Programming for beginners (The Next Generation)

Microsoft are doing more in the beginner programming area, with the Coding 4 Fun web site and the Beginner Developer Learning Centre, backing up their various Visual Studio Express free packages. No doubt to fight back against the onslaught from PHP and other open-source tools, but hopefully it also helps get some more people into programming, particularly kids whose brains pick up such concepts so fast and have the imagination to make use of this kind of thing.

But I wonder if we’ll ever again see the heyday of home computer programming that there was in the eighties. Call me a teary old nostalgic if you like, but it strikes me that the eighties was the sweet spot sparking interest in programming: you had millions of computers going into homes with a relatively easy to use programming language built-in (all those variants of BASIC), but crucially, you also had a shortage of the kind of productivity software that lets people express themselves nowadays on computers without having to program anything.

For instance, back in the day, I used a Commodore 64 and a BBC B to do video titles for friends’ productions. To do this, I had to program them. Initial attempts were pretty pathetic, but let me tell you, the Doctor Who starfield sequences I eventually got working were pretty damn good. Thanks to the miracle of colour palette manipulation, along with some year 10-level mathematics I got not only stars flying out of the screen, but galaxies spinning around and wormholes appearing. (Unfortunately for that particular production an earlier, decidedly less impressive and readable credits sequence made it into the final edit.)

These days something similar would be done on Powerpoint or in a video editing package, which would probably have its own built-in titles editor. It’s undoubtedly easier, but half the motivation to dabble in computer programming is gone. OK, so this is just an example, but it’s something you see in various areas of computer use, such as web page design (do beginners still learn HTML?) or games (why code up your own Donkey Kong like you love in the arcades when you can just get it on MAME?).

This is not to say the huge variety of software enabling high productivity on computers is bad, of course, but I do think it means people are much less likely to get into programming these days as a hobby.