The Death Of The Hacker: InfoWorld 1985

Update: Date typo in post title fixed!

I came across this on Google Books, going through some old issues of InfoWorld I’d read back in the day:


Click = big

For those who want text, see after the break.

Death of the Hacker

I’m a little bit disinterested with computers, computers, computers. — CL9 founder Stephen Wozniak

Woz’s leaving Apple Computer was a watershed event. The significance goes beyond Apple‘s necessary maturation as the company approaches $2 billion in annual sales. There is more here than Wozniak’s falling out with a buddy who had metamorphosed from a Yippie to a Yuppie. Wozniak felt uncomfortable, no longer free to do what he wanted to do. and reportedly, even betrayed.

In a sense, Wozniak’s disenchantment symbolizes the changing role of all hackers. Hackers, the creative force that spawned the personal computer industry, no longer have key roles in the industry they created, an industry that is changing American business forever.

When [BM introduced the PC, it turned to john “Cap’n Crunch” Draper to develop a word processor. Draper, a quintessential hacker, had taught Wozniak and Steven Jobs how to build blue boxes so they could make free phone calls. Now, IBM’s new software is typified by Topview, the Personal Decision Series, and the Business Management Series. Each is mammoth and clumsily written by standards of programmers skilled in working in the assembly language of early PC software. IBM’s Business Management Series requires a 10-megabyte hard disk just to store the programs. The interface, manual, and customer support are redolent of the company’s famous pinstripes: A reviewer tells us it would have cost him more than $200 in support charges to find out how to load a sample file.

Hackers laugh at these efforts, derisively pointing out that these are awkward ports — and here the scorn is intense — from minicomputers. Hackers write tight little jewels handcrafted from assembly language as only people who can converse in hexadecimal with microprocessors can do. They say corporations such as IBM are too big and too slow to keep pace with the fast-changing world of personal computing. On big computers, they contend, one can afford big, clumsy programs, because the computers’ speed and large storage overcome the programmers‘ underachievements.

But, sadly, these laughs seem like a dinosaur roaring at a glacier, “You move too slowly to ever catch me.”

Pivotal changes are occurring, changes more significant than growing corporate bureaucracies and the influx of MBAs spouting marketing hype. The basic craft of writing software personal computers is changing.

There is a reason that software from Lotus’ Jazz to Analytica’s Reflex to Odesta’s Helix all shipped or will ship months later than intended. Not coincidentally, each of those programs is about 400K in size. This barrier, like the sound barrier, poses new challenges. The difficulty of writing a program goes up dramatically, exponentially if you like, as its size jumps from the 40K-80K of old to today’s 400K or more.

As the difficulty increases, the process of writing software changes. No longer does a single, brilliant programmer hack away at an idea until his gem emerges. Instead, programs of 400K and more require teams of programmers working for man-years. Certainly, one brilliant hacker could eventually write one of these programs if he had the dedication that James Joyce had while writing Finnegan Wake. But the future lies in structured. team-oriented programming. Something about teams and structure is antithetical to hacking.

Beyond these 400K programs lie mammoth projects. Artificial intelligence will finally come about. Word processors will incorporate not just spelling checkers and thesauruses but also networked electronic mail. And operating systems will have built-in capability to search for files on remote file servers. Operating systems will be able to run programs written for other operating systems, allowing technological leaps while still running today’s applications.

There will always be hackers. We may soon see genetic hackers, organic computing hackers . . . who knows? They’re the ones on the fringes who push things a little further and faster. But their role in personal computing has been forever changed. Now that its big business, they may be happy at that.

James E. Fawcette
Editorial Director & Associate Publisher

That was published May 6, 1985.

7 Comments

Filed under Digital Periodicals

7 responses to “The Death Of The Hacker: InfoWorld 1985

  1. The writing was sound, as were the predictions. The PC software world morphed into an enterprise business, and the lone hacker now writes games for cell phones or maintains a portion of a Linux software distro. I was a freshman in college and a lone hacker the year this came out; I’ve gone on to make a career out of working as part of a team developing software. We’ve grown up. It’s probably for the best.

    –Geoff
    PS: why does the title say 1986?

  2. enochblackwater

    Reblogged this on Enoch Blackwater and commented:
    Fascinating blast from the past, it is a bit like seeing gas prices from this time period or the cost of a house. Even this quote on hackers is interesting in that they seem to use a almost religious reverence for what hackers did in this period.

    “Hackers write tight little jewels handcrafted from assembly language as only people who can converse in hexadecimal with microprocessors can do. They say corporations such as IBM are too big and too slow to keep pace with the fast-changing world of personal computing. On big computers, they contend, one can afford big, clumsy programs, because the computers’ speed and large storage overcome the programmers‘ under achievements.”

    Also this bit…

    “The difficulty of writing a program goes up dramatically, exponentially if you like, as its size jumps from the 40K-80K of old to today’s 400K or more.”

    is beautiful in a world where most of the people writing programs that are 40-80k are virus and malware writers.

    Ah, nostalgia.

  3. sadsteve

    I’m still the lone hacker! I design and write firmware for embedded devices. I’d say greater than 95% of the projects I’ve worked on in my career (since 1978) have been 1 man projects. I love it.

  4. I’m pretty sure the role of the lone hacker has never stopped growing. We’ve got Marc Zuckerberg as an example.

  5. Nice Article and So true. But not all things have changed as much. Projects with Hundreds of engineers are common, in most Indian companies, some have thousands creating Bloatware. There are more modules for interfacing than the actual working code. Its like doubling the length of the pipe with joints.

    However, the funda for creating useful products still remains the same. Lesser the Team members, smaller & faster the code. We have developed the world’s first Virus-Proofing Software(Executable file size < 1 MB), NashWall by a team of < 3 people.

    The hackers today also are either single (kevin Mitnick anyone) or team of 2 or 3.

    Naren

  6. The article was great & predictions accurate, as others stated. However, the hackers haven’t gone away. Instead, we’ve just focused on other things. There’s still plenty of hacking in academic research, FOSS, embedded, small software shops, web 2.0 apps… red teams… ;)

    For instance, I used to hack out ingenious little programs and hack PC’s. Then, I realized so much was wrong by design. Now, seven years later, I have a long history of creations & contributions in the fields of security engineering, correct by construction software, etc. The current rage for the security community is ICS and medical. For me, I’m still trying to design shortcuts to get useful systems at EAL6/7 for a fifth the cost/time of past projects and EAL5+ at 20-30% premium. Praxis, SIP, Cleanroom, & PHASE have accomplished these things to a degree. Still hacking at the problem & not even publicly except on schneier’ and kreb’s blogs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s