re: Why Programming Languages Are Hard VIEW POST


programming languages which are designed to be easy to learn tend to be useless

Ok, well you left yourself an "out" by the word "tend" - but I'm going to relate my experience and understanding:

I first started my software engineering path, though I didn't know it at the time, with the first computer I "owned" (ok, my parents bought it) - a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 with 16K of RAM, a TV, and cassette tape "drive" for storage! Woohoo!

Ok - this was in 1984, and truth be told, it wasn't my first computer nor first "programming experience" (prior to that, I had a Milton Bradley Big Trak, which was "programmed" in a very primitive kind of "LOGO" using a simple keypad, and no display).

Anyhow - that first experience was with the built-in language of the computer, Microsoft's "Extended Color BASIC"! And my first error, IIRC - was a syntax error.

Or - more precisely for BASIC:


Honestly I don't recall the real line number, but it was likely "10" because for some reason all BASIC programs started with line 10, and each line increased in multiples of 10. It would be a few years before I learned about structuring a program and setting aside blocks of numbers so I could build things better - but hey, I was only 10 years old...

So - how did that error occur? Well - because I had typed in the code as the book for the computer showed. The thing was, it never said anything about hitting the < ENTER > key at the end of the line (what is the < ENTER > key? Well - it was another name for what we call the RETURN key; strangely, though, some keyboards still have it labeled with the word "Enter" - such as the Model M keyboard I am typing on right now).

I was (a little) familiar with a typewriter - so I hit the spacebar until the "end of the line" on the screen, at which point the cursor jumped to the next line, right under my first line - perfect! From there I continued to type in the code (fortunately, on the Color Computer 2, the initial screen is only 32 characters wide - so "spacing over" wasn't too much of an effort).

Some more "spacing over" - then I typed in RUN, which strangely in the manual did tell you to press the < ENTER > key! And...


But I didn't feel bad about it - it just made me want to find out what I did wrong. With some careful reading (which probably should've been done first - I learned my lesson there!), there was mention of pressing the < ENTER > key at the end of the lines put in. I cleared things out, re-entered the code, typed RUN and < ENTER >...

My world changed. Today, I'm a well paid software engineer who enjoys going into work every day, then coming home and...browsing reddit!

(ok - occasionally I get a bug up my butt and do more coding, but this isn't as often as it was in my teens and 20s; sometimes you need to veg)

That's my tale of my beginnings BASIC.

Now - BASIC stands for "Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code" - it was a language developed at Dartmouth in the 1960s specifically to be easy for beginners to learn how to program with.

But to say, just because it was (fairly) easy to learn, that it would "tend to be useless" is to do a huge disservice to the language itself.

Was it perfect? No. Did it have rough edges? You bet! But was it useless?

In a business sense?

Hell no!

In fact, there was a whole subset of BASICs created in the 1970s and 80s specifically geared toward business, strangely enough they were termed "Business BASIC" languages. Probably one of the best known of them was "PICK Basic":

But that isn't to say other BASICs weren't popular for business use purposes; indeed, Microsoft partially built their empire around BASIC. For business, their BASIC compilers of QuickBasic 4.5, PDS 7.1, and Visual Basic 1.0 were the "final DOS BASIC languages" of the early 1990s, and a lot of businesses used and were built on these languages.

Then came VB 3.0 for Windows, and that really changed the business world. Today, there are a ton of VB 6.0 developed software still running businesses, so much so that Microsoft has been virtually forced to keep the runtime available, even now in Windows 10.

But back in the earlier days of personal computing, BASIC was about all you had, because the cost to purchase a compiler for almost any other language (if your system could even use it) could be prohibitive. But usually you could get a simple assembler (or on some machines, like the Apple IIe, you could drop into the ROM monitor and type in the hex opcodes) to help along your BASIC code. I am certain there were businesses out there that used a ton of BASIC on various machines of the era, whether that was an Apple, IBM, TRS-80, or anything else. It was done because it was approachable, a lot of people knew it (built in base of developers), and it was low cost.

I've since seen BASIC pop up in other use cases - for instance, at one point one of the major manufacturers of industrial robot arms could program their arms using a form of BASIC (it was called something like "ROBO-BASIC" or "ARM-BASIC" or something like that; all I ever found was the manual, I never actually used it).

And BASIC today? Well - maybe not used as much for business, but VB still survives (somewhat) in the form of VB.NET. There are also quite a few open source BASICs available - many quite advanced: several others out there as well. Oh - and who can forget BASIC for embedded microcontrollers:

Heck - with that last one - it is arguable that Parallax brought microcontrollers to a whole new audience by naming it the "BASIC Stamp" and integrating PBASIC into the system, over a decade before the Arduino!

Toy language? Useless? Hah!

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