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Why Scripting Languages Matter

by Tim O'Reilly
May. 14, 2003

In his essay Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham takes aim at the idea that programming is a kind of science or engineering, and instead makes the case that it has a lot more in common with art.

I was particularly struck by his meditation on the "sketching" process:

I was just hammering on this point in a talk I gave last week, entitled "The Open Source Paradigm Shift." I took off from the fallacy that "there are no user friendly applications on Linux", pointing out that Google, Amazon and many other web applications run on Linux, and others, such as maps.yahoo.com, on FreeBSD. People are so stuck in the personal computer paradigm that they don't recognize that the nature of applications has undergone a profound change in the last decade, with most of the new killer apps running on what has been called the LAMP platform (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP|Perl|Python). People understand the importance of Linux and Apache, and they can see that MySQL threatens to do for databases what Linux has done for operating systems. But they still struggle with understanding the "P" in LAMP.

The reason why dynamic languages like Perl, Python, and PHP are so important is key to understanding the paradigm shift. Unlike applications from the previous paradigm, web applications are not released in one to three year cycles. They are updated every day, sometimes every hour. Rather than being finished paintings, they are sketches, continually being redrawn in response to new data.

In my talk, I compared web applications to Von Kempelen's famous hoax, the mechanical Turk, a 1770 mechanical chess playing machine with a man hidden inside. Web applications aren't a hoax, but like the mechanical Turk, they do have a programmer inside. And that programmer is sketching away madly.

I first realized this idea and wrote it up years ago in my article, The Importance of Perl after talking to author Jeff Friedl (Mastering Regular Expressions about what he was doing at Yahoo! (His job at that time was writing mondo regexes to match up data from news feeds to tickers for finance.yahoo.com.) There are similar jobs inside every major web application developer.

Of course, this is only one of many points in Graham's wonderful essay. Among other great insights:

And: And: (This last point is confirmed by last year's Boston Consulting Group study of motivations for open source. Learning was one of the largest motivators for participation in open source projects.)

And then there's my favorite of all Graham's points:

What a nice way to think about the current state of our industry!

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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