What’s Old Is New Again

Over the weekend, Kwin Kramer, the CEO of Oblong, wrote a great essay on TechCrunch titled Hey Kids, Get Off My Lawn: The Once And Future Visual Programming Environment. He starts off with a great Mark Twain quote.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Mark Twain, ”Old Times on the Mississippi”
Atlantic Monthly, 1874

This describes my continuous interaction with the computer industry. I was 14 once, then 21, and now 46. It’s remarkable to me to reflect on how far things have come since I wrote my first program on APL on an IBM mainframe (no idea what kind) in the basement of a Frito-Lay datacenter in Dallas at age 12. Then there are moments where I can’t believe that we are just now discovering things – again – that were figured out 30 years ago. And last night, while laying in bed in a hotel in Iceland and reading the wikipedia page on Iceland on my iPad, I kept thinking “what’s old is new again.”

Kwin nails it in his essay. Oblong, which is one of the most amazing and unique companies I’ve ever been involved in, is constantly dealing with the constraints of today while working a decade into the future. A year ago the present caught up with the future and their first product, Mezzanine, came to life.

I love working with companies where the CEO still writes code and uses his perspective on the past to inform the product, but isn’t afraid to completely leap over the current constraints to create something entirely new, amazing, and delightful.

  • CliffElam

    Ok, wow, brain reeling moment – I’d totally forgotten about programming APL on an IBM 5100 microcomputer – with actual data TAPES to hold your code. Instead of having to save it to some hinky tape recorder plugged into the side of the APPLE II.

    I don’t think I’ve seen very much really *new* stuff in the last 30 years – but I’ve seen some people really nail the implementation – Visual Basic IDE, NextSTEP, Turbo-C, Brief, …. It’s a dang small list.

    Great post, woke me up better than a cuppa.


    • Everyone should write some code in APL at least once in their life. I think it’s the densest (most amount of code per line) language in the history of programming languages.

      • CliffElam

        When I turned in my first ever computer science assignment (on the only course I ever took, long story) it was in APL. The instructor asked me how my code worked as he couldn’t read it. I thought I’d done something wrong but he assured me that good APL code was impossible to read because to use the 512 words of RAM you had to really cram it all together.

        It was kind of a mind-blower after Apple or TRS80 Basic and a POKE/PEEK.


      • DaveJ

        Perl probably comes close.

        • Ah – that’d be fun. A Perl / APL contest.

      • I think that’s right. If you exclude experimental languages I can’t think of anything that was mainstream and remotely as powerful / symbol.

  • WinkieBoy

    Brad, congrats for investing in a real product / technology! It’s so refreshing to watch an awesome product. Well done Oblong.

    I hope that most of the “me too want to build a tech BRAND and pin it” entrepreneurs (a la FAKEGRIMLOCK style) spend some time thinking about Oblong awesome product, challenges, innovation, etc… Also, I hope that all those angels and VCs investing in HTLM5 / iPhone templates with 30 APIs start thinking in investing in long-term companies where is okay to invest in a sales and customer support organization.

    • Thx. If you are ever in LA and want to get connected with the Oblong folks, just shout.



      • QualityCoding.info

        He means AWESOME.

  • Sky Smith

    APL was my first language too – it was (is) awesome. I first wrote APL on an IBM System 360 mainframe, then on a PC 5120 (desktop/just before the PC machine). This was all before the Apple and PC era. What a wonderful time to be alive !!

  • Erica Brandon Phelps

    Semi-related, but something I’ve thought about lately: Now that technology is so accessible and user-friendly to anyone, I’ve really enjoyed seeing the combination of technology and art coming to fruition in a way that is actually aesthetically pleasing to a large number of people. Granted it is now much more difficult to come across a truly gifted musician or artist through all the noise. More than anything, I enjoy seeing the creative uses of technology.

    On a side note, I’m wracking my brain trying to remember where I read an article about how anything ever made still exists in some form… anyone?

  • JamesHRH

    In every area, the topics never change, but the environment & tools do.

    And most young hotshots, (again, in every area) are in ‘too big a hurry to get where they are going’ (as Kwin says) to stop and listen to ‘people from the past’ (which is what you are, @ 46!).

    A met a guy (who joined me & a good friend while playing golf late on a Sunday afternoon) who referred to the Twain quote (not specifically, but in a general conversation about parenting) as The Parenting Valley of Stupidity.

    It is a great visual concept about the natural requirement for teenagers to become adults – they have to throw out what you say to them and then commit to what they truly believe, even if a lot of that turns out to be things you have always said to them.

    My favourite Valley of Stupid line: ‘in our house, the Valley of Stupid had a really steep wall.’

  • WebZoid.info

    I was a big propronent of visual development, oh my, it had to be about 15 years ago. These days that’s old hat. Today it’s about generating code. So, using a visual designer to generate code is great. But creating static screens with a visual designer, although still used, is just a way of going backward instead of forward.
    Human computer interaction should not be static code. It should be dynamically generated based on what the system has to offer at the time the user is interacting with the system. When I designed eMOS (ecosystem for medical office solutions) I took that into consideration. It’s fantastic to have a system that doesn’t need 100 screen changes done just because the system grew a bit.

  • love the wand …LOVE IT!

  • Mezzanine looks like a mind blowing product but I can’t help but feel like it’s too ahead of it’s time. In the demo there is about a dozen totally new interactions and behaviors that everyone will need to get on board with. Anyone who has experienced any friction getting their org to adopt relatively simple solutions like dropbox will immediately see mezzanine as a nonstarter.

    • It’s been awesome to watch the early customers engage with it. It’s not a low end sale so we aren’t worried about the “I’m afraid to use Dropbox” organizations; rather they are going after organizations that are always bought into the notion of trying to change work patterns.

      • ah ok cool. Well the number one thing to consider in b2b is avoiding risk (I don’t want to look like a dumbass for pitching this product to my CEO) and I don’t see anything on oblongs site that deals with that. There is a disturbing lack of social proof. It looks as if they operate in a vacuum, with no clients or customers. That feels very high risk and unproven.

        • Good suggestion for us to get some case studies up on the site.

  • Whats the deal with Oblong having no designers in leadership roles, if at all?

    Their lack of design seems painfully obvious to me. Reminds me of another startup with tons of engineers, sales, and marking, but no designers… BetterWorks.

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