A place to be (re)educated in Newspeak

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Meta Morphosis

Recently, I was pointed at rotated Google. This is cool in a perverse sort of way, and it immediately reminded me of Morphic.

For those who don’’t know, Morphic is the name of the Squeak (and in earlier times, Self) GUI. John Maloney (who nowadays does Scratch) introduced the original Morphic GUI back in the halcyon days of Self, and later adapted it to Squeak Smalltalk. The latest incarnation of a Morphic-style UI is Dan Ingalls’ lively kernel, which adapted the ideas to Javascript and the web. You can check it out in your browser right now.

What makes Morphic interesting is that it is compositional. The basic building block is a morph, which is just a graphical entity. The key is that everything in Morphic is a morph - including not just the basic morphs like lines and curves, polygons, circles, ellipses but also text, buttons, lists, windows ... you name it.

All morphs support pretty general graphical combinators - translation, rotation, scaling, non-linear warping, changing color, grouping/ungrouping etc. It follows that one can interactively rotate, scale or non-linearly warp an entire window running a live application.

One of my favorite Squeak demos is a class browser that’s been animated so that it floats around the screen, rotating as it goes, coupled with sound effects (a croaking frog is my preference). Of course you can keep using the browser and add methods or remove instance variables on the fly while it’s doing that. It’s an amazing display of the power of compositionality in action. It’s also perfectly useless (like rotated Google).

When running Morphic, you can always interactively ungroup a composite morph and get at its pieces. So you can disassemble the UI and find out what its made of. You can also do the opposite and assemble a UI out of simpler morphs; in a sense, the GUI is the GUI builder.

The situation is quite analogous to the physical world. A real window (the kind used to let light into your house) is assembled from physical pieces, and can be disassembled as well. The window as a whole, and each of its components, can be manipulated in space in uniform ways.

Thankfully, the laws of physics are compositional, since they were not designed by software engineers on a standards committee.

Put another way, if the universe was built like most software, it would have crashed long ago; the big bang would have a different meaning.

As a demonstration of good computer science, Morphic is brilliant. However, as a working UI it is problematic. You don’t really want your windows to fall apart in the user’s hands because they accidentally pressed some control sequence.

Looking at how physical windows work, we see that when they are assembled, they are secured so they are not disassembled too easily. Things are held together with glue or screws or whatever, and you need to make an effort to take the structure apart, perhaps using special tools.

This points at the way morphic interfaces should evolve. It’s great to have the underlying flexibility that they give you, but we want mechanisms to prevent accidents. We don’t want our applications decomposing by mistake. We also don’t want loose windows rotating by mistake. We need the equivalent of screws to hold things in place. The nice thing about screws is that they can be be used to build things up from parts compositionally, and they can be unscrewed when necessary. That way, we can take advantage of the flexibility of the underlying framework and do cool things with it, while keeping it safe for the end-user.

As rotating Google and (more significantly) Lively show, the web opens up the possibility of such UIs reaching a broad audience. I am sure we will get versions of morphic that are more refined, usable, attractive and polished - all less than three decades since they were introduced in Self. Instant progress!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Converting Smalltalk to Newspeak

One of the things that has surprised me working with Newspeak is how easy it is to convert Smaltalk code to Newspeak. We have converted most of the core libraries of Smalltalk (aka ‘The Blue Book Libraries’) into Newspeak. Most of the conversion was done by people who had never coded in Newspeak before. In some cases, they had never coded in Smalltalk before.

The syntactic differences are fairly trivial (though they will grow in time) and easily handled - either automatically by tools or by very simple transformations in a text editor. Semantically moving from Smalltalk to Newspeak is easy (see this document for a detailed discussion of the mechanics), but the opposite is harder.

The main issues one has are API differences between libraries; but this is no different than converting from one Smalltalk implementation to another.

The converted code may not be the most idiomatic Newspeak. The easiest conversion path sticks a bunch of related Smalltalk classes inside a Newspeak module class, without creating any interesting substructure. Nevertheless, the converted code is invariably better than the original. It becomes very clear what the code’s external dependencies are, what the module boundaries should be, who is responsible for initialization etc. There is no longer any static state. It’s much easier to tie libraries together (or tear them apart), test them independently and so forth. Once we start enforcing access control, it should be much clearer what the public API really is. All this without losing the flexibility and power of the original.

This is very encouraging, because it means Newspeakers can take advantage of the large body of Smalltalk code that already exists. Any useful Smalltalk library that is publicly available can be converted to Newspeak in pretty short order. It also means that Smalltalkers can take the plunge and migrate to Newspeak relatively easily.

Of course, I don’t expect all the world’s Smalltalkers to instantly convert to Newspeak. Even if they did, Newspeak would still be a niche language. For Newspeak to be a success, we need to reach out to programmers in a variety of communities. This post, however, is aimed squarely at the Smalltalk community.

There are no doubt many Smalltalk projects that are tied to a specific Smalltalk. There are also Smalltalkers who are too conservative, and don’t want to deal with any language changes.

Still, if you are (or were, in some happier time) a Smalltalker and want to move into the future rather than dwelling on the glorious past, I assert that Newspeak is for you. If you are using an open source Smalltalk, it is likely you could do better using Newspeak. Newspeak explicitly addresses Smalltalk’s weaknesses: modularity, security, interoperability. Of course, some people aren’t bothered by these weaknesses.

Tangent: Arguably, the Smalltalk community is, by natural selection, composed largely of such people; if they were bothered by Smalltalk’s deficiencies, they wouldn’t use it.

Newspeak should interest those who appreciate the power of Smalltalk but want to move forward.

Of course, you have to be an early adopter by nature. Things will evolve and change under your feet. The syntax will become less Smalltalk-ish over time. Most importantly, you’ll have to learn something new. This is good for your neurons. You may have to port some libraries you rely on. You may have to make changes so that you do not rely on libraries you wouldn’t want to port (like Morphic). However, the result will likely be a product that is easier to deploy, more visually appealing and better integrated with its surrounding environment. Your code will be much more maintainable and better structured.

I’ve written a simple guide that highlights how to go about converting Smalltalk to Newspeak. Give it a try!