Friday, February 6, 2009

The Personal Computer Revolution

I was recently asked what my programming philosophy was and it got me thinking. In a nutshell, my philosophy is that, when at its best, the personal computer represents a revolution in how we do things rather than a mere evolution.

A lot of programmers of my generation fell into a trap. They adapted existing paradigms to the personal computer rather than rethink the idea to fit the new paradigm that the computer represented. For me the classic example is Monopoly. Monopoly is a simulation of the world of high finance created for the board game paradigm. Programmers set out to adapt the board game for play on the computer, but to me that was missing the whole point. Why have the computer simulate a simulation designed for another technology? It seemed to me that what you really wanted to do was to rethink a simulation of the world of high finance in terms of the computer paradigm.

My favorite example of this is TiVo. When it became clear that the VCR could be replaced by a basic computer and hard drive, someone needed to create a software interface. Most programmers set out to recreate the familiar VCR, only on a computer. But the programmers who created TiVo took a different approach. They started over from scratch, re-imagining TV as if the VCR had never existed. They asked themselves, "In my wildest dreams what would I want a computer/TV to be able to do?" And in so doing they fundamentally changed the way we watch TV.

I really admire what they did with TiVo. My philosophy has always included a willingness to start over from scratch--to think big--to re-imagine how an existing task can be done on a personal computer. For me this is what makes computers exciting.

This is why SkyTools can't be easily pigeon-holed as a "planner" or "planetarium" or "star charting" program. It's for the same reason TiVo isn't a mere "VCR" program. The "planner" has its roots in the early days of computing when you logged into a large mainframe on a remote terminal and printed out your data on wide sheets of paper that you picked up at the computer center. The Planetarium is a projector that recreates the sky on the ceiling. It is used primarily to educate people about the sky and its motions. And of course a paper star chart is like a road map of the sky.

While there are similarities, SkyTools is more than a representation of these things on a computer. No, it's a suite of software tools designed to help people observe at the telescope. That's why I call it Observing Software.