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Get Your Hands on Prograph

This past August, Pictorius, a company based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, announced plans to release a freeware version of its flagship product, Prograph. The version appeared in the Info-Mac archive in early November. Now it’s a funny thing, but when a program lists for around $1,500 (as Prograph once did) or even $700 (as the current version does), no matter how much I read about it, the discussion somehow fails to make any great impression upon me. On the other hand, when something is free, I’m interested. -classic.hqx -reference-manual.hqx -tutorial-examples.hqx -tutorial-manual.hqx

[The whole package comes to about 4 MB. -Geoff]

Prograph is an environment in which you develop computer programs graphically. Instead of learning a lot of verbal syntax, so that you can (presumably) say and read things like this:

if (inModelID == SCPage::modelKind) {
if ( mPagelist -> FetchAItemt(inPosition,&page) ) {
PutInToken(page,outToken); return; }}

…you essentially just draw a diagram showing the flow of data from one operation to another. These diagrams are not somehow "translated" into a "real" programming language by Prograph; they are the language.

I had always been skeptical about Prograph, chiefly because of an obvious drawback of its approach: your program can’t be documented in a small space. What you could express as a few lines of text in Pascal or C might take up a whole screen in Prograph. However, since it was free I downloaded it, opened the tutorial, and plunged in.

The tutorial is splendid. It’s brilliantly written, with a keen eye to the thought processes of the reader. Every time I found myself thinking, "But what if I’d done it this other way instead?", or, "What was that funny-looking symbol you made me use there?", a discussion of that very question would follow.

I soon found that I was having a great time and picking up the language with far greater ease than any programming language I had ever learned. After I completed the tutorial (which took a few days), I fixed on a project to test myself: an elementary card-playing program. I had no difficulty creating a "deck" object and supplying it with a few "methods," such as getting it to shuffle itself, deal a card off its top, and so on. As you may have guessed, Prograph is object-oriented, and it makes object-oriented programming supremely natural and easy. Each object class is an icon, and its methods and attributes seem literally to live inside it – double-click a class icon, and a window with its methods or attributes appears. This is vastly better than describing an object textually in C++; it’s more like HyperCard, where the script of a button lives inside the button.

Then I decided to get fancier and start putting up some menus and windows like a real Macintosh program. Prograph has an Application framework that takes care of the basic Mac interface for you: it comes with classes and methods (written in Prograph, of course) that handle the event loop (responding to mouse clicks and drags in menus and windows) and has an easy graphical menu and window editor so you can just draw the window you want your program to use (without having to resort to ResEdit). However, I soon realized that you don’t get to throw away your multi-volume collection of Inside Macintosh. I wanted to put up a "thermometer" progress window, which the user could watch while my deck was shuffling. I got the window to come up when the shuffling started, and to vanish when it ended, but for some reason no drawing was getting done: the thermometer wasn’t appearing. Finally, I discovered the problem: I had to put up the window and then stop, letting the event loop take over, and let the repeated Null events trigger Idle actions that would advance the thermometer, just as you might do if you were writing the same routine in C. Once I did this, the thermometer worked perfectly. So, if you want to write a Mac program with Prograph you still must learn to program the Mac; Prograph doesn’t take care of everything for you the way HyperCard does. I can tell you from experience, though, having tried to write the same sort of program in C++ that Prograph is vastly easier.

I found the writing process incredibly fun, because the Prograph milieu is totally dynamic. You don’t have to get every single routine right in order to try out a program; there’s no compiler that won’t let you get started if you don’t have everything just so. Instead, you start running your program, and if it makes an "error" Prograph pauses and lets you fix it. For instance, when I wrote my shuffle thermometer, I wrote the loop that advances the thermometer, but I didn’t bother to say what was supposed to happen when the loop had iterated the total number of times. So I started my program, and after advancing the thermometer, Prograph stopped and put up a dialog saying, in effect, "You need a routine here that you haven’t written. Would you like to write it?" I said "yes," wrote the routine (to close the thermometer window), and Prograph then picked up in my program exactly where it had left off, and proceeded to close the window! Even cooler, you can pause a running program and examine what data is being handled; thus, your "code" (the data-flow diagram you drew) becomes its own debugging tool. If you find an error, you can insert a corrected value, or back to some earlier routine that caused the problem and rewrite it (in which case Prograph rolls back to that earlier point and carries on from there).

I can’t say enough about how neat, easy, and satisfying I found Prograph, but I can’t describe it adequately, either; in fact, no description I’ve read has done it justice. You have to experience it. Even if you’ve never done any programming – perhaps especially if you’ve never done any programming – you’ll pick it up right away.

The freeware release, called Prograph Classic, isn’t crippled; it was the current version once upon a time. The only hitch is that if you want to save a program as stand-alone (instead of running it at low speed inside the Prograph interpreter), you must buy a compiler for a mere $25, which Pictorius calls a shareware fee and has promised to donate to charity. Once you’re familiar with Prograph Classic, if you’re curious about newer versions, check out: Prograph-Review.bhtml Prograph-CPX-Tutorial.bhtml

I’m not saying you’ll rush out and spring for the current version, but I think you’ll agree that Prograph is to programming as Macintosh is to computers. The Pictorius folks are to be strongly commended – and thanked – for this free release, a gift that lets Mac users have a wonderful experience they would otherwise be denied. More software companies should pursue this policy of releasing outdated versions as freeware.

[Addendum: EveryDay Objects, Inc. has developed a set of Internet classes and primitives for Prograph that have been used to make a Web server that queries a database and returns Web pages generated on the fly – their demo at Macworld Expo was pretty neat. – Geoff]

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