A Conversation with Charles Petzold

Earlier this month I posted a blog post that followed up on the Editor's Note column (A Quarter Century and Counting) appearing in the January issue of MSDN Magazine. In the column, I recounted Charles Petzold's amazing 25-year run as a regular writer and columnist for the magazine. In this, the second of two blog posts about that column, I follow up our initial conversation with a few additional questions.

Desmond: Earlier you mentioned tablet and phone as a third revolution. Of course, your Touch and Go column (previously, UI Frontiers) focuses on Windows Phone and Windows touch-based devices and applications. Given what you observed with the GUI and Internet/Web revolutions, any thoughts on what might be ahead in the mobile/touch space?

Petzold: Many years ago I read on article in a major news magazine about a new fad that was sweeping Japan. The author of this article was certain this fad couldn’t possibly make it in America because American families would simply not sit around the living room singing songs together while the lyrics flashed by on the TV set. Well, as we know, karaoke did become popular in America, but in a completely different setting -- the bar rather than the living room.

The way in which technology evolves and adapts is very mysterious to me, which is why I stay away from industry punditry. The only expectation I have is of the unexpected.

Desmond: You talked about the importance of social connections between PC Magazine and MSJ/MSDN Magazine. Beyond the obvious shared roots and interests, it seems like physical proximity really sustained those links. Do you believe Internet-borne interaction can sustain the “socializing aspect” that you found so vital to the magazine?

Petzold: I’m on Facebook every day, and it’s fun to exchange thoughts and opinions with friends and “friends.” But Facebook is a very poor imitation of actual human contact. Tony Rizzo once organized a dinner with about 10 MSJ authors and Bill Gates in a private room of a sushi restaurant, and we basically spent a couple hours eating sushi and listening to Bill talk about the computer industry. I don’t see how that experience could possibly be imitated in an online chat room.

What’s most revealing on Facebook is how fragmented the computer industry has become. Everybody seems to be working on something different, and it’s impossible for any one person to be familiar with all these different technologies. We’ve all become specialists. There’s no longer an industry event like Comdex that virtually everybody attends, no longer books that everybody reads, no longer languages that everyone speaks.

Desmond: You know, there was a time, not at all long ago, when we all read the same newspapers and watched the same TV shows (at the same time, even). Those common touch points have faded as the Internet has enabled personalized media delivery and a host of narrowly focused information sources.

But in the arena of software development, I take your point: We live in an era of layered abstraction and vast frameworks. So the question is, where and how can developers sustain a common ground? Is it in the higher level logic and the technique of problem solving, project management and programming methodology?

Petzold: This is a problem, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But the extreme biodiversity that exists now is perhaps an indication that the art and engineering of computer programming is still in its infancy. And that suggests we need to keep our minds open -- to evaluate new frameworks and programming languages with the thought that they may actually be better than what we’re using now.

I had this experience just recently when working with the new asynchronous file I/O classes in Windows 8. If the best is yet to come, magazines such as MSDN have an obligation to help keep developers informed of the cutting edges of programming technologies.

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