Google Blockly Lets You Hack With No Keyboard

Following on from recent discussions about graphical languages in the Russian space program, here's a recent story about Google's new visual programming language.

Cade Metz, "Google Blockly Lets You Hack With No Keyboard", Wired Enterprise.

Now available on Google Code — the company’s site for hosting open source software — the new language is called Google Blockly, and it’s reminiscent of Scratch, a platform developed at MIT that seeks to turn even young children into programmers.

As the Blockly FAQ says, "Blockly was influenced by App Inventor, which in turn was influenced by Scratch." So if you've seen Scratch before, this will look very familiar. If you haven't seen Scratch, and want to have a go with Blockly, you can find the maze demo from the Wired story here.

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Higher sights

If they set their sights a smidgen higher, they could have produced something useful that ran on Android phones and tablets - where you generally don't have a keyboard, and it's tedious to use a software keyboard. Something you wouldn't need to "out-grow", because it would remain useful in its niche.

The idioms of natural tactile zooms and pans might have made quite a difference to the complexity that plagues most graphical programming systems. But instead, this seems much more focused on being toy-like.

However, I may simply be wanting to scratch my own itch here. I have a fairly clear idea of what I want to write simple programs on my phone and am slightly frustrated that the market has not yet provided it, but I also don't have the time to do it myself.

Smalltalk legacy?

I have a serious question: Whatever became of the kids who were taught Smalltalk at a very early age (I recall it was grades 5-10, or some such) by Adele Goldberg and others in Palo Alto/Menlo Park/etc. schools?

This would've been around 1976-84, or so, for kids born at the appropriate times. They should be well into their mid-careers by now. And, yet, I see very few comments along the lines of "I was one of Adele's kids." I tried Googling a while ago for evidence of whatever became of them, and found nothing substantive.

Understand, I was not then, nor now, opposed to the idea of teaching youngsters about programming, whether in Smalltalk, or Logo, or Scheme, or even Haskell.

But I'd like to see some evidence that there's a chance of it working.

Did any of you, the LtU folks, get taught this way at an early age?

I'm actually interested, not just being argumentative.

--Tim May (I was very interested in science at an early age. I devoured books by George Gamow and the like when I was around 14. I tried and mostly failed to understand Feynman's Nobel lecture in around 1968. Programming around that time was boring stuff involving an Olivetti machine, then BASIC, then FORTRAN IV ("with WATFIV"). I despised programming. I used to go to a lot of the Homebrew Computer Club meetings at SLAC in around 1976-79, and I soldered together a Processor Tech SOL home computer. Primitive, but fun. But I liked abstract set theory, topology, and later in my career got involved in Lisp on a Symbolics 3600. My eyes were opened through Abelson and Sussman. After I retired in 1986, a meandering path which has led me to my current interests.)

Not Smalltalk, but...

I'm not sure how specifically you're interested in just the Smalltalk question... I was taught Logo and, later, Applesoft Basic by an enterprising music teacher in my elementary school. My impression is that the school had seen fit to invest in a "computer lab" and had effectively no idea what to do with it beyond having kids play Oregon Trail (and, later, Math Blaster and Carmen Sandiego), but I really don't know what went on behind the scenes. This would have been the mid-eighties, I guess.

Anyway, I was fascinated by computers but had no access to one at home. It was thrilling and eye-opening for me, and I have literally never stopped programming from that time forward. It became one of the central pursuits of my life, has led me to a deeper knowledge of all kinds of seemingly unrelated fields, and has been a source of enormous satisfaction to me as well as my livelihood.

As is probably obvious, I'm a huge proponent of making CS education available to all children, although I'm not sure it should be mandatory.

Funny coincidence,

Funny coincidence, indeed.

My wife, who's one of the geekiest Android users you might imagine, was playing around with that App Inventor a year ago (reportedly one of Blocky's predecessors). At that time she had asked me what I was thinking of this way of programming, or of ... "making apps". She was contemplating to use it to create "more junk" for her phone (just a private joke we have).

Sadly, as usual, too busy with other things, I couldn't really afford to give a close look. However, what struck me is she was obviously less confused (if at all) than I was (a lot), and ended up teaching me how to "understand" the concept. My brain was a blocker, or something. That made me feel dumb, which is never a big deal on my end, but didn't help me find the thing useful for me either. I just couldn't get it, though the UI was well designed I suppose.

I am still skeptical (read: way too much uninformed) as to whether or not this kind of idea can really get roots AND scale to programmers communities.

Maybe that was/is just me. I don't know if she eventually got anything out of this. I may have a look at Blocky for myself but will let her know about it anyway, and I'm curious to see where that could take us, this time.

Thanks for the link.


Epic Games have a similar system again, called Kismet, used to allow artists & level designers (non-programmers) to add scripting to games. They have bolstered the system for Unreal Engine 4, which they have been showing recently, so that entire games can now be written without textual scripting (or so they say ...)

Perhaps the time really has come for this idea.