Thursday, February 23, 2012

There and Back Again

After taking a look at a number of potential cross-platform solutions for my future larger-scale development plans, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia which has me thinking about my programming path. What I find most interesting is that there is a noticeable trend which may just be starting to reverse itself, but  first, lets start the journey at the beginning.

When I was a kid, I first got my exposure to the concept of computers from science fiction. Saturday mornings had re-runs of TV shows such as Star Trek and Space 1999. Star Wars was the big movie that had me wanting to build my own R2D2 and Video Games were starting to appear. My cousin had an Atari 2600 a couple of years after they came out but my parents wouldn't get me one.  This is when my oldest sister started taking a course in high school called "Computer Science." After looking at her homework I realized that it wasn't anything difficult so I got the brilliant idea that if I got a computer instead of a game machine I could create my own games that would be better than anything my cousin could buy for his 2600 so I changed my plans to try and convince my parents that subsidizing my purchase of a computer would be a good educational opportunity.

To cut the story short, a few years later I managed to get a Commodore 64 with a tape drive that I was able to hook up to an old black and white television set (the Apple II I wanted was simply way too pricy). The language that my sister was learning in school was the same language my computer used. BASIC. As it turns out, the Commodore 64 was great for games and could easily blow away anything the 2600 was capable of (due to the rather limited hardware of the 2600) but it also turned out that creating games was not easy. Still, thanks to magazines like Compute and Commodore  as well as books like 101 BASIC Games, I was able to learn a lot about how to create games. The big thing I learned, however, was BASIC was just too slow. Reading the programmer reference manual hinted at the solution to my speed problem. Something called Machine Language.

The Commodore 64 used a RISC-like processor known as the 6510 so my first entry into the world of assembly language was the 65xx dialect. This became my predominant programming language. I loved assembly language as it was so much faster than BASIC though was still not fast enough for what I wanted to do and required a lot more work than BASIC. As many programmers at that time did, I compromised by taking advantage of a 4K block of memory located at $C000 (49152) to store small assembly language routines that could be called from BASIC.

When I reached high school, our school was a test-bed for a new type of computer known as the Macintosh which we were programming using a structured programming language known as Pascal. The BASIC that my sister took was no longer part of the curriculum. This was probably the best thing that could have happened as if nothing else, it taught me the evils of spaghetti code and taught me how to better structure my programs.

When the Amiga 500 came out, I was able to get one as part of a bundle that included a huge suite of software including Deluxe Paint 2. The store owner was able to sell me a discounted copy of Latice C as it had been opened and returned.  This lead me to discovering the C programming language which my Computer Science teacher did not care much for as I would constantly tell him that it was way better than pascal as it had all the structure plus was much closer to assembly language. In fact my compiler had an option to compile to assembly language so you could write the program in C and then fine tune the resulting code.

In College my language repertoire was increased and my Amiga started having random reset problems. As our computer science lab used IBM machines anyway, I decided to move to a 386 running DOS 5 and Windows 3. When Visual C++ came out, I switched from C to C++.

The big thing that happened in the mid nineties was something called the internet. As I was living in a small town, it was hard to get internet access but thankfully the phone company decided to give my town free long distance to a nearby larger town so I was able to get online (30 hours a month at 14400 baud initially). I was disappointed by how limited browsers were but in 1996 Java came out. The language was enough like C/C++ that I had no problems using the language and had the huge advantage that it would allow you to create programs that could run on a web page without requiring the user to download any type of plug-in or perform some type of installation which I felt would turn away most average users.

For various reasons, Java never worked out quite the way I had hoped. This was largely due to Microsoft wanting an incompatible version of Java to run on their machines which effectively ended up causing  Java to stagnate on the browser. For the best compatibility, Java developers essentially had to stick with Java 1.1 instead of being able to take advantage of the new features available to server side developers. This is when an animation tool called Flash added a scripting language known as ActionScript so I started experimenting with Flash.

Now we are at another interesting transition point. With app stores everywhere and Flash starting it's decline, I am looking at which direction to head. One direction is towards HTML 5 which is far less feature-rich than Flash making it a step backwards. The other is a return to C++ and a shift of priorities to phone/tablet/mac store/windows store development. Looking at the trend, I started with a low level language and went higher and higher level till I ended up with a scripting language. Now as Moore's Law is finally starting to show it's head, I suspect that there will be a shift back to C++ and possibly even hand-written assembly language to optimize the critical parts of a program may even start becoming the trend. Who knows what the future holds. Maybe Adobe CS6 will have Flash development tools that actually produce good code for mobile devices. I suspect, however, that I will be shifting back to C++ with some JavaScript for my smaller games.

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