Friday, February 16, 2007

Losing Big Is Easy

What's the connection between soda and the failure of programming languages? I would have thought "zero" had I not recently stumbled across a wikipedia article about a little-known predecessor of Coca-Cola. As it turns out, in 1879, a scrappy Norwegian immigrant named Jan Kjarti (who, incidentally, also coined the term "artificial sweetener") started a soda company. His company, Slug Cola (the motto was "you'll love to Slug it down!"), produced a soda that cost a little more than Coke but which actually tasted much better (note that it didn't actually use artificial sweetener, either). It's hard to even find out what it tasted like anymore, as none of the small but loyal customer base of Slug Cola are still alive. Fortunately, a noted Boston historian and Slug researcher has found a few scattered journal entries and newspaper clippings from the era. By all accounts drinking Slug, relative to drinking Coke, was something akin to a transcendent experience. Of course, since you've heard of Coke and haven't heard of Slug, you can probably guess what happened: Coke kicked their ass. One of Jan's protégés (one Richard Angel) later wrote a newspaper editorial entitled "Coke is Better", about the failure of their company. It was both heartfelt and poignant, and included a frank assessment of why Slug Cola failed. He pointed to the fact that, just as Slug was making a few gains in the marketplace, the US entered what became known as the "Soda Winter", a period of about 10 years where the public became irrationally convinced that carbonated water was bad for your stomach. Coke survived this period relatively unscathed, in part aided by the fact that people felt that some of Coke's ingredients actually offset the purported stomach-damaging properties of carbonation. Aside from that, and perhaps more importantly, Coke was cheaper to produce, allowing Coke to expand more rapidly into new markets. Try as they might, the proprietors of Slug Cola just couldn't convince members of the public (who had invariably tasted Coke already) of Slug's merits.

Well, that's most of the story, at least. At the very end of the wikipedia article, the author points out a fact that, once I read it, I could have kicked myself for not having figured out myself. I mean, it was a long article and went into all this detail about how the company failed. And not once did it dawn on me, and this is the part the author pointed out, that the name of the product might be the most significant factor in its downfall. Slug! Duh! Of course nobody wants to drink something called Slug! I mean, you can try to tell them that Slug refers to the concept of eagerly drinking (i.e., "SLUGging down") a transcendent carbonated beverage. But I just don't think you can overcome first impressions. And, let's face it, the first impression of Slug is of, well, a slimy, oozing insect. Of course, I'm guessing all of you reading this were way ahead of me this whole time, so I bet you think I'm pretty dumb. All I can say is, go read the article and you might get a sense for how I could have failed to notice the obvious. The story just got so poignant, convoluted, and interesting, that I experienced a momentary lapse of common sense.

Naturally I couldn't help, at this point, thinking about other poignant and convoluted stories that I've read about, and, like a flash, something that has probably been in my mind for years now hit me like a ton of proverbial bricks! The reason why my 3 favorite programming languages failed is that their names sucked ass! Just like Slug! I don't know why this didn't hit me before, but it just seems glaringly obvious now. What's more, I did a bit of research, and determined that there seems to be an almost inverse correlation between the coolness of a language's name and the coolness of the language itself. This might explain why we're still writing code using the equivalent of blunt, hollowed-out turtle bones, bits of twigs and leaves and stuff, just like our primitive Neanderthal ancestors.

If you don't believe me already, let's look at the all-time coolest programming language names:

C. Yup. C. C is cool. It's mysterious. It's cryptic. It's one syllable. It could even stand for Cool. In my mind, there is no better name for a programming language, and never will be (any attempts to replicate its coolness by picking other, single letters of the alphabet, such as D, will come off as mere me-too-ism). I remember in college, everyone wanted to know C. People would ask questions in CS211 that they already knew the answer to, just so they could mention some feature of C that they'd learned. I think the name has a lot to do with it. The language itself was my favorite programming language for many years, until I finally started learning more about real programming languages.

C++. You can't improve upon the name C, but C++ was about as good as you can get. I think C++ kicked the ass of its nearest competitor due to its name. What would you rather use (if you didn't know anything about either language's technical merits): "C++" or "Objective-C". Obj-jeck-tive-See. Talk about clunky. I write code in Ob-jeck-tive-See. By the time you get to the third syllable you've just lost people's attention completely. They'll be staring off in another direction asking questions like, "is there a breeze in here?"

FORTRAN. Yup. You may hate it, but it sure is popular, even to this day. FORTRAN always sounded cool to me, before I learned anything about it. It sounds like "fortress", but with a cool sci-fi twist to it.

Java. Gotta hand it to Sun for picking a kick-ass name. It's short, it's cryptic, it's friendly; it implies a connection with a caffeinated beverage, something near and dear to many programmers' hearts. Its success tracked the explosive growth of upscale coffee shops, such as Starbucks. Yep, Java's stratospheric success has much to do with its name.

Now let's look at the all-time loser names.

Coming in with the 3rd worst name for a computer language, of all time, is Erlang. I write code in Ur-lang. I am caveman. I grunt and say Ur a lot. After laughing at you for a while, anyone you're trying to convince of Erlang's merits next question is, "Why is it called ERlang? Does it stand for Ericsson Language?" You're pretty much sunk at this point. It would be like if you were trying to get people to use MicrosoftLanguage instead of C#. Wouldn't happen. They'd just feel too silly.

Coming in with the 2nd worst name of all time is... Smalltalk. This list just gets sadder as we get towards number one, doesn't it folks? Because the languages just keep getting better. Let me ask you this, folks: Smalltalk was designed by some of the best and brightest computer scientists of all time. Numerous of them have won Turing awards and other accolades. Why wasn't someone amongst them smart enough to point out this dead obvious fact: something called SMALLtalk is never going to be successful? I remember when I took Intro to Programming Languages and we were supposed to use SMALLtalk at one point. I just couldn't believe it. This is America, folks. Bigger is better. I wasn't about to use a puny, wimpy language that went so far as to point out its diminutive nature in its own name! I remember I just suffered through the SMALLtalk portion of the course and didn't pay the slightest attention to any of the language's merits. I mean, even if you ignore the SMALL aspect, what does "small talk" actually mean? It refers to trivial, banal conversation. Who wants to engage in banal conversation? Does that mean the messages you send between objects are trivial and banal? Sigh. It only gets worse. Smalltalk's latest incarnation is called Squeak. That's right, it's named after the sound a small rodent/pest makes. Might as well call it Slug.

Last but certainly not least, here is the worst programming language name of all time: Lisp. OMFG this is a bad name. Bad bad bad. What does "lisp" mean? Lisp means "speech impediment"!! Do you want a speech impediment!? I don't think so! Back in college I had even less patience for Lisp than I did for Smalltalk. I mean, when it came down to it, I'd rather at least be able to make small talk, at a party, without having a lisp. Hint to John McCarthy: next time you come up with something brilliant, name it after something POSITIVE. Geez. And, as with Erlang, it just doesn't get any better when you try to explain why Lisp is called Lisp. It's short for LISt Processing... Get it? Isn't that funny? I don't hear you laughing. Yeah, 'cuz it's one of the worst puns ever. And not only is it not funny, guess what, most programmers don't actually think they're going to do much "list processing", so they're like, "maybe it IS good at List Processing, but I could give a flying monkey's posterior because that's just not what I want to be working on" (these programmers would much rather be working on their ORM layer, ironically).

Phew. So there it is folks. One of the great tragedies of modern computer science turns out to have such a simple, prosaic explanation. I would be more surprised that nobody else has ever mentioned this before, except that it took me 16 years and an obscure wikipedia article to see the light, so I guess I shouldn't expect anyone else to have done so, either.