RealTime IT News

Smalltalk Creator Wins 'Nobel Prize' of Computing

One man's work to bring a biological model to the computer world has, 34 years later, led to a 2003 Turing Award by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), officials announced Monday.

Dr. Alan Kay will receive the "Nobel Prize of Computing" in a ceremony in June, as well as $100,000, for his pioneering work on Smalltalk, the first complete dynamic object-oriented programming (OOP) language. Today, the language is credited as the model for C++ and Java; Kay is considered the first to coin the phrase "object-oriented."

Kay said he was happy to receive the award, especially since most of his personal heroes have already made the roster. He also said he's surprised at the lasting power of languages such as Smalltalk in the business world.

"Of course, it's an incredible thrill, I'm quite surprised to get it," he told internetnews.com. "It's hard to describe the last 20 years or so in a few sentences, but it's interesting that in spite of the enormous change downward in the kinds of machines that can run on it, dynamic languages like Smalltalk and (List Processor ), both of these languages still hung in there."

The award is named for Dr. Alan Turing, the British mathematician who is most famously known for the "Turing Machine," an abstract logic exercise published by Turing in the mid-1930s to describe a mechanical device taking information in a systematic way. It turns out the paper anticipated many common computer functions like input, output, coded programs and compilers/interpreters.

Smalltalk was Kay's idea of using "cells" of individual objects communicating with one another to solve problems. In 1972, he took his work to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he began work using Smalltalk as an educational tool for children. He concluded children learned best when information was presented in graphics and sound, rather than just dry text.

He and his team came up with the "Dynabook," the model for a computer much smaller than the mainframes in use at the time and the basis for the Xerox Alto; it included a GUI and three-button mouse. The rest, as they say, is history. Kay pushed for more funding from the Xerox leadership for a "personal computer" and was summarily rejected. In 1979, a little-known entrepreneur named Steve Jobs was touring the PARC facility and saw the "windowing GUI" Kay's team had been working on and immediately used it as the basis of the mouse with Apple Macintosh, which in turn led to the genesis of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

This is the second time Kay's work at PARC has been acknowledged by the ACM; in 1987, he and his research team received the ACM Software System Award. Kay was also one of this year's National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize winners, considered the "Nobel Prize of Engineering."

Allen Davis, executive director of the Smalltalk Industry Council, congratulated Kay on the Turing Award and told internetnews.com in an email interview that the language developed decades ago continues to influence the software industry today.

"The principles found in the Smalltalk language and development environments continue to influence the software industry," he wrote. "Many capabilities found in Smalltalk exceed those found in more recently-developed object-oriented programming languages such as Java. From hobbyists to Fortune 500 companies, Smalltalk continues to be used today for traditional and web-based applications."

Smalltalk is considered by many to be an easier language to code because its syntax resembles English and its use of nouns and verbs. According to the authors at Smalltalk.org, it also takes much less code to get the point across in programming -- to the tune of one-third to one-half the code needed in a more popular OOP.

Take, for example, the differences in writing code in C++/Java over Smalltalk. In Java or C++, getting a program to execute "Hello" 10 times would look something like this:

for (int x = 0; x < 10; x++)

{

System.out.print ("Hello");

}

In Squeak, an implementation of Smalltalk, it would look like so:

10 timesRepeat: [Transcript show: 'Hello '.].

Kay is the second computing pioneer in as many weeks to be recognized for efforts conducted in the 1970s. On Thursday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee took home the Millennium Award and $1 million Euros by a Finnish organization for his work to bring the World Wide Web (WWW) to the masses.