whole generation of programmers that grew up--I was certainly one of them--with these books, where you literally learned to program, because you wanted to have something to do with the computer. It was like, "Here's a computer! Do...something!" And that something was like, "Let's have fun". Let's try something fun that will entertain me, like a game. You would type in your own games.
Spolsky: And when you turned them off, they were lost.