NYT: July 15, 1996
By SABRA CHARTRAND
Programming Without Writing Computer Code
As technology becomes increasingly user-friendly, products are evolving to
allow people to make their computers work for them in ways that previously
required an expert programmer. Already, off-the-shelf kits let novices create
World Wide Web home pages after clicking, dragging and dropping the right
icons into place. No more need to learn HTML, or hypertext markup language.
Now Lucent Technologies, Inc., a former division of AT&T, owns a similar
technology for object-oriented programming language, which assembles bundles
of programming code and functions for reuse in the creation of more than one
Two AT&T engineers have patented a technique they have named "elastic
objects" because their bundles are adaptable. The technology is designed to be
used in packaged products that business people or others can buy to create
their own programs just by clicking on a menu of prepared objects. Users won't
have to write any computer code.
"When the objects are created we put them in a palate," explained one of the
inventors, Daniel Hurley, a systems engineer and programmer at AT&T.
"You'd use a mouse to drag the object off the palate and onto a design
screen. If it is a data-base query object, when you connect the object to a
particular table on a data base, it will automatically acquire outlets
corresponding to the fields in that data base."
In other words, the query object can adapt to the connections between it and
another object. More important, the query object is an established part of the
kit: All a user has to do is click on it.
"The value of this is that the user, who is not a programmer but understands
the problem he is trying to solve, has a general-purpose, flexible object on
the palate which he pulls off and strings together without writing code,"
And the objects grow.
"Our objects frequently have only one outlet, but when you make a connection
to an appropriate second object, suddenly the first object acquires
appropriate additional outlets, and you can use these to connect to other
objects. Depending on the use, it will spawn additional outlets."
He offered an example.
"Say you want to build a log-in process, so a user has to log in," he said.
The builder would pull a dialogue-manager object, a query object and a
validation object off the palate. By stringing them together, the user would
generate outlets that would accept, search for and confirm a name and
The log-in process could be created in a matter of minutes, Hurley said, as
opposed to the hour it might take a programmer to write code for the same
"I don't think we use any programming magic," he added. "What makes these
objects special is they respond to specific messages between objects and the
design tool. They're live objects, as opposed to code."
And they might be used as a household tool.
"Suddenly people with computers could have very elaborate phone systems at
home," Hurley said. "If they're not home or can't answer the phone, they can
set up a system to be paged, or have the message forwarded."
But the inventors say that software developers could use their technology,
too, to tackle common programming tasks instead of writing code. Hurley and
Earle West received patent 5,524,246.
--- Rohit Khare -- 617/253-5884 Technical Staff, World Wide Web Consortium NE43-354, MIT LCS, 545 Tech Square, Cambridge, MA 02139