Call it I-Robotware

Posted by: Steve Hamm on May 19, 2005

Continuing on my robot theme…

Canadian tech entrepreneur Nelson Lin has at long last accomplished a goal he set for himself more than 20 years ago. His tiny, seven-person RoboCoder Corp. just received a US patent for its RoboCoder software code generator. This is essentially a software robot that can be set up to generate code and create programs with little human effort. “Someday, somehow, everybody will be using robots to build software, just like they’re using them to build cars today,” says Lin. I don’t know if RoboCoder will win in the marketplace. Frankly, it’s a long shot. But Lin’s efforts point to a crucial need in the software world: ways to take the sweat out of software writing.

Lin, a Taiwan native, was inspired to begin his quest in 1982 when he was a grad student in computer science at the Univesity of Western Ontario. Once, in a hallway, he watched a female student carrying a pile of IBM punchcards get sideswiped by another student and spill her cards all over the floor. That mean she had to do the programming over again. "She just sat down and cried. I felt sorry for her. I thought I could do better for programmers. It became my lifetime goal," says Lin, now 46.

Fast-forward to 1995. Lin had been a programmer and entrepreneur for more than a decade when he thought it would be possible to harness code-generation techniques to make programming much faster and easier. A divorce in 1999 left him with the time and motivation to get going on the project.

Don't ask me how this stuff works. I try to express technology in metaphors as much as possible. (Lin says other code generators still require a lot of labor, while, with RoboCoder, the code is self-generating. "Theirs are handmade programs. In our case, it's robots building robots.") His company now uses RoboCoder when it does programming jobs for clients. In the future, it plans on selling the technology embedded in a product that clients will run themselves.

I spoke to a couple of Lin's clients, who were happy with the results.
Brian Rodd, president of Securecor, a Toronto boutique investment bank, says RoboCor has basically become his firm's IT department. Lin designed a system to handle the company's transactions, and it's so flexible that Lin has been able to rebuild the system 25 times in two years with minimal effort. Rodd says changes that would have taken 6 months to make with traditional programming methods can be handled in a couple of days. "I don't understand Nelson's robot talk, but it works," says Rodd.

While software developers are waiting around for the promise of object-oriented programming to finally be delivered on, they can give robot programming a try.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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