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[Fwd: Re: Industry versus academia]

  Forwarding this on behalf of John Morrison.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: Industry versus academia
Date: Sat, 22 Feb 2003 21:51:50 -0500
From: John Morrison <jm@mak.com>
Reply-To: morrison@mak.com
To: DLWeinreb@attbi.com
CC: morrison@mak.com

Hi Dan;

Pleasure finally meeting you at LL1.  Feel free to forward this to the
list.  I am not able to post to it.

DLWeinreb@attbi.com wrote:
> The LL1 workshop opened with a panel discussion on "Worse Is Better",
> the ultimate question of which was, how come industry isn't picking
> up on all the great advances being made in computer languages over
> the last ten or even twenty or even thirty years?

Good question.

> As someone who has crossed over from the MIT/Symbolics/Lisp world
> into the very commercial world of BEA, and being near the
> technical-strategy-making part of BEA, I think I am positioned
> pretty well to bring at least one useful perspective to this
> question.

As a first-time user of LispMs at MIT in the 1980 time-frame (thanks
to you and others, bless you one and all), long-time forced C/C++
user, and as a co-founder and CTO of a software company (who would
love to use Lisp more than he does in his everyday work, but cannot
forcibly convert his SDK/API-level customers from C++ at the point of
a sword), I have a very economics-based view.

> If you go up to the 50,000 foot level and look at the world of
> programmers and computing, what you see is that the kind of
> people who are on this mailing list are rather in the minority.
> In fact, the whole world of people who can do system programming,
> who can build little languages, and even those who can use
> language extensibility mechanisms to make good, well-designed
> language extensions (including those who can use Lisp macros
> for good and not for evil, so to speak) is really very small.

At the risk of both putting words in your mouth, and failing in an
attempt to be humorous, this is what I like to call the "most people
are too stupid" reason/excuse.

While I think that this is a factor, and worthy of discussion, I do
not see it as the single biggest determining factor.

IMNSHO, software development is not a "real" industry.  It's not like
textiles, where some sales rep would talk to the CFO and make the
economic case for buying a very expensive loom because efficiency
would go up enough to make it economically rational.

Software development is more like mass quilting or knitting.  The
"sale" of the tools is made to the individuals, whose "buying
behavior" is governed by other factors.  Cost is one (either thanks
or blame is due to the open source folk who have set the price for
these tools to zero, but that's a discussion for another day).
Benefit is another, in terms of future employment possibilities, where
the Law of Increasing Returns rules (i.e., you are more likely to get
a job if you use what everybody else uses).

It's a classic case of cost-shifting.  The increased costs of crappy
tools are shifted from the individual developer to the company and
thence to the rest of the economy.

> From the point of view of industry, coming up with cooler languages
> that are cool for elite programmers may be lots of fun, but there
> just isn't a lot of real-world revenue there.  Especially when
> programming languages are generally a free thing these days.

OK, maybe price/cost *is* a discussion for today.  They have to be
free, or they're DOA.

> If you want your idea to move from academia to industry, there simply
> has to be a plausible way for industry to make money from it.  It's
> hard to make money by coming up with a great new programming language.
> Maybe one approach to the original question is to ask why cool ideas
> from academia aren't making it out to the general public in the form
> of free software or open software, in light of the fact that it's hard
> to make money from selling programming languages.

I find very little empirical evidence for an economically rational
business model.  Is there anybody at all making money this way?

A side discussion, related to languages: If I were not in the defense
industry, where customers will pay extra for domestically-produced
software (so price/efficiency is not the sole determining factor), I
would be REALLY worried about the long-term ramifications of the
recent trend towards exporting jobs.  (There is a school of thought
that says all profit is due to diseconomies like location, but what
does location mean in terms of software development in the age of the

As someone who runs a software company in the expensive Northeast US,
I know that it is very hard to compete on an equal basis with
competitors whose costs are much lower (try explaining the benefits of
paying *more* per hour to a DCAA auditor).  I would think that one of
the only competitive advantages one could leverage, given that one's
costs are going to be higher, would be the increased efficiency of
better programming languages and/or tools.

I wonder whether the thousands of developers whose jobs are moving
off-shore would have jumped at the chance to learn (say) Lisp if they
really knew their jobs were at stake.  I wonder if their management
would have even recognized this were the case in time to present the
choice to those employees.  I wonder if management recognized this
were the case, whether they would have cared enough to present the


==== John Morrison
==== MAK Technologies Inc.
==== 185 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge, MA 02138
==== http://www.mak.com/
==== vox:617-876-8085 x115
==== fax:617-876-9208