Bill Gates on Technical Computing

At the recent supercomputing conference in Seattle, Bill Gates gave a keynote address (transcript) where he announced that Microsoft had re-discovered its interest in scientific computing. (Microsoft’s second product was a Fortran compiler for CP/M, released in August 1977.) The motive is obviously commercial, but the statement is still significant. Microsoft has treated technical computing as a second class citizen for too long.

A couple of points I found of particular interest:

  • The primary interest appears to be in smoothing out the process of scientific discovery, with a lot of emphasis on data integration (using XML, of course), transparent distributed computing, and enhanced collaboration.
  • There is no mention at all of the nuts and bolts programming of numerical applications. He briefly mentions ‘visual programming,’ but that’s about it.

Improving workflow is one of Microsoft’s strengths. Scientific computing, on the other hand, is not, which probably explains Gates’ silence on the subject. Many people applauded DEC’s acquisition of Microsoft Fortran, which is now being phased out in favour of Intel Visual Fortran.

The .NET platform doesn’t exactly make it easy to write good numerical software. Even aside from the lack of support for rounding modes and standard floating-point exception mechanisms, the standard .NET languages (C# and Visual Basic) are not technical-computing friendly. There is no doubt in my mind that the .NET platform delivers a major improvement in developer productivity for general line-of-business applications.

Unfortunately, where technical computing is concerned, the productivity promise remains largely unfulfilled. It takes more than a keynote speech to win over the hearts of a community that has been ignored for so long. “Developers, developers, developers!”, Bill. Make writing numerical software for .NET a joy for developers.

What we need is a .NET language specifically targeted at technical computing. Will F# be it? Don Syme is obviously doing a lot of great work there. But functional programming for everyone?

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