Software : How Much is Too Much

Okay Sherman, set the wayback machine to July 1981.

IBM is about to release the IBM PC (perhaps you've heard of it?) The Apple ][+ was the industry leader, but Commodore, Tandy, Atari and Texas Instruments were all viable competitors. It's an exciting time to be a home computer user; entirely new classes of products are being released every month: voice recognition, tablets, computer mouses, video disk controllers, etc. It's all new and no one really knows what the market really wants. Companies are throwing out all sorts of whack products against the wall and seeing what sticks.

It's an even MORE exciting time to be software developer. If you've been a commercial software developer for micro-computers for the last couple of years, you're probably quite familiar with BASIC and 6502 assembly (possibly also 8080/Z80, 6800 or even 9900 assembly.) Unless you have a "developed" market for your software on the Apple ][, you're probably eyeing systems like TRS-80's, Atari 800's or Commodore VIC-20. They're less capable machines, but they're priced much lower than Apple's machines so maybe you think the market will be larger.

And IBM has verified the rumors it's getting in the home computer market (we called them "home computers" or "micro computers" back then, the "personal computer" moniker was not as common.) And you probably heard that Commodore and Atari have more/better machines in the pipeline.

If you're a micro-software developer, you're probably a member of a user group or two and you have a modem and a BBS account to share information and to market your latest personal checking account balancing program. (Yes, believe it or not, in the era before online banking, we used to think it was better to transcribe all your information into a custom database, poorly programmed in BASIC just to tell you that yes, you're bouncing checks because your poorly programmed banking program isn't selling very well.)

The height of software marketing for micros was a full-page ad in BYTE magazine (or maybe Compute! or Antic or whatever if you were focusing on a specific platform.) After spending $800 on the full-page ad, you probably noticed it didn't help your sales numbers as much as you hoped and then discovered you could get a discount 1/6 page ad for $65 at the back of the next "doorstop issue."

And what's software development like in 1981?

It would be great if I could tell you we were all geniuses; using early versions of git and jenkins and following the latest agile methodology, but that would be a very, very large lie. Assuming you had even heard the term "software development methodology," you probably heard it in conjunction with what we now call "the waterfall method."

Yes, dear children, gather around and hear the tale of when we used to think it was a good idea to do ALL of your design before writing a single line of code and finish ALL your code before you started testing... Though to be fair, it's not that bad of a methodology for the time. This was an era where software was typically small bits of firmware inside missiles and flight controllers and banking applications. You really did kind of want to make sure you had a solid design before spending too much time implementing and Agile doesn't work unless it's easy to change software and software design.

But most people working on "micros" are one or two person shops with a couple of computers on a table in the garage. You hack on a feature for a few hours, do some rudimentary testing and then save your work into a different filename, hopefully remembering to copy your code onto a DIFFERENT floppy disk that won't get chewed up by your partner's black lab puppy.

There are no networks. There are no compilers. There are only very, very rudimentary paint programs to build ICONs and other graphic elements. Several people I knew working on Commodore and Apple systems had to hand assemble programs into 6502 op-codes. And they were happy to do it because just a couple years earlier they had to manually enter the boot loader into their machines via front panel switches.

The closest thing we might have to a network is XMODEM, a protocol and program for sharing programs on BBS systems. In the office, we use "Sneaker Net," which is an advanced technique involving walking over to your co-worker's desk with a floppy disk or two. The ultimate extension of Sneaker Net is "747 Net" which gave rise to the aphorism: "never underestimate the bandwidth of a 747 filled with CD-ROMs. But of course, it's 1981 so you probably haven't even seen a CD-ROM yet.

We also don't have hard drives. I mean, the big guys working on IBM and DEC mainframes have hard drives and you might have heard that Apple was going to release a hard drive for the Apple ][, but the prices you're hearing are out of this world, so the plan is to stay with floppies for the time being. And that's okay because the majority of your customers will be on floppies for at least another couple of years.

But here's the interesting thing about this era: there really aren't any operating systems. I mean, not the way we think of operating systems today. The Apple ][ had this thing called ProDOS and the Commodore 64 had some firmware built into its 1541 floppy drives. But there's really no GUIs on micros at this point. Booting into a BASIC interpreter is the industry standard. The Apple guys have made it easy to auto-launch software on a floppy after hitting the reset key and that is REALLY hot stuff. I mean seriously, you don't have to type PR#6 at the BASIC prompt any more.

There are no operating systems, there are apps (and boot proms and firmware to let you boot your apps.) Your app takes over the whole machine. You want to read the keyboard? Twiddle the I/O port that controls the keyboard. You want to draw a dot on the screen? Poke a byte directly into the frame buffer. You own it all.

Most platforms have some utility routines in ROM to make it easy to access individual floppy sectors, convert a number to an ASCII string representation or do floating point math. And BASIC programs have the PRINT and INPUT statements that make it easy to do rudimentary user interaction. But most everything else is code you write yourself.

So we have this non-operating system world where applications take over the whole machine. Apps really don't interact. I mean sure, your word processor might dump documents in a format your printing program would understand, but you sure as heck aren't running them both at the same time.

"So why should I care?" you're probably asking.

You should care because it's possible we may have TOO MUCH software in our lives. Yes, I know, I know, a software developer is saying there's too much software in the world. But maybe I should say there's too much "brittle" software in the world.

Software is "brittle" when it's hard to update. Maybe you coded it so it wasn't especially modular and now you have to change or remove a feature. This happens. A lot of modern software methodology is an attempt to avoid this. Or maybe you have some software that depends on an operating system feature that's deprecated in the next version of Windows. Or you wrote some software in Python only to discover the Python community couldn't care less about reverse compatibility.

This may not be a problem now, but in six months someone's zero-day attack punches holes in the control software for your fridge, causing it to spew out amazon.com orders with your credit card number it snooped off your local wifi. And then you learn you can't upgrade the firmware in your fridge because it uses a version of Windows CE that hasn't been supported for twelve years. Yay, me!

Coding close to the metal isn't THAT much of an improvement. Sure, you don't have the End-Of-Life problem you had before, but you also don't have a supported operating system with a team of people dedicated to finding and fixing zero-day flaws.

It's a dilemma and there are plenty of ways to lose. What I've been thinking lately is maybe in our rush to "fix everything with software" we're losing sight of how expensive software is to maintain. Maybe we don't need software in our fridges (or at least maybe we don't need network connected software.) Do our microwave ovens REALLY need to talk to our toasters? And why the hell would I really need to add an IPv6 stack to my coffee maker?

But maybe it's not that we have too much software, it's that we're "too connected." If your fridge uses some embedded CPU to make it 10% more efficient, that's great! That doesn't mean it has to also be an email client. If we don't put a network interface on the fridge, we probably don't have to worry about remote hacks.

"So what does this have to do with software development?" you ask?

I thing what I'm trying to say is, as software professionals, we do a pretty crappy job delivering "non brittle" solutions. There are plenty of good reasons why that's true; it's not ALL our fault. We generally don't have perfect visibility into the market. (And neither does your product manager.) A lot of times we have to cope with last minute changes... "Oh! Did I say you would be running on an iPhone? No. I meant to say Raspberry Pi."

Like everyone else in the world, software developers are asked to do remarkable things with insufficient data and hazy requirements all the time.

So I guess what I'm saying is... what if we reverted to a time where we had more "toolboxy" systems than "operating systemy" systems. Where we tightened the requirements instead of loosened them. Our solutions would not be as universally applicable (it would be hard to run the code from Rev 1 hardware on Rev 2 hardware systems) but it might be easier to reason about what that code does.

What if we changed the contract to be "this code runs on this hardware" instead of "this code runs on Android or Leenucks." Would it help in any way?

What if we build virtual machines that looked like Commodore 64's on the inside where software could peek and poke at the virtual hardware to their heart's content. And then we strung a whole bunch of them together to do useful things?

I look around and see individual developers spend a LOT of time coming up to speed on the JavaScript UI framework du jour. Much of current software development is not writing code or mapping product requirements to technical solutions, it's managing dependencies and making quick fixes to address undocumented semantic changes between minor revisions of someone else's libraries.

What if we went the OTHER way and put application programs in a well defined container and said "go nuts inside the container?"

Just a thought.