Microsoft Corp. has done more to popularize graphical programming than any other vendor. The company's development tools, led by Visual Basic and Visual Studio, have been used by millions of software developers over the past two decades.
But during a revealing and often humorous panel discussion on the future of programming at last week's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, Microsoft's own superstar developers espoused their loyalty to old-school methods of coding software.
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"I will fight you if you try to take away my text editor," said Don Box, a Microsoft distinguished engineer.
"Do people want to draw pictures [to program]? Sure, I guess," continued Box, who works on creating declarative languages and tools for Microsoft. "But if you grew up programming when I did, you did it in text. And I think we lose that at our peril."
"Graphical programming environments are usable when they are useless, but unusable when they would be useful," said Jeffrey Snover, another Microsoft distinguished engineer and creator of Microsoft's PowerShell scripting tool for Windows. "When there are five things on the screen, you can burp that out [in text]. But when there are 500 things, [graphical programming] is completely unusable. You zoom in and zoom out and you lose all context. I think it's just smokin' dope."
While visual programming can be easier to learn and can help make developers more productive, it's also "easier to delude yourself," said Butler Lampson, a technical fellow at Microsoft. For instance, "no one can ever tell you what a UML diagram means."
Lampson, winner of the Association for Computing Machinery's A.M. Turing Award in 1992 for his "contributions to personal computing and computer science," is a co-creator of nine programming languages.
Besides visual programming tools and UML, Microsoft is pushing managed code through its Common Language Runtime (CLR) technology in the next version of the tool set.
Managed code runs inside a virtual machine. That makes it easier and faster to write and more secure, say proponents. Managed code also lets developers "perform above their level of competence," Snover said.
"Managed code is like antilock brakes," he added. "You used to have to be a good driver on ice or you would die. Now you don't have to pump your brakes anymore."