Dreaming in Code

Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg is the true story of a run-away software project called Chandler. The initial premise of the book was to be a biopic, from beginning to end, of a revolutionary software project headed by Mitch Kapor who was the head of Lotus Development back in the 80’s, at his new organization: Open Source Application Foundation (OSAF). The project itself, Chandler, was to be a Personal Information Manager in the vogue of Microsoft’s Outlook–except much much cooler. All data was to be stored in one gigantic repository, allowing users to massage their data around. Emails could be marked as Calendar events, notes could be attached to any item, dates and such would be inputted using natural language, such as “Dentist appt. next Tuesday”, and the program would figure it out, and best of all–the whole project would work peer-to-peer, allowing you to share any and all data that you wished with others.

This all sounds great on paper, but one must take into account that programming is tough, and coming to a consensus in a design-by-committee atmosphere is nearly impossible. Long story short, OSAF started programming without coming up with proper specifications; they were coming up with prototypes when they should have split into sub-groups and designed each module and gotten to work coding the real program. As I said before, there was very little consensus on the overall design–for instance, they decided to work with the Python programming language, and wxPython which is a graphical widget library. After a year of hard work, they were still wishy washy about using Python/wxPython and nearly ditched everything to start over using Mozilla’s widget toolkit. Yet they were wishy washy about that and almost made it completely web-based, using AJAX to make it Google-style. This was a year into the project!

As an aside, the book got me interested in using Chandler, so I installed their latest release (0.7a5) and tried it out. The program looks promising, but is definately not near their 1.0 release. The Calendar seemed to be working, as well as the notes–but I couldn’t get it to download my email. Chandler would connect up okay, but it just wouldn’t download anything. I will definitely give this project another shot when it hits 1.0.

Anyway, this was a terrific read, and is more than just about Chandler. Rosenberg covers Software Engineering as a field, discussing why things are still so tough even though it’s been emerging for the past sixty years. Rosenberg also discusses The Mythical Man Month at length–citing IBM’s old projects, and how the same issues arose back in the 60’s/70’s as they do now. All in all, this was a terrific read, and if you liked The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, you will love this. 5/5

Leave a Reply