Learning how to program software seems like a daunting task fit only for the geeks and nerds who lock themselves away in dark rooms staring at their monitors for days on end as they pour over thick manuals written largely in zeros and ones. Fortunately the reality is that it’s not as complicated to make basic applications as people may think. If it were, the majority of nerds wouldn’t be doing it because the defining factor of our kind is an inherent laziness. Why do you think we like computers? The heaviest thing we have to lift is a monitor and that’s done fairly irregularly and for a very short period of time.
There are many different opinions on how you should start programming. Some advocate the method of throwing yourself firmly into the deep end and if you don’t drown then you’re set for life. These people usually recommend getting stuck straight into C or C++. Others recommend a slightly easier starting point such as Java or C#, still quite involved but with a few more safety nets built in. Then there is the ‘kiddy pool’ school of thought that advocates such languages as Visual Basic. These languages are really easy to get started in. You drag a few elements onto a blank form and then write some code that reads largely like Standard English. All methods have their advantages, but I’m a fan of starting somewhere in the middle with Java. My reasons for this are that Java enforces a certain amount of design and forethought as well as correct programming procedures that are somewhat absent from Visual Basic.
I can’t go into every single language in one article because it would take too long and the only experience I have with languages outside of the Microsoft stable is some familiarity with Java. Here are a few details about some languages.
Programming in Java is very similar to C/C++ development. It is object-oriented and well structured. There is wide usage of Java, and therefore there are a lot of libraries around that can be used in your Java program.
∑ Java is platform independent, it can be run on everything.
∑ It’s free, you can just download the SDK and go.
∑ It’s easy to learn if you know C or C++.
∑ It provides automatic memory management.
∑ There are a large library of pre-built classes and many more available from around the net.
∑ It’s quite safe. It’s fairly hard (if not impossible) to damage your computer through programming in Java.
∑ Speed. Java is quite slow, because it is essentially compiled at run-time by the system’s virtual machine.
∑ It is difficult to compile into a stand-alone application.
∑ Memory pointers are not allowed.
∑ Some people dislike being forced into object oriented programming.
C has been around for years and has a large following. Many different people around the globe use it. A few other programming languages have also been written in C.
∑ Large usage base. Easy to find help, other programmers, libraries etc.
∑ Simple core language, with further functionality being added through the use of libraries.
∑ Very powerful. If your computer can do it, it can do it through C.
∑ Low-level unchecked access to computer memory using of pointers.
∑ One of the fasted running languages.
∑ C code can be used in C++ applications.
∑ Programs are compiled and stand alone, no need for interpreters (sometimes external libraries will need to be installed on the target PC).
∑ Relatively difficult to learn.
∑ Very little safety net. If you choose (accidentally or otherwise) to make a program that will access memory incorrectly and horribly break your system, it won’t stop you. It only pulls you up on compile errors.
∑ Non trivial programs could be hard to port. Programs have to be compiled for each specific platform.
∑ Not strictly object oriented.
∑ Code can get messy easily.
C++ is a derivation of the C programming language. C code still works in C++ programs. It is an object-oriented language and very powerful.
∑ As close to a universal programming language, as you’re likely to get at the moment. It’s used everywhere.
∑ Object oriented technology included, highly supported and recommended, but not forced upon you.
∑ Programs are stand alone, no need for interpreters (sometimes external libraries will need to be installed on the target PC).
∑ Easy to port to other platforms if standard C++ guidelines are adhered to.
∑ Many libraries available for added functionality.
∑ Quite difficult to learn. You’ll never really stop learning new things about it (which is also a pro, I guess).
∑ Non-trivial programs aren’t easily ported if they use platform-specific libraries (e.g. DirectX etc.).
∑ Programs can be slightly larger and slower than those programmed in C.
Visual Basic is a very easy language to use. Its code is similar to Pseudo-code and many times the developer can simply type what they think should work and it does, which is cool.
∑ Very easy to learn
∑ Quick to implement an application or algorithm
∑ Lots of in-built functionality
∑ Recently added complete OOP support with the .Net upgrade.
∑ Not as flexible as other languages, you can’t do as much.
∑ Runs slower than C/C++
∑ Purely a Microsoft product and Windows based.
Where you start is largely up to you and what you want to get out of your programming. If you want to make it a career you’re going to want to be familiar with the more ‘industrial’ programming languages such as C and C++. There are still a lot of people out there experienced with these languages but you’ll be in a more specialized field. You’d have trouble throwing a punch in a crowded room without starting a scuffle with someone who could get a program going in Visual Basic. Start with a language that is suited to your skill level and when you’ve learnt a bit of that you’ll find it easier to move on to other languages. I’ve found personally and within my group of peers at university that now that we all have a certain amount of programming knowledge, it really doesn’t take much effort to get stuck into another language and code a program there. Most of our assignments are done through improvisation as we learn the specifics of a language necessary to implement the assignment. You may not get a program as cohesive and well written as you would like compared with if you had a better idea of what you are actually doing, but it usually works.
Don’t let me kid you into believing that you can develop software with the utmost ease. You’ll be sitting there staring at just three lines of code for two hours wondering why it doesn’t work before you realize that your capitalization is wrong. However, it is a very rewarding feeling when you do get to the end of a program and it all works beautifully (at least until the user base get their hands on it and break it). So if you’re even somewhat interested get in there and have a go. The worst that can happen is that you’ll rewrite your boot sector.
By Daniel Punch
M6.Net Web Helpers
Daniel Punch is a writer working at M6.Net: ‘The web-hosting company for humans.’ M6.Net is working hard to help humanity experience the power and freedom to develop their own part of the Internet, to share their information and connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime.