Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Yeah, we’ve got one of those

Title linkey (which I discovered via slashdot) goes to an interview in DDJ with Paul Jansen, the creator of the TIOBE Programmer Community Index, which ranks programming languages according to their web presence (i.e. the size of the community interested in those languages). From the interview:

C and C++ are definitely losing ground. There is a simple explanation for this. Languages without automated garbage collection are getting out of fashion. The chance of running into all kinds of memory problems is gradually outweighing the performance penalty you have to pay for garbage collection.

So, to those people who balked at Objective-C 2.0’s garbage collection, on the basis that it "isn’t a 4GL", I say who cares? Seemingly, programmers don’t – or at least a useful subset of Objective-C programmers don’t. I frequently meet fellow developers who believe that if you don’t know which sorting algorithm to use for a particular operation, and how to implement it in C with the fewest temporary variables, you’re not a programmer. Bullshit. If you don’t know that, you’re not a programmer who should work on a foundation framework, but given the existence of a foundation framework the majority of programmers in the world can call list.sort() and have done with it.

Memory management code is in the same bucket as sorting algorithms – you don’t need for everybody to be good at it, you need for enough people to be good at it that everyone else can use their memory management code. Objective-C 2.0’s introduction of a garbage collector is acknowledgement of this fact – look at the number of retain/release-related problems on the cocoa-dev list today, to realise that adding a garbage collector is a much bigger enhancement to many developers’ lives than would be running in a VM, which would basically go unnoticed by many people and get in the way of the others trying to use Instruments.

Of course, Objective-C and ApPLE’s developer tools have a long history of moving from instrumental programming (this is what the computer must do) to declarative programming (this is what I am trying to achieve, the computer must do it). Consider InterfaceBuilder. While Delphi programmers could add buttons to their views, they then had to override that button’s onClick() method to add some behaviour. IB and the target-action approach allow the programmer to say "when this button is clicked, that happens" without having to express this in code. This is all very well, but many controls on a view are used to both display and modify the value of some model-level property, so instead of writing lots of controller code, let’s just declare that this view binds to that model, and accesses it through this controller (which we won’t write either). In fact, rather than a bunch of boilerplate storage/accessors/memory management model-level code, why don’t we just say that this model has that property and let someone who’s good at writing property-managing code do the work for us? Actually, coding the model seems a bit silly, let’s just say that we’re modelling this domain entity and let someone who’s good at entity modelling do that work, too.


p>In fact, with only a little more analysis of the mutation of Objective-C and the developer tools, we could probably build a description of the hypothetical Cen Kase, the developer most likely to benefit from developing in Cocoa. I would expect a couple of facts to hold; firstly that Cen is not one of the developers who believes that stuff about sorting algorithms, and secondly that the differences between my description of Cen and the description used by Apple in their domain modelling work would fit in one screen of FileMerge on my iBook.

posted by Graham Lee at 21:55  

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tracking the invisible, moving, unpredictable target

An idea which has been creeping up on me from the side over the last couple of weeks hit me square in the face today. No matter what standards we Cocoa types use to create our user interfaces, the official Aqua HIG, the seemingly-defunct IndieHIG, or whatever, ultimately producing what is considered a usable (or humane, if you like) interface for Mac OS X is not only difficult, but certainly unrepeatable over time.

The “interface” part of a Cocoa user interface is already hard enough to define, being a mash-up of sorts, and to differing degrees, between the Platinum HIG which directs the default behaviour of some of the *Manager controls and the OpenStep HIG which describes the default behaviour of most, if not all, of the AppKit controls. If that isn’t enough, there is an inexact intersection – some controls work differently in (what are loosely called, and I’m not getting into the debate) Cocoa apps than in Carbon apps. There have also been innovative additions on top of the aforementioned guides, such as sheets, unified toolbars and (the already legacy) textured interfaces. There have been subtractions from both – miniwindows still exist but nobody uses ’em, and window shading went west with Rhapsody.

But all of that is related to the user interface, not to user interaction (I’m in the middle of reading Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, I’m going to borrow some terminology but studiously avoid discussing any of the conclusions he presents until I’m done reading it). It’s possible to make HIG-compliant inspectors, or HIG-compliant master-detail views, or HIG-compliant browser views and so on. It’s also possible to make non-compliant but entirely Mac HID views, coverflow views, sidebars and so on. But which is correct? Well, whichever people want to use. But how do you know which people want to use? Well, you could get them to use them, but as that’s typically left until the beta phase you could ask usability gurus instead. Or you could take the reference implementation approach – what would Apple (or Omni, or Red Sweater, or whoever) do?

Well, what Apple would do can, I think, be summed up thus: Apple will continue doing whatever Apple were previously doing, until the Master User takes an interest in the project, then they do whatever the Master User currently thinks is the pinnacle of interaction design. The Master User acts a little like an eXtreme Programming user proxy, only with less frequent synchronisation, and without actually consulting with any of the other 26M users. The Master User is like a reference for userkind, if it all works for the Master User then at least it all works for one user, so everyone else will find it consistent, and if they don’t find it painful they should enjoy that. The official job title of the Master User role is Steve.

All of this means that even inside Apple, the “ideal” usability experience is only sporadically visited, changes every time you ask and doesn’t follow any obvious trend such as would be gained by normalisation over the 26M users. Maybe one day, the Master User likes inspectors. Then another day he likes multi-paned, MDI-esque interaction. On a third day he likes master-detail control, in fact so much so that he doesn’t want to leave the application even when it’s time to do unrelated work. Of course you don’t rewrite every application on each day, so only the ones that he actually sees get the modernisation treatment.

So now we come back to the obvious, and also dangerous, usability tactics which are so prevalent on the Windows platform, and one which I consciously abhor but subconsciously employ all the time: “I’m the developer, so I’ll do it my way”. Luckily there are usability, QA and other rational people around to point out that I’m talking shite most of the time, but the reasoning goes like this. I’m a Mac user, and have been for a long time. In fact, I might know more about how this platform works than anyone within a couple of miles of here, therefore(?) I know what makes a good application. One problem which affects my personal decisions when trying to control the usability is that I’m only tangentially a Mac person, I’m really a very young NeXTStep person who just keeps current with software and hardware updates. That means I have a tendency to inspector my way out of any problem, and to eschew custom views and Core Animation in favour of “HIG is king” standard controls, even when other applications don’t. And the great thing is that due to Moving Target reference implementation, I can find an application which does something “my” way, if that will lend credence to my irrational interface.

The trick is simply to observe that taking pride in your work and expressing humility at your capabilities are not mutually exclusive. If tens of other Mac users are telling me they don’t like the way it works, and I’m saying it’s right, apply Occam’s razor.

And if there isn’t enough fun for you in one usability experience, a bunch of us are presumably going to be providing the iPhone HIG-compliant V on top of our Ms and Cs before long.

posted by Graham Lee at 21:37  

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Come back, purple button, all is forgiven!

As a great philosopher once wrote: don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone? Previews of Mac OS X had a user interface feature, known by all who saw it as the Purple Button. Look at this screenshot from System Preferences:

The boiled sweet on the top-right of the window would go purple, hence the name. Clicking on it activated a single-window mode. All documents except the one that you were working on would be minimised into the Dock, and switching between them would minimise the earlier one before restoring the newly-focused document. Of course, the problem with this in the developer previews/public beta which rendered it unusable were performance-related. The “lickable” eye-candy in Aqua was ambitious even on the top-end G4 systems available at the time, and so time spent in the Genie or Scale effects was really noticable. Add to that the effect of applications being slow enough not to update their views in time – the System Preferences application you can see above is a Cocoa-Java app, and back then the JVM wasn’t amazing for performance – and you have a really sucky single-window experience.

On the other hand, it’s really bloody useful. Look at apps like WriteRoom or GLTerminal, which go out of their way to get rid of all that other clutter. Or Spaces (or CDE virtual desktops, WindowMaker virtual desktops… you get the idea), also designed to let you forget all those other apps are there. Well, spaces is quite nice (and a little more flexible than purple button was), but playing spaces ping-pong tends to make me a bit seasick. Not to mention the time it wastes being about as great as the unperformant purple button switching…so please, purple button, come back!

Some environments provided the same user experience out of a lack of choice – for instance, OZ couldn’t show more than one application if it wanted to, and certainly running more than one at once was out of the question (it would simulate multi-tasking by suspending background tasks).

posted by Graham Lee at 18:56  

Thursday, April 3, 2008

How exciting

Today I was pleasantly surprised by Interface Builder. Not shiny, new, where the hell have they put that buttonstreamlined IB3, but boring old IB2 which even Slowlaris users could work out how to use. I dragged a header defining a category with an IBAction onto IB, and lo, nay even behold, it did the right thing.

That may seem unexciting and even expected, but it’s one of those nice cases where it’s pleasing that everything just works. I thought category headers might be edge-case enough to confuse the thing; many people would put their IBAction definitions in the “regular” @interface header so that the IBOutlets are in the same place.

posted by Graham Lee at 22:16  

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