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Ask HN: Why do not smartphones encourage programming like early 80s computer systems?

Ask HN: Why do not smartphones encourage programming like early 80s computer systems?

2023-04-15 05:55:58

I’d argue that a mobile phone is not an adequate platform for coding. The touchscreen and keyboard layouts make it difficult to type needed symbols, distracting from the problem at hand.

Coding requires deep thought, but phones are optimized for moving around rather than sitting in one place and thinking. As such, use cases like maps, calendars, communication and alarms get priority.

The reason people buy a phone is to communicate and get around. And manufacturers cater to those needs.

>I’d argue that a mobile phone is not an adequate platform for coding. The touchscreen and keyboard layouts make it difficult to type needed symbols, distracting from the problem at hand.

Something akin to hypercard could be made to work very well on a smartphone, or possibly a dataflow environment like PureData but more general purpose. But yeah, 99% of people just want to use their phone and development for phones is much simpler on a proper computer.

Drag and drop ‘stuff’ is the worst on phones. You need screen space for it. It works on tablets, but on phones it’s mostly awful. I cannot think of an example where it is smooth and usable, especially on the move.

There are positive and negative factors presented by mobile platforms:


1. Highly abstract, hiding away internal functionality. 99% of mobile is GUI. iOS even abstracts away the filesystem. Android is more transparent.

2. Highly locked down: walled gardens increase the friction to run custom code. Terminal as an app that can be installed, but on unrooted devices it’s almost useless compared to terminal on a desktop.

3. Ergonomics: smartphone keyboards and screens are not conducive for onboard development. Solutions exist but are pretty niche, and most people would prefer attaching a real keyboard.


1. Arguably mobile platforms have increased the number of coders! The app stores facilitate distribution and payment, encouraging new programmers to make an impact. Desktops are in most cases the actual development platform though.

In the 80s computer programming was done with the same device. With today’s mobile phones, programming is done with another device, usually a laptop.

This is of course changing, as mobile phones gain more functions. However, for it to happen it needs a change in culture. Phones have been largely seen as consumption devices, and still, a lot of people aren’t comfortable writing long pieces with them.

It also could be as simple as what priorities the executive class wants to give their devices. I could imagine an alternate world where Steve Wozniak still had influence at Apple and he could push their lineup towards more hackable.

My phone is as powerful as my laptop. It’s limited by walled gardens and not enough research making them useful as production devices with such a limited screen size.

Early 80s computers were boring if you didn’t code something. That’s a simplified way to explain it. It reminds me of the programs people wrote on TI-83 calculators, also because they didn’t have any diversions unless you created them.

When I got my first computer, a Z80 based system running BASIC from ROM and able to boot CP/M 2, it came with almost no software. If you wanted to make it do something, you got out the BASIC manual or the Z80 assembler. Since most professional software was way out of my price range, and shareware was had to come-by (2400bps modem + expensive calls), you really had to be a builder. I’m grateful I didn’t have to do any soldering though.

I often wonder how many people actually did any programming on those computers. For a very long time I assumed loads of people did – I did, my brothers and Dad did, my friends did. There were listings in magazines and books. It seemed wildly popular. But looking back now, and having met far more people from that era than I knew in my small town at the time, hardly anyone says they did too. They had computers but they used them for gaming and nothing much else. I was in a bubble, living in place where a major employer was a tech company. What reality was like outside seems to explain why programming was so appealing – it made me a bit special and opened a lot of doors back in the 90s.

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I suspect that, even now, including an IDE as a default app with a language compiler or interpreter would be a waste of space for most users. They wouldn’t use it, and they’d complain about it taking up valuable photo and music storage.

in the early 80s, all branches of wh smith, the uk’s largest newsagent chain, had computers on display and available to use (or misuse, in the case of small children) – they were broadly targetted consumer goods.

Everyone was talking automation of business early 80s. Home computers were for gaming and programming, but PCs were meant for non programmers. Even some of the home computers were pushed for business or at least non tech users.

Sure but that market was just starting out in the early 80s, even gaming was more of something they could do not really something they were sold for, the cool kids had a 2600, geeks had computers.

I’d say Raspberry Pi 400 could ignite a similar spark, I don’t think you’re comparing apples to apples here.

Smartphones are consumer devices. And a Raspberry Pi 400 is probably even more niche than 80s computers were in comparison.

In any case I don’t think it’s about the devices at all, there are just better things to do even for an introvert who doesn’t go out much. Just different times.

Smartphones were designed to do the opposite, they will never do that. The worst thing is that desktop development has been influenced by mobile and become just as restrictive.

For the same reasons you can’t open up a smartphone and tinker with it whereas it was and still is one of the great things about most non-Apple computers. They’d love to kill the culture that birthed them, because then there can’t be another.

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