Tuesday, February 23, 2021

No-Code in the Olden Days

At about the same time that the world was beginning to move from DOS to Windows, I was looking for some way to simplify the process of building and, more particularly, modifying new applications.  The idea was to find some software development system that would allow a relatively inexperienced employee to create simple programs and make changes to those programs.

There were several systems that promised that coding was so easy anyone could do it with a couple of days of training.  I tried a few of those packages (the ones that had a free trial) and found that they fell into two categories – either I couldn't make them work or they were only good for producing “Hello World” level programs.

I have to admit though, I actually bought a copy of one package, a product called Layout.  The company had versions for MS-DOS, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 and they were working on versions for Windows NT and OS/2 (IBM's attempt to introduce their own operating system to compete with Windows).  Layout was billed as “object-oriented” which meant that you constructed programs by joining pre-defined “objects” together.  You built a “flowchart” on-screen using those objects and you could modify certain properties of each object (like the text of a text box or the comparison part of a decision box).

You could design data entry, database, and report formats visually on-screen and then convert them to real .EXE executable files or structured C++ programs.  The system supported OLE 2.0, DDE, DLLs, hypertext links – all kinds of neat stuff.  And according to the seller, there were over 200,000 users, all kinds of add-ons, and widespread third-party support.  All for only $299.95.

Well, it sounded like a great deal – and maybe it was for some people.  In my case, it didn't really work out that way.  First of all, I made the mistake of ordering the DOS version, thinking that it would be a couple of years before Windows really took over the market.  Sort of like thinking that rock and roll in the late 50s was a passing fad.  By the time I had learned enough to start playing with the DOS version, Windows was spreading like wildfire.

The second thing I discovered was that Layout was fairly complex - and it had to be in order to be really useful. You needed to work with it on a regular basis or you wound up spending most of your time paging through the manual looking up information on what object to use and how to use it.  So much for using it just to whip up a quick program every once in a while.

On the other hand, like most such products Layout wasn't flexible enough to build a really complex program.  If you wanted to insert multi-level subtotals in your report that were dependent on a given set of conditions – well, that wasn't happening. To be fair though, any visual designer product that could do things like that back then would probably have been so large and cumbersome that it would be too hard to use.

Then too, the simple mechanics of handling the visual designer, dragging and dropping objects, modifying properties, and connecting everything in a flowchart was, to coin a phrase, a bit of a drag for me.  The process was somewhat slow and awkward, and positioning the objects on the screen exactly where you wanted them took a considerable amount of patience.

Still, the package had some really nice features; for example, you had almost complete control over printer positioning, you could run other programs and “read” the command line, and you could insert comment boxes and “spy” boxes in your program flowchart (spy boxes were a debugging tool to pause the program and show you some intermediate result).

Regardless, Layout had a fatal flaw.  You had folders of different types of objects and you had the ability to set or modify the properties of those objects.  Then you could drag them onto your screen to build a program.  Sound familiar?  Once the 800 pound Microsoft gorilla in the room started marketing Visual Basic – well products like Layout were pretty much doomed. 

It would take a couple of decades for no-code tools to come to the forefront again, but fortunately for out-of-practice programmers like myself that day has arrived and this time visual programming is here to stay.

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