Originally, literacy meant merely the ability to read. In the 15th century, it was expanded to include writing. Today, with the personal computer revolution, its definition is being stretched to incorporate the ability to manipulate information electronically. To understand the abilities and limitations of computers, some exposure to programming is essential. Unfortunately, the state of small-computer programming languages is akin to the Biblical Tower of Babel. Riding to the rescue is a new computer language.
The predominant computer language on personal computers today is called BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instructional Code). This was originally developed for teaching purposes by two Dartmouth professors, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. As it has been applied commercially, however, BASIC has been splintered into dozens of incompatible dialects. In addition, other languages like Pascal and FORTH have attracted followings.
Appalled by what has been done to their creation, Professors Kemeny and Kurtz have developed a new version called True BASIC. It is anyone's guess whether True BASIC will become the dominant tongue in the kingdom of microcomputers, as its authors hope. What is clear from the outset is that it can serve as a valuable tool for beginning computer users in search of computer literacy.
For one thing, it is a more elegant and powerful language than the original version on which most of the current BASICs are based.
In the older BASIC, each line is numbered, and the computer executes programs in numeric sequence. Certain commands, like GOTO followed by a line number, instruct it to either skip-instructions or loop back to previous lines. This results in programs that are difficult to understand, debug, and maintain. True BASIC adopts a newer approach called ``structured programming,'' which computer scientists favor because it provides additional commands that make line numbering unnecessary.
The new language also provides commands designed for graphics, animation, and generating music. This is the type of capability that other BASICs have adapted in a generally ad hoc fashion. As True BASIC is made available on other machines, like Apple's Macintosh, it will be completely compatible with the IBM version, the professors have promised.
Most BASICs come with a ``line editor'' to write and alter programs. These typically are awkward, frustrating, and inefficient to use. True BASIC, by contrast, has a full-screen editor, which allows you to scan freely through a number of program lines at once. It also splits the screen into two windows. The program is listed in the top window and a record of the commands you have given it and its output are displayed in the lower window.
For all its elegance, however, what the beginner may appreciate most is the clear and methodical instruction manuals supplied with the program. Many users find that the instructions one gets with most computer languages tend to be filled with jargon, punctuated with logical discontinuities and errors. Also, there is seldom much discussion of overall structure and philosophy.
True BASIC, on the other hand, comes with dozens of short, illustrative programs. These are integrated with the user's guide to provide the first-time programmer with a working sense of the language's fundamental principles and syntax.
The reference manual that is supplied in True BASIC is equally lucid and full of examples. It is hoped that the Dartmouth computer scientists will supplement the current offering with a manual for intermediate and advanced users, including a library of useful subroutines which can be used as building blocks for writing application programs.
About the only thing that one might chide the educators on is trying a little too hard at times to be friendly. One starts the program by typing ``HELLO'' and exits by keying in ``BYE.'' Something like ``TBASIC'' and ``EXIT'' seems more professional, somehow.
True BASIC is marketed by Addison-Wesley for $149.90 (with discounts for educators and corporations). It is now available on the IBM Personal Computer and its compatibles. An Apple Macintosh version is in the works.