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January 31-February 6, 2007

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'Dreaming in Code'

Dreaming in Code
(By Scott Rosenberg; Crown Publishers; 400 pages; $25.95 cloth)

In one of the paradoxes of the computer age, while Moore's Law tells us that chip capacity doubles every year or two, "There is no Moore's law for software." Instead, as Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon.com, describes in Dreaming in Code, developing software programs is becoming an every more difficult, error-prone and time-consuming process. For three years, starting in January 2003, Rosenberg hung out with Mitch Kapor (of Lotus 1-2-3 fame), as he and his team at the Open Source Application Foundation worked on Chandler (after Raymond), a new personal information manager designed to compete with MicroSoft Outlook. The project quickly fell behind its scheduled release dates—a victim of proliferating bugs, personnel turnover and, worst of all, "the entropic drag of software time," when "you get stuck, frozen between dimensions, unable to more or see a way forward." The chronicle of Chandler's pitfalls can be wonky and acronym heavy at times, but Rosenberg also delivers some astute observations about human interactions that could be applied to the management of any large, complex task. Although the temptation is to hire more programmers to meet deadlines, for instance, every new employee has to be brought up to speed, thus delaying the process. Software programmers are artists as much as they are engineers, and sometimes they would reinvent codes themselves rather than trust existing codes that might save development time. Finally, exhausted by his shadowing labors, Rosenberg felt he had to stop and write his book, which made it through the printing presses while Chandler, whose most recent release is 0.7alpha4, promises a "first Preview release" in spring of 2007. Will Chandler make it? The odds are long, as Rosenberg soberly notes: "Never in history have we depended so completely on a product that so few know how to make well."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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