Monday, August 28, 2017

Dylan and Newton History

There’s lots of interesting stuff in this Hacker News thread.

Mikel Evins:

Larry asked me and a couple of other people to see what we could do with Dylan. We took that ball and ran with it--maybe too far. Like maybe Larry wanted us to run it down to the end zone and instead we ran it across the border and into Patagonia somewhere. We, the five of us or so, wrote a whole OS in Dylan, essentially competing with the 60 or so people working on Scully’s mandated C++ OS.


From a business point of view, though, it was silly. Obviously Apple was never going to ship 2 Newton OSes. Equally obviously, it wasn’t going to choose to develop our weirdo Lisp OS instead of Capps’ C++ OS that was developed by almost the whole Newton team in response to an order from on high.

In those days (and perhaps nowadays, too, for all I know), Apple didn’t really invent products by having some visionary leader invent a goal and directing engineers to fulfill the vision. Instead, it tolerated skunkworks projects hither and yon, and the visionary leader(s) cherry-picked the ones they thought most promising. Newton itself had been created as a means to keep Steve Sakoman from leaving Apple, rather than as a product vision. So you can perhaps forgive us for imagining that if we just made our project good enough, Apple would find a place for it.


My meeting with Steve was memorable. He carved out a fairly large chunk of time to give me the hard sell about how I should give up on Apple and come change the world with NeXT. I hadn’t met him before. His famous charisma was real enough. It was a little odd, though, too. He tried a bunch of different angles to convince me, and he could tell really quickly when it wasn’t working. In fact, nothing worked in that meeting. I was skeptical that NeXT would survive, and all of Steve’s pitches were pegging my BS meters. It was kind of cool to see him start a pitch, recognize that it wasn’t working, and instantly flip to a different one, as if changing channels on a TV. Eventually he gave up and ended the meeting.

Oliver Steele:

The original Apple [Dylan] implementation compiled to native ARM code. The runtime was intended to be competitive with C, but by the time we approached that target, large parts of the toolbox had already been written in C, and Walter Smith had created NewtonScript as a scripting language that worked as an alternative for non-performance-critical code. At that point the Cambridge team re-targetted the implementation to build Macintosh applications, but that wasn’t a sufficiently compelling (to Apple management) use, and we had lost our executive sponsor when the director of the Apple Cambridge lab was promoted to a position in Cupertino.

Landon Dyer:

The decision was made to ship “junior” (the handheld unit that became the MessagePad 100) using C++, while work was still being done in Dylan on “senior”, the tablet unit. Eventually the Junior project grew in importance (“Holy crap, we have to ship this in a year”) and it was all hands on deck to get it out the door. For a while there were a bunch of Dylan programmers roaming the hallways, they were clutching copies of the C++ Annotated Reference Manual and looking really unhappy. The writing was on the wall, Senior got canceled a few months later and a bunch of the Dylan folks quit.

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