Sara Faatz Blog

Connections: Charles Petzold

Charles Petzold has been writing about Windows programming for 25 years. A “Windows Pioneer Award” winner, Petzold is author of the widely acclaimed Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, Programming Windows Phone 7, and more than a dozen other books. His classic Programming Windows,

the sixth edition of which is currently in progress, is lauded as one of the best-known and widely used programming books of all time.

I had an opportunity to connect with him and learn what he’s learned while writing Programming Windows, 6th Edition, about the books he reads, and his desire for a gamelan ensemble or Vannevar Bush's Differential Analyzer in his home.


SF:  As the author of the new book, Programming Windows, 6th Edition, you probably have more insight into Windows 8 and WinRT than anyone out there. What has surprised you, disturbed you, and pleased you the most about Windows 8 in general and WinRT specifically?


CP: I like the mix of continuity and innovation. For programmers who have worked with C# and XAML (or with HTML 5 and JavaScript), a lot of WinRT is familiar territory. But in particular I've been impressed by two aspects of WinRT: The first is that touch, mouse, and pen input have been consolidated into a uniform collection of events, so it's no longer necessary to add touch to an existing mouse application, or add mouse support to a program optimized for touch. You're working with all three forms of input at the same time, but you can also distinguish between them if you need to.


I've also been impressed by the extent to which asynchronous processing is an integral part of WinRT, and the ease with which we can do asynchronous processing in C#.  In C++, it's not so easy, but then few things are easier in C++.


Most disturbing, I guess, is that WinRT is much more like Silverlight than WPF. We veterans miss several powerful features of WPF that simply never made it into Silverlight or WinRT, and perhaps never will.  For WPF developers, this comes under the category of accepting the things we cannot change.


Most surprising is the extent to which C++ and native code seem to be an increasingly important part of the new landscape of application development. In particular, DirectX is a vital part of Windows 8 as well as Windows Phone 8. The debate between developer productivity with managed code vs. program efficiency with native code has been renewed, and I think that's a good thing. No one language or programming environment is the solution to every problem.



SF: That is great insight, Charles.  So for all of the developers out there who are chomping at the bit to start writing Metro-style apps, what advice do you have for them?


CP: Start now. Download the Windows 8 Release Preview, install the development tools, and find a good book to guide you through.  Get your fingers on the screen, and explore the motion and orientation sensors. Those are the frontiers.



SF: That’s really solid advice.  You have been writing about Windows (among other things) for more than 25 years. What have you enjoyed writing about the most?


CP: It's always a challenge to immerse oneself in a new programming environment and struggle to learn in sufficient depth to be able to write a book. A lot of anguish and swearing goes on, but I enjoy the experience. Yet, I must confess that my greatest overall writing pleasure has involved two books that are rather different from the programming tutorials. These two books are -- pardon the extensive subtitles -- "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" and "The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine." I have a few more ideas for books of this sort, and one of my goals over the next decade is to bring at least two of them into reality.



SF: That’s very cool.  I’ll definitely watch your blog for those titles.   In your software books, you include a lot of sample apps and tutorials. Which did you enjoy writing the most?


CP: Two years ago I took a two-day course on programming for Microsoft Surface -- the coffee-table-style computers now rebranded as PixelSense -- and on the second morning I wrote a program that conceptually features a spinning disk, and when you touch it and move your fingers around, you paint colors on the disk, but what you paint is also reflected in the four quadrants of the disk so it becomes an interesting design. It turns out that the touch processing and graphics are complex enough to pose a challenge for whatever platform I bring this to. The Windows Phone 7 version is in the marketplace under the name SpinPaint, but it's an XNA program rather than Silverlight, and the Windows 8 version makes use of DirectX.



SF: From books you write to books you read.  What books are on your bookshelf (or on your eReader)?


CP: Writing a book is so consuming that I'm not getting an opportunity to read as much as I like. But I recently finished Kate Summerscale's "Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace," a fascinating dissection of mid-Victorian culture in the context of one of the first scandalous divorces to take place under England's Divorce Act of 1857. I'm making my way through Hilary Mantel's novel "Bring up the Bodies," the second in her trilogy about Henry VIII seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.  Hoping for my return back to the world of the reading are Stephen Carter's alternative history "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" and Rebecca Stott's "Darwin's Ghosts," which traces evolutionary concepts back to Aristotle.



SF: Wow.  All of those sound very interesting.  What else might people not know about you?


CP: If I had the space for it, I would buy a loom and learn how to weave, and if I had even more space I would build a replica of Vannevar Bush's Differential Analyzer, and if I had even more space I would put together a gamelan ensemble, so maybe it's best that I'm confined to very small living quarters.



SF: LOL.  It may be best, but I would love to see (and hear) all of those! One last question and then I’ll let you go.  What is your favorite word?


CP: Eclectic. It's similar to electric but much more versatile.


SF: Love it! Always a pleasure Charles.  Thank you! 

Published Aug 07 2012, 12:01 AM by
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