Monday, 1 March 2010

Dreaming in Code

I finished reading Dreaming in Code last week. It's Scott Rosenberg's account of a software development team's effort to build the ultimate Personal Information Manager (PIM). Led and funded by Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, the team goes through endless cycles of redesign, people issues and other upheavals.

Rosenberg follows the team very closely, participating in their meetings, interviewing them and filling the narrative with his own insights.

If a developer were to read this book, s/he would recognize the events in it this as standard stuff when developing a product, and s/he would also identify with the team itself, with the occasional shaking of the head :)

The software they set out to develop was based on Kapor's vision of a game-changing PIM. They called it Chandler, after one of Kapor's loved crossbred dogs.



This was the pre-Web 2.0 era, where most things, including product releases took longer to happen. The browser had not yet become the first medium for delivering any consumer facing application. Desktop applications for collaboration still looked as if they had potential.

Chandler's ultimate aim was to be a all-in-one tool where users could access their email, personal notes, calendar events and to do lists through one interface. Kapor visualized all these different data collections as isolated information silos. Chandler would break open and combine them. It would let you view and move around all these disparate things in a unified manner. You could tag a note with labels, and then put a date on it and make it a calendar event, or send it off as an email. Grand vision? Yes. It's something I would personally prefer to have around to manage things.

Due to numerous reasons, Chandler was late in delivering its promise. Gmail came in 2004, and opened the floodgates of what was possible using new Web technologies. Firefox arrived, and forced Microsoft to relook at IE (and make it better). Chandler was yet to release its 1.0 version. The browser was fast overtaking the desktop.

We have been spoilt by the seamless interconnectivity provided by the Internet - it's always there - home or office or a mountaintop - and with it, our data. Chandler did attempt a Web interface where you could access your data (which would be synced between your desktop and a central server), but it was too late.

The Chandler project is still on with many faithful developers. I tried out the latest version after finishing the book. My impressions? It still has a long way to go, going by the number of bugs I encountered, and assuming it can convince the Web 2.0 crowd to switch to a desktop application by the sheer force of its design and the things it is supposed to do.

The most interesting chapter in the book is "Methods" - where Rosenberg does a brief and very readable survey of the evolution of development methods over the years. This chapter can be read standalone even if you don't read the whole book.

Note: The Chandler logo image linked to here is used under a Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0.