October 26, 2004

My Dog Ate My Keynote

A couple of people have asked me whether I was planning to post anything substantial about OOPSLA 2004. To them I say patience, patience, red meat and fiber take longer to digest than do frilly pastries. For openers, here are a few thoughts on the OOPSLA 2004 Keynote Address.

I apologize in advance for the verbosity of what follows. This is a raw core dump of sorts. Making it taut will take more thought. I’m afraid I’m prone to occasional bouts of logorrhea after traveling abroad.

Microsoft has a checkered past with respect to participation in the broader research community. For too many years, Microsoft was conspicuous only by its absence at OOPSLA. This low profile once prompted one wag to quip that "Listening to Microsoft talk about innovation is like listening to a scavenger talk about hunting."

Hence, its been satisfying over the last several years, dating from around the turn of the century or so, to see the strides Microsoft has made towards the goal of turning this around. They are cranking out more books and papers than ever these days, and their people are getting out more. The acquisition of high-profile free-agents like Ward Cunningham has added more muscle to a lineup that had traditionally been able to boast of a strong bench, but of few long ball hitters.

It was for these reasons, and others, that I was excited at the prospect of hearing from Microsoft's homegrown Research Czar, Rick Rashid.

At this point, I must turn to my notes. Ahem, here they are:

Dr. Richard F. Rashid; Founder and Head of Microsoft Research; a CMU alumnus, who'd worked on Mach; a guy who'd gotten a few bits under his fingernails in his day. Indeed, he observed that current users of Apple’s OS X may still be packing a few lines of his original kernel code in their rigs. I knew nothing of Rick’s background until this morning, and his stock was rising fast (in my book, at least).

The talk was seemingly cobbled together from two strikingly distinct sources. The first part of the talk opened with amusing eyewash, recycled from the likes of COMDEX Conferences gone by.

The future, Rashid predicted, would be about the data. Hey, not a bad hook. His images reinforced an emerging sense that that long delayed digital convergence that the digerati have been braying about for the last few years may finally be upon us at last.

Now, what they’ve been predicting is a cornucopia, an age of resource abundance, a horn of plenty. Petaflops galore. Scores of cores on every desktop 3D horsepower that rivals Pixars. Bandwidth too cheap to meter. The difference these days is that we can finally see it coming. Yes, he’s there too, the rise of the GPU, multicore processors, the whole shebang.

Now, Rashid is talking about heady stuff: Black box flight recorders for humans. The lawyers will love this. We yanks will need to set to work to fix the fourth amendment for anything like this to work.

Hmmm. I guess Planetary Scale is a buzz phrase these days. Will we be able to consult realtime satellite photos to see if there are fresh parking tickets on the windshields of our cars?

Terra Scale / Galactic Scale. Hmmm, 1999 Turing Laureate Jim Gray is talking about Galactic Scale computing. Impressive. Has any mere marketing department ever exhibited megalomania of this magnitude?

http://skyserver.stss.org || http://GPGPU.com || http://www.iova.net || http://skyquery.net

I recalled the climax of Arthur Clarke’s 2010: Something Wonderful is About to Happen. It feels as if Moore’s Law has been treading water of late, expending calories on a phase transition, as if melting ice, rather than generating predictable increases in raw heat. It feels as if, after a period of relative stagnation, things are about to change. It feels exciting. 2010 culminated with a new sun in the sky alongside the old. Jupiter transformed through fusion. The sky was yellow and the sun was blue. I wonder what color our new sun will really turn out to be. But the timeframe is starting to sound about right.

Next, Rashid dug his steam shovel into the ubiquitous computing vein. Smart Personal Object Technology, the Ministry of Software calls it. They have a tiny CLR for everyday gadgets. Neat.

We’ve been digging into sensor nets, control systems, and MPI-worthy clusters at home, and his tales reinforced our hope that this ore dug from this vein will yield more than base metal one of these days.

Yup, he had me up until right about here.

It was at this point that Rashid’s talk took its first ominous turn toward the worse. For one thing, I began to dawn on me that there hadn’t been anything very meaty, very original, in his presentation up until this point. I felt as if in a Mexican Restaurant, filling up on chips, and wondering when the main course would arrive.

The larger, more serious problem was that his focus had changed abruptly from fuzzy lens ink blot fantasies to what Microsoft calls “Software Factories”.

More copies of “Software Factories” left OOPSLA 2004 in the hands of attendees than any other book in OOPSLA history. Given the healthy attendance, the numbers for SF must have easily eclipsed those posted by the Beck/Gamma Eclipse book IBM bought us all last year. This ploy, in turn, obliterated Gamma’s own record, set in 1994, by the GoF book release’s “reading frenzy” in Portland. Of course, the 1994 books were actually sold, whereas these were comps.

Not that I’m complaining or anything. What Irishman minds hearing the words “On the House”? Why look a gift-horse in the mouth, even if he isn’t the fastest pony on the track? But I digress…

Now, as luck would have it, our Software Architecture Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has conducted a series of writers workshops a few months ago that examined a fair bit of this material. As I recall, we had some substantial reservations about where this effort was heading.

For one thing, the notion of “Software Factories” is way off the mark. Something less grandiose; more intimate; might have worked better. I can’t recall the alternatives we came up with (borrowing “weaver” from the AOP crowd might have been one suggestion). I’ll poll our contingent later in the week.

Our more serious reservation is that we think this “programme” is far too ambitious, far too grandiose, to bear substantial fruit over the short haul outside of a handful of set-piece, niche domains.

Proponents would likely counter with “you’ve got to start somewhere.” I suppose … but …

Nooooo, is this Model Driven Development again? For the love of God, noooooo. A proper rant on the excesses of MDA/MDD advocates is beyond the scope of this screed. The upshot: this stuff is being hyped way way to prematurely.

The presentation turned next to Visual Studio 2005. VS05 will evidently include tools for developing domain-specific languages. This sounds like a worthwhile direction, but wasn’t all that easy to tell how this will work.

VS05 will support building programs using diagrams as well as code, and, mirable dictu, refactoring too.

It began to dawn, somewhere in the sluggish recesses of my shopworn mind, that this all was beginning to sound like a response to Eclipse and Websphere.. Let’s see, we’ll have domain-specific plugins, multiple language support, tools for turning code into pretty pictures, and vice versa, refactoring support, an utterly shameless Java nock-off. There is even something named “Corona” in there somewhere. Get it?

Like U.S. Grant, Microsoft is fighting its customary unrelenting war of attrition. Siege tactics. Lastest with the Mostest, as Nathan Bedford Forest might have said (instead).

And, that’s all fine as far as it goes. I use Visual Studio from time to time, and I like it well enough. A commercial alternative to open-source tools like Eclipse is a healthy thing, in my estimation.

Indeed, I heard a lot of people complain that the VS2005 roll-out announcement reeked of crass commercialism. I simply can’t see the problem. I mean, God help us should someone show up at OOPSLA with software for sale. Doing a roll-out at OOPSLA strikes me more as a gesture of respect than of disdain. It’s no wonder exhibitors are so scarce these days.

No, the problem I had with this part of the talk, other than what I’ve prattled on about already, is that he delegated about half of his keynote to an underling. Sure, the Year 2525 stuff and the roll-out were fine, and a fellow like Rashid surely leads a busy life.

Nonetheless, I felt like we were served left-overs, carrion, and I craved something more meaty, and more fresh. It seemed as if Rick had left his A-Game at home in Seattle. I wanted to run out to try to find Rick Rashid’s dog, to see if I could cajole him into coughing up the talk I wanted to hear instead...

--BF, who reserves the right to revise and extend his remarks.
--BF, who has leaned on alimentary metaphors perhaps more than a person should over the course of a blog post…

If you don’t have the courage to say what you think, there isn’t much use in thinking it, is there?
--Thomas Jay Peckish II

Hey, I just noticed the Visual Studio 2005 Beta DVD in my OOPSLA totebag. Thanks guys, I'll give it a look..,

Posted by foote at October 26, 2004 02:21 PM