Future Software

Occasionally you read interesting ideas for the future of software. Here are a few to ponder.

docopt

docopt is basically a domain-specific language. The language is the standard Usage output of a command-line program. By simply documenting a program’s usage, it aims to provide the functionality of parsing the program’s invocation.

This is a great step forward in finding ways to reduce duplicated effort in an elegant way. Before, you might programmatically add or modify the argument handler, and that might generate the Usage. But it was still tedious, as it required keeping what was a messy bit of code as clean as you could. Messy because you had to do a lot of thinking about the basic form of your command line API, and then translate it to code.

Instead, with docopt you should be able to purely focus on the form of the Usage.

I think that this will be a common theme for future computing, without relying on more complex systems like SOAP.

Why do we need modules at all?

Erlang.org: Erlang-Questions: 24 May 2011: Joe Armstrong: Why do we need modules at all? was an interesting post I remember reading a few years back. It questions the basic assumption of building software hierarchically and statically.

This is akin to the age-old (at least since birth of UNIX) desire to have programming be a set of pipes thrown together at will, with the elegance and wisdom of a seasoned hacker behind it.

What it really seems to suggest though is a move toward a way to let computers program themselves. The desire to let evolution play a key and direct role in how a computing system operates. If some given function is replaced by a more efficient function, all software depending can be faster. If you have some chain of functions A->B->...->ZZ, and someone writes a better chain, the whole can be replaced.

We already get some of this with packages/modules and dynamic linking, so the question (short-/mid-term) is really whether a kind of function-level alternative would replace modules/packages, or work alongside them.

Why do we need GUIs at all?

This is a spin on the previous. It’s the basic question of whether larger elements of the GUI can be easily reused. At present the basic unit of the GUI is the widget. The widget is some semi-small piece of the GUI, like a button or a text input.

If you want a more complex GUI, it’s a matter of assembling widgets together. This is equally true for a native application as it is for a webpage or web application.

Reuse is dependent upon some human brain recognizing the opportunity, and wiring the whole thing up for reuse. That’s opposed to something like the hypothetical functions database above, which in theory would have enough metadata to be able to say, “takes in a list, outputs a sorted list, stable, memory use, complexity.”

But if you can do it with functions (which seems likely enough), you can do it with larger pieces, including GUIs. So you can have a GUI that’s designed separately from the consuming code, and it can say, “presents a list, allows reordering, sorting, adding, deleting,” and you might specify some constraints on the adding/editing portion, so it could select another GUI component (“unique (name, number) pair”, or “unique name, non-unique number pair”, or whatever).

The initial versions of this can probably be written off of docopt, where by the same magic of parsing Usage a GUI could be created for any command line API. This is a project I’ve been meaning to work on, but haven’t done it yet.

Common theme

The common idea is reducing duplication of work, increasing productivity, removing friction to create. Making the computer figure out more of the work. Automating more. Instead of having to spend so much time doing analysis of tradeoffs and pondering why something broke when it shouldn’t, we should be building more.

That leads to the last one: moving away from pure-text programming. That doesn’t mean we write it out to binary; the text layer can persist. But it does mean that to some extent we stop doing everything as text. We can already extract interaction diagrams from text, but we currently do the editing in text and only get the diagrams when we want a conceptual view.

It will take some time before we see these last sorts of changes take place. But it’s likely that they will, if for no other reason than the benefits are there. I’d rather write the Usage once and know everything was wired up for me, just like I’d rather not muck about with every last bit of CSS and markup every time I want to add something to an application.

And as fun as it is to find the extra comma and find out that I wrote it correctly except for that typo, I’d rather that footgun go away entirely.