Developer Interviews

Scott Barta, Software Engineer, NetPositive

Interview by Henry Bortman

HB: How would you compare NetPositive with Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer?
SB: The one thing NetPositive has going for it is it's extremely fast. It seems to me to be faster than Netscape that I've seen running on any other platform. About the only real competition with it that I've seen in speed is Internet Explorer. I haven't seen Opera. People say that that's extremely fast. That's the good thing it has going for it. Unfortunately, it's lacking a lot of things that people expect to have in other browsers. It doesn't have JavaScript support. It doesn't have Java support, it doesn't have SSL, which is a protocol for doing secure connections to commerce Web sites. We're going to be adding SSL for the R4 release coming up. JavaScript and Java are somewhere off in the dim future.
HB: Java in the dim future doesn't sound so good.
SB: The first thing I should explain is that Java is not the same thing as JavaScript. There's a lot of confusion about it and that's Netscape's fault because they took this scripting support that they were already planning on putting into Navigator and then the Java hype picked up and they decided to name it JavaScript to get in on the hype. But to answer your original question about Java, there isn't Java support in BeOS as a whole because Be needs a Java VM-basically, a run-time environment for Java programs and applets to work-and we don't have anything that's suitable.

Be must give the external appearance that we don't care about Java. That's not true. We do care about Java, it's just that until we get a solution, there's not much we can say about it. We have been talking to Sun about it and we have been talking to other companies, but unfortunately, they want a lot of money for them to make the VM and environment available on the platform, and it's money that we really don't have to spend right now, so we're still looking around.

HB: So, how big a problem do you think it is?
SB: The lack of Java isn't a huge problem for a Web browser right now. For the most part, site designers aren't using Java a lot for critical things for their sites. They use it for some little bit of eye candy, it may do some animation or show information or something like that, but usually you can still get around and get what you need from the site without Java.

Lack of JavaScript, on the other hand, is something more serious, because there are a number of sites you can go to where the pages simply don't work without the JavaScript because the pages rely on some of the capabilities that actually generate the HTML, they do the things that the site needs for the pages to work. And, unfortunately, how it is right now [in NetPositive] is that lack of JavaScript will cause a page to silently fail. And you tend to think that something's wrong with the site, but in reality, it's the lack of JavaScript that's causing it to not work right, and you as a user have no idea that that's the problem.

HB: Is JavaScript going to be in R4?
SB: No. I'm going to start working on it after R4 ships, but I'm not really sure yet how long it's going to take. I'm hoping that there'll be some sort of JavaScript support in R5, but I don't know if it's going to be full support, or what form it will take.
HB: Is there any kind of a plug-in architecture in NetPositive?
SB: No. That's been requested a number of times and it's on my list. I have this fabled list. It's just pages and pages long, and that's one of the things on there. I'm very interested in doing a plug-in architecture when I have time. It's something that might appear for R5, might not. But, when I do it, I'm planning on doing something similar to what Netscape does to allow you to do the same sorts of things that you can do in Netscape plug-ins. And I may extend it in other ways to give plug-in designers more options and more flexibility.

Is there strong demand to put some of the other features that Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer offer-history tracking, for example-into NetPositive?

I haven't had a lot of requests for adding that sort of functionality to NetPositive. And there's maybe a couple of reasons for it. I think one of the biggest reasons is that users of BeOS right now are a pretty patient lot. I mean, they're happy just to have something that works. And they're happy to see NetPositive do frames, and so they're almost afraid to ask for anything fancy because they know we're working our butts off as it is just trying to get the basic functionality there.

So, that's part of it. Part of it is that I think a lot of people are really happy with the fact that NetPositive is a small, simple, lean, fast browser. And while they may use some fancy features if we put them in, I think people are more afraid to see NetPositive become some really big, bloated thing that tries to do everything.

It's really hard being a one-man browser-writing team in a world that's defined by the big guys, because Netscape and Microsoft, they can put hundreds of engineers on their browsers and you know, hundreds of engineers can come up with all sorts of new features. And it's hard then for me to even think about trying to compete with those guys.

But, I'm also at a bit of an advantage, too, because yes, they're coming up with all sorts of features, but not all of them make it into widespread use. I mean, they're adding all sorts of things that people never use. So, I have an advantage in that I can sort of sit back and see what things are popular, what things aren't, and focus my time on implementing the stuff that people need.

HB: Your office looks more like a greenhouse. Is that a tradition for you?
SB: Not really. I used to work at Claris before I came here in January. I actually had a shrine to Bill Gates in my cubicle there, which was kind of funny. I had all sorts of pictures up. I was just sort of trying to convince people I was weird and shake people up a little bit.

But, actually, I used to decorate my boss's cube. My boss was really fun. He was a really laid-back guy and everyone would sort of come and hang out in his cube and just have a good time. One day I was sitting in his cube and I just got inspired and started hanging stuff from the ceiling. I hung hard drives and cards and that sort of thing and sort of started a tradition where we'd decorate his cube. Every three or four weeks we'd get tired of what was there and change the decoration.

He went away on sabbatical for around six weeks or so, which was something that Claris and Apple used to do before Steve Jobs shut that down, and I decided that when he came back I wanted to do something really good for his cube. So, I turned it into the nature cube.

I brought in a little fountain that was burbling away, and I put plants everywhere. I brought in about 20 or 30 plants into this tiny cube, and I hung speakers in there and started piping in these bird calls and everything into his cube. Just to really, really give him a welcome back when he came back.

The funny thing is, just hanging out in his cube, it was really pleasant. I mean, the environment was so nice that everyone who came in really commented that they really loved his cube. And when I came here, I decided to do the same thing.

HB: When I was in your cube, I didn't notice the nature sounds, though.
SB: You have to listen for it. I have the volume sort of low so I don't disturb my neighbors too much.
HB: So, when you're not here, what do you do aside from sleep?
SB: I'm trying to teach myself to play piano, which is a really hard thing to do if you didn't start off at age three with your parents making you take lessons. So, I do that a lot at home. Like I said, it's really difficult. It's challenging and it's stimulating, too. It's nice to go home and just do something different, use a different part of your brain than you do at work.
HB: Do you play other instruments?
SB: A few. I've played recorders, actually, I think a lot of people have. In college, I was briefly part of an early music group, did a few concerts and that sort of thing, which was really interesting. I have a few guitars that I don't actually play very much. I have a guitar in my cube and it's sort of the guitar for everyone else. People come by and play it, but I don't play too much with it.

That's an interesting thing about being at Be. I mean, we're working on an operating system for creative people, but an awful lot of the engineers are creative people themselves. There are a lot of people who have guitars in their cube, basses in their cube. I think if people had bigger cubes, they'd bring in pianos and keyboards and that sort of thing. It's really interesting working in an environment like that.

HB: Is that the main thing you like about it here?
SB: Yeah, the people here are great. They're very bright, creative people. Very friendly, most of them. And that's really nice to have. I've worked places where, I mean, this is sort of how it was at Claris. I've worked places where people are dead. They just sit in their cube all day and they never say anything, they never do anything interesting. The only way you could tell somebody was alive was to go by and chuck a rock at their head and see if they flinched or not. That sort of environment just isn't as fun to work in because I need to interact with other people and have some fun, too.
HB: You mentioned that you were at Claris. What were you doing before that?
SB: I came out to California in 1995 from Ohio and worked at TRW for a short period of time. Most of the stuff that TRW does in Northern California is government work in space and defense. It's satellites, electronic intelligence, that sort of thing.

But the group I was working with was a group of engineers who weren't in the space and defense business. They were formed as a group that was actually doing something completely different. It was Internet search tools aimed at academic librarians so people could search databases that used a little-known standard called Z3950 for searching bibliographic databases. We were coming up with applications that would give you a really powerful user interface to search those databases across the Internet in a standard way.

We were aiming a lot at university librarians, people who are searching very big, very specific databases. Something like Medline, which has millions of records about medical research. And searching similar well-known databases. Each of these databases have their own completely different user interfaces. Each one is different from the other and there's a big learning curve associated with learning how to use the interface and also learning how to search it. And we were trying to provide tools that would give a common interface for searching all these different sorts of databases.

It's for people who want to use these databases and do very focused searches to get exactly the information they want. You can't do these sorts of searches out of the so-called search engines right now, you know, Yahoo and Excite and all the others. You can try, they have interfaces for doing it, but they don't work very well and it's not always obvious how to get the results you want.

HB: Because each one has a different syntax?
SB: Not only that, the search engines, they're Web based, and HTML is a terrible language for trying to build complicated user interfaces even with JavaScript and all those things that people have been adding to it. It's just not real conducive to trying to build a search interface to a database. So, inevitably, what they end up doing is you get some field and you just type in text and you can use "and" and "or" and put things in quotes to try and do phrase searches, but the searches you can do in Yahoo are about as sophisticated as the searches you could do 10 or 20 years ago against other databases.
HB: Do you have any thoughts about what you might want to do after Be?
SB: I don't know what else I'd rather be doing than Be right now. It's not like Be is this fantastic company that's the end-all and be-all of working in Silicon Valley, but I'm doing the sort of work I want to do, and I'm working with the sort of people I want to work with. You know, I'd be hard-pressed to name another company where I could have the same sort of opportunity.

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