Without Flying into the Ground

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2007-01-13 Print this article Print

Opinion: Tools must be designed for the humans we are, not the ideal brains that we aren't.

Sometimes, fate hands me the perfect pair of news hooks from which to hang a metaphor. So it is with this weeks combination of the Eclipse Foundations move to join the Java Community Process, the Object Management Group and the Open Services Gateway initiative Alliance—in the same week that Hondas Asimo robot demonstrated in Las Vegas that it can move a whole lot faster than the Eclipse group did in reaching this welcome decision.

People whove seen industrial robots at work on assembly lines will sometimes regard with amusement, or even disdain, the affectation—as they see it—of making robots in human form. To them, I offer the comment of author and hardware hacker Martin Weinstein in his 1981 book Android Design: Practical Approaches for Robot Builders: "We have designed the constructs of  the world around us to fit our own forms, and they will not tolerate a great deal of variation. … If the Air Force could use nonhuman test pilots, lives might be saved—but planes are designed for beings with the shape, reach, and dexterity of a human. So resemblance to humans becomes significant."

The same holds true for "the constructs of our world" as defined by code, rather than by mechanisms. Code is written by people, and languages with something like the verb-noun structure of most human languages seem to lead to better results for a larger number of programmers than do radically different programming languages despite their theoretical advantages. FORTH and Lisp come to mind as examples of languages that many find hard to approach: I admire both, and even enjoy thinking in Lisp myself, but my occasional evangelism for that language never seems to gain much ground. (I dont claim to be able to think in FORTH, but Ive seen some incredible work done by people who can.)

Which brings us full circle, back to the need for cooperation among the forces of Eclipse and its new confederates named above. Eclipse, as a development environment, is the construct in which programmers need to be able to sit down and reach the controls and operate them with accuracy and confidence. Java is often the space through which those developers will be flying, to stick with the test-pilot example: OMG and OSGi define the landscape where those developers would like to explore, but not crash.

Meanwhile, robots like ASIMO will just keep getting better, and developers will do well to look up from their keyboards and their Web services protocols to think about yet another space in which theres great code to be written.

Tell me where you want to run—or fly—at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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