Portrait photo of Leandro Ostera

Leandro Ostera

Building WebApps Like It's 1972 πŸ§™β€β™‚οΈ

The year is 1972 and GUI applications like no one has seen before are being built in Smalltalk: bitmaps graphics, draggable elements, drop-down menus, collapsable windows 🀯; all of them and many more coming straight from the future, powered by asynchronous message passing, object orientation, and functional programming. An unprecedented cocktail to be later rediscovered as the Actor-model.

Fast forward to the present day, and typical web applications are modeled as monolithic deeply nested structures, resembling the medium the web was built for (HTML), but leaving us handicapped to build outstanding user facing applications. πŸ¦–

Let’s explore together what we can learn from the early days of UIs, languages like Erlang and Smalltalk, the Actor-model, and how we can apply some of these principles and ideas today to take our UIs back to the future πŸš€

Scheduled for day 2 at 16.45 on the `Back Track` stage.


Leandro Ostera - Building WebApps Like It's 1972

>> Before I begin, I just want to thank all of you for giving me this opportunity. Around ten years ago, I left my home town in the north-west of Argentina, and I could not envision that I would be speaking today to all of you. Thank you. Earlier this week, I was asking any speakers if they had rituals before they went on stage. This is the largest audience IBA been in front of.

Laurie Voss suggested I take a selfie to help with my stage fright. If that is okay with you, can we take one at least? Thank you so much! So we've got it here. Can we say "actors"! One, two, three, actors! Okay. It was worth a shot.

So, all right, for those of you who don't know me, my name is Leandro, and I work as a research engineer at Source. We're fully open source non-profit dedicated to advance humanity in our interactions with computers. Today, I'm here to talk about us. All of us. And about our history-building software for human beings.

By the end of this talk I hopefully will have done two things. While the web flourishes with incredible ideas, we have a great many lessons to learn from our past. The second one is that was perhaps I will have compelled some of you to challenge the way we build web applications, both at a technical level but also philosophically.

So let us begin. And in the spirit of fun, let's play a gale. I will describe a programme and some of the features it has, and you will try to guess out loud its name. Are you up for it? Yeah? Cool. I know we are tired, the last day, but please, bear with me.

Can you think of a programme that lets you draw maybe free handed, and then you can resize your shapes at will? Does this programme let you set constraints for those shapes and say that they will be centred, parallel to something else? Can you make copies of those shapes? And if you make a copy and update the regional, does the copy update as well? Anybody any guesses? Photoshop? Anyone else? All right, I was hoping would actually say "Sketch". These are some of the features in Sketch but I was referring to subscribers sketch Pad, a programme developed back in 1963, and yet this is this old. This is really over 50 years old.

So I want to show you a little bit of what Sketch Pad looks like. We can see that something on screen, right. It looks like a rivet or maybe some sort of square with a base. He has a crossbar, and the centre of the crossbar now to draw an arc.

Then he's going to point to the different edges of the drawing and ask the programme to make them mutually perpendicular. As the problem solves the constraints, it forces the arc to change. Then he shows that no matter how you distort it, it comes up with a symmetrical solution, which is pretty cool.

These constraints could have been more complicated, could have been ratios between lines, and other drawings. We will see a last example there. Turns it on. There you go. Perfectly symmetrical rivet.

Another important idea we will see here, and the first time it is shown, is the idea of a master and an instance, right? He was working before on this master drawing, and now he has an instance of it on screen that is completely independent from the master. You can see that he's rotating it, trying to fit it into the plank. It's a tedious process. It takes a little bit of time.

This flickers because it's not actually a display, it's an oscilloscope. They did not have displays back then. Perfect. There you go.

We can relate now to this pattern using different names. Perhaps we think of components and elements in React or classed as an object in JavaScript. He creates a few more instances, and then he goes back to the master, and you can see that he will just remove some of the crossbar lines, and, when he goes back, lo and behold, the copies, the instance was be the elements have been updated.

Yes. This is the work of Ivan Sutherland who, in 1963, published his seminal work on Sketch Pad. It's pretty intense. It's on line. This development during the thesis, all by himself, and when Alan Okay one of his students, asked him how did he manage to create this first object-orientated system, and the first graphical interface system all within one year by himself, the guy just replied he didn't know it was hard.

Which is interesting. Either way, Ivan really set the bar high for a people that came after him, right? He set the direction for the likes of Douglas Engelberg, the fellow who created the first computer mouse. They developed through a span of ten years a system that is kind of incredible.

I can't quite grasp that it has existed. This is the online system for historical reasons that I'm not going to get into, and it was first made publicly in 1968. In dates a long time ago as well. This has been dubbed "the mother of all demos".

Let's look at why. And this is audio, so hopefully, you will be able to see it.

>> [Video]: I would like to see you while I'm working on it. Oops. The kind of display. I would like to see you while I'm working on it. So before I can do that, I have to set up my display in a certain way.

>> We can hear Douglas doing the live stream of the computer.

>> [Video]: It leaves a corner up there. [Voices speak all at once].

>> You can see my work, I can point on the at it, and we can talk. Let's do some collaborating.

>> That is video conferencing 1968.

>> There is nobody here but a large audience, Bill. Let's talk about information retrieval, and a lot of things I've been showing them jumping around and finding your way.

>> Can we lower the volume on the video, please?

>> "An instrument, complex data structures, it shows them how we can get around and find things. I showed them the content analysers ..."

>> They're discussing some matters of the presentation they were doing there, and then they proceeded to link work spaces to the point that they are essentially doing live-coding. If you look carefully, in a second from now, two mouses on the same computer. They're modifying the same environment. This is live coding. This presentation is epical.

If you haven't watched it, after this talk, wherever you're home, look at it on YouTube. You see two mouses there. With this contextual background, we can move on to the last piece of history that we need for this presentation, and that is Xerox Park, the Palo Alto research centre. They create the Smalltalk.

Smalltalk is a language that was designed to be a - Smalltalk was designed to be a vehicle for human symbiosis, not like in Star Trek. It's a language that is designed to fade into the background fast and let you express yourself, sort of like a musical instrument would. It offers the programmers two core capabilities: the first one is classes and objects, which are used to represent things, right, and processes, and the second one is message-passing. That provides the communication layer, a way for the objects to talk to each other.

Something worth noting is that Alan Okay has repeatedly said that when he invented object-orientated programming, the important part was not the objects themselves but the messages. It was the communication that he really cared about. Let's look at an example of this system.

We can see here an animation of a bowl in what appears to be a static website. In reality, the animation is being programmed as objects. We can stop it, step through it. It's going to go through until it finds the right frame. He opens up a browser, and this browser lets you see the messages that this object in particular can receive, right? That you can send to it.

After finding the right message, he is kind of going to the painter tool and doing the same thing, and finding that, okay, we have the current frame message on the top, and we need to find a message to link the current frame into the painting tool. So it's going to look for the picture arrow. It's going to then sort of sketch an arrow, and the system will recognise that you have to messages selected, so you can type in there what you want to say.

He's saying, hey, painter, here's a message picture, give me the picture that you're currently using and link it to the bouncing, which is the name of the object which represents the animation, current frame. So the current frame of the animation above. After he sends the message, we get the frame below. This is done completely live.

This is not something that has been prepared beforehand. It's the live system that the user is going to use. Right? All of these applications are customisable by the users to feed their needs.

They turn the whole computer into some bicycle for the mind. And all of these examples have been built on each other to formalise the idea that our world is concurrent. Everything around us is happening in parallel from us. We communicate with everything around us by sending these metal, just like right now, I'm not letting you access the memory in my head, I'm sending mention to you so we communicate. Yes.

The underlying philosophical grounds that all of these people shared, the vision they had, was to advance the human intellect. We're not talking about for-profit companies trying to lure you into buying a product but altruistic men and women dedicating the lives for all of us. We've seen the sketch about the NLS - Smalltalk. What are the learning we can take from them and apply today? I want to talk about two ideas.

The first one is the competition model behind this application, how is it that they're run, and the second one is the philosophy behind it? Let's begin with a first one. When we model an application in Smalltalk, we model it in terms of objects that interact with each other in terms of message-passing and each of those objects performs hopefully one small task. That's a number of messages that it understands that it sends to all their objects. It may have some internal state that can change over time.

Normally, one of these Smalltalk applications, right, can have millions, or hundreds of millions of objects, and you may even think of those tiny objects as tiny computers on their own. It's kind of like an internet inside your application. If you look at this diagram, you can see we have some ...

that is sending essentially an in put object, a message called "clear", and it clears itself, and a container object is sending a draw message telling where it has to be drawn, the same with a slide er linked to the graph, and the synchronise from send to the graph that will in turn update the slider. The underlying principles behind how Smalltalk works have been formalised with some differences as the Actor model. In the Actor model, we have separate actors, essentially independent entities, that they're executed completely independently, completely in isolation. They solve problems by collaboration, and then collaborate with each other by message-passing. They collaborate by talking to each other just like humans do.

Modelling the system with this approach history is interesting properties. The first one is failure ... by default.

The second one is an asynchronous nature, and the second one is that it is parallelisable. A show of hands: have you ever seen an application, a website that bass completely unusable because of some exception that blew up the complete application stack? Yes or no? Pretty everyone is yeah, that's the way it goes. I think we all have, right? Before application s start normally compose of those independent ly collaborating systems, why do we treat them as a single monolith that has to be carefully programmed? I don't quite understand that. We know that applications are scaling massively in complexity, and for the user experiences that people that used them is perhaps the definition of a ...

for some of us. In the Actor model, an actor failing does not take down the entire system.

If you build it carefully, all the actors can take a look at your actors, and restart them whenever they fail. You have a system that heals. Of course, we could decide the certain failures are worth a complete application crash, irrecoverable crash. Now it's a constant decision that we make. It's not something that just happens.

The second thing I want to talk about is asynchronous nature. This is fairly straightforward. The applications that we build are asynchronous by default. The user interacts with it and we don't know when that is going to happen.

Why do we need to build up stacks of reactive libraries, we could be using a competition model that is fit for it? Lastly, parallelisable. We struggle to parallelise this because we have a accessible stack running, and any co-ordination in the thread has been thought about beforehand and done manually. In terms of actors, we could potentially run every Actor parallelly. That might be useless because some might depend on messages from each other but you can do that.

This is because each one of the actors is essentially its own tiny computer. Just think of the performance gains some applications would have by using more cores because they are available. Without having to be rewritten.

There is this three properties, right. They are incredible in practice like in Erlang or Pony been when they are used for building massively concurrent systems, like WhatsApp, for example, were built on it. I will grant you that we don't want two million users per browser but knowing your application can crash and recover on the fly by itself, it's incredibly powerful when it comes to raising the bar on quality of any experience that we design or develop. The second point I wanted to make beyond the competition model is the one of philosophy. This is a briefer one.

It's the last point I like to make today. And it is that most applications, if not all of them, are built on two key ideas: the idea of liveness of an application, and the idea of directness of an application. When we talk about liveness, we are talking about the ability to always respond to a user's actions.

This means that whatever you do in the system, and whatever the system is doing, they will never be a complete stop or gap in the feedback loop. This is a little bit how the real world works. We are constantly sending messages, sometimes we get responses back, sometimes, we get, you know, double-tick red. But naturally, as the workload of the system increases, you will expect some performance degradation.

You would expect the system to gracefully degrade without actually stopping to work entirely. Now, do you remember the last time you were a were on a website that didn't do something or anything, really, for some time.

There was perhaps something taking over the main loop, and your application just sort of stopped working entirely. Really, we can do much better than that. And I think considering liveness and the actor model how they work together in isolation is foundational to recoverable errors. The second thing in the philosophy track is directness, or directness. Directness means that everything you see can be modified, whatever the user sees on screen that he can click on, whatever graphical representation of the system we have is the point that the user can begin to explore the entire system.

That might be scary for some because you can right-click on something and get the actual source and not bundled or minified version of it and modified. If they can inspect the button, change the attributes to restructure the behaviour, even reconstruct a user employee to suit their needs better, persist those changes and essentially modify everything they already see, we have an application that show cases directness. Really this is a deeper philosophical question to ask to all of you here, is are we going to be building applications that model a flow that everybody sort of understands and doesn't actually empower anybody to do better than they actually are doing? Are we going to be giving them bicycles for their processes, or are we going to carry them around? So how do we get there? I would inventory ure the that most of you who haven't heard of me before so it's hard to agree with me right now that we need to rethink the complete foundations on which we build applications.

After all, with all those fancy frameworks out there, backed by corporations, how could they be wrong, right? I invite you to take a first step in this world by trying out Smalltalk. Just to get a feeling of what we are missing in web development nowadays. What is it like to build user interfaces, applications, user experiences in other platforms? ... and it should be more than enough to show why some of these attributes are paramount to increasing the quality of the software we build.

You will find that the same properties alongside highly, highly reflective language allow for a development experience quite unlike we've seen in other mainstream languages. Seriously, most importantly, what is it we can do right now to start building web apps like it's 1972? My best answer to all of you is to start by learning about them. Look online for videos, people that put screen casts on how to build these applications with these technologies.

There are languages out there from like Smalltalk, with Self Squeak, just random names. I feel like I'm reading a lot of npm packages right now! Really try to get inspired. Take a look at how they're thinking, what is it they want to give the users? Are they trying to solve the problem? Are they trying to give them a tool. Start by asking why are we treating people as cattle to put through a conversion funnel instead of empowering them to solve their problems by giving them flexible systems with powerful tools to be as efficient, and effective, at their jobs as they can be. I'm sure we are aware there are learning curves for these things.

But if this community is capable of anything, it's growing and learning, so there's no good reason to stop doing what we are doing. Do not stop doing what we are doing and reconsider it. We can begin today with a fundamental philosophical shift.

At source, we are working as hard as we can to implement a universal virtual machine, a Stage VM, that we can use to bring this computational model on some of the goodies that BBC seen in these languages to the WebAssembly. It's not just to target the browser but to do it through WebAssembly. It will be something we have worth demoing, but if you're interested, follow us on Twitter. And with that, I want to say if you're interested in non-profits for software, I work at one.

If you're interested in the actor model or want to learn more about Smalltalk or Erlang distributed systems, come and say hi to me after the talk. Thanks for the opportunity, and thanks to JSConf.