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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., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. 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's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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