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"Original" hypertext project delivers -- 30 years later

September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 3:52 p.m. EDT (1952 GMT)

by Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz

(IDG) -- Imagine Mickey Mantle coming out to match long balls with McGwire and Sosa, or Jimi Hendrix returning to Woodstock, and you can imagine the atmosphere when Ted Nelson announced the release of Xanadu at the O'Reilly Open Source Software Convention in Monterey, CA.

While it's hard to convey briefly the historical weight Xanadu hefts, its Web site summarizes it nicely: "Founded 1960: The Original Hypertext Project." That's right -- 30 years before Tim Berners-Lee passed around his Web proposals, Ted Nelson was working out a hypertext system from which we still have a lot to learn.
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It's not just that Xanadu is a fantastic creative achievement, though; it's also infamous as the tardiest software ever. It's been nearly ready to ship numerous times since the 1970s.

And it finally happened, just a few days ago. Nelson and his team demonstrated Xanadu and passed out its source code(!). After a sojourn through the wilderness nearly as long as the Israelites', Xanadu is real, and it works (well, partially).

A full description of Xanadu's history and functionality will fill at least a book. All we can do now is to showcase scripting's role in the product release.

Xanadu and scripting

Xanadu is ambitious. Very, very ambitious. It's a client/server application designed to be bigger than the Web itself. Much of the Xanadu coding in the last 20 years has been in C, C++, and Smalltalk.

Nelson's team released a slightly more modest form of the project, called Udanax Green, coded in C on the server side, and pure Python for clients. The choice of Python, of course, gives outstanding portability, rapid and safe development, and an excellent basis for programming teamwork.

We've worked with the release only long enough to notice that it mixes both procedural and object-oriented segments a bit inconsistently. Otherwise, it seems clean and certainly is readable.

In any case, Xanadu will receive a lot of attention over the next few months. It promises to be an excellent demonstration of how Python fares in a high-performance, large-scale, complex role that many programmers believe is reserved for C++ and Java.

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A report from the Open Source Convention
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Xanadu Web site
O'Reilly Open Source Software Convention
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