The Legend of OpenLaszlo Legals

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc.., on OpenLaszlo, “the premier open-source platform for rich internet applications.” For the last year I’ve been working on the Legals project, which is a re-implementation of the entire platform — compiler, doctools, runtime-specific kernels, common core runtime libraries, you name it, while keeping APIs intact– in order to support compilation of source applications in our LZX language to arbitrary runtimes, starting with Flash and DHTML, but with SVG and Java on the horizon. This undertaking has been compared to the magician’s trick of pulling the tablecloth out from under the place settings — while dinner is being served.

Over the last calendar year, within the small but growing world of web application developers, the Legals project has gained increasing attention. Technorati shows that bloggers in China, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere are paying close attention to our every move.

Amusingly enough, these very sharp developers have grasped the essential idea of the project, but have been bewildered by the project name, “Legals”. Even within the company Laszlo Systems, those not invloved on the project have been intruigued by the moniker. Well, yesterday we essentially began our Beta program, and the Legals codename is being retired in favor of the much more normative (and bland) “OpenLaszlo 4 Beta Release 1.”

Below the fold you’ll find a little story I wrote for internal consuption at Laszlo about how the code name “Legals” came to be. If you like geek arcana, I think you’ll like this. Some tidbits for context: Everbody mentioned is a hardcore developer, except for Amy, the erstwhile program manager, and me, the technical writer. David is the CTO and founder of the company, our big cheese. Max is also a founder of the company. Oliver is the original designer of the LZX language. (The OpenLaszlo website can tell you more about all these people.) I’ll only add that I’ve been in this business since 1980, and the people mentioned below the fold are the smartest developers I’ve ever worked with. Finally, to set context, I might admit that a year ago our company’s financial situation was, shall we say, not especially propitious. Since then we’ve put millions in the bank and things are really looking up. But a year ago, things were more scary.

On the auspicious occasion of the release of OpenLaszlo 4.0b1, the
day when “legals” is officially retired as a project name, I offer
this reminiscence about how that project name came about. Those of
you whom I’ve bored with this story before, feel free to tune out.

About a year ago, Jim Grandy, Max Carlson and Adam Wolff came to
Cambridge, MA to meet with the east-coast members of the OpenLaszlo
team for a 1-day architectural status meeting. We gathered in the
borrowed boardroom of one of our venture capital investors (I forget
who).

In the morning, the decision before us was whether to put our efforts
into supporting Flash 9 or supporting DHTML. There were strong
opinions on both sides. Adam, recently head of the Studios team,
argued that in the real world customers wanted Flash. If we did not
do Flash 9 we would not be able to keep up with Adobe. Customers
would defect. There would be no income and the company would sink.
Max argued just as strongly that you cannot fight the tide, and the
tide was Ajax. The whole buzz-o-sphere was moving to Ajax, and if we
did not come up with an Ajax story, we would quickly be pigeonholed
as another Flash shop. The tide would pass us by, and, sooner or
later, probably sooner, Macromedia would destroy us.

I don’t recall Henry Minsky’s position, but it probably was, “the
heck with both of them, let’s do SVG!” Tucker was heard to say
something about Lisp machines. Jim was neutral, and I was too
ignorant to have an opinion. Amy was trying to ensure that the whole
matter was approached rationally.

Everybody agreed that it was impossible to do both Flash and DHTML
with the available team. There were not enough resources. We had to
decide which it was going to be.

We took a break for lunch, at the Legal Seafoods Restaurant near
Harvard Square. Present at the luncheon: Jim, Max, Adam, Henry,
Tucker, Amy Muntz, and myself. Over paella, the Max–Adam
conversation got rather heated:

Max: “You can’t argue with me. I’m a hater!”
Adam: “You think you’re a hater? I’m the hater. I’m a hater-hater!”

Dinner rolls may or may not have been thrown. Proper Bostonian
persons at nearby tables may or may not have fainted. Amy was trying
to preserve propriety. Cream puffs were ordered for desert, but not
all of them were consumed. “Guys! You cannot throw profiteroles at
each other in a public restaurant!”

(I’m not saying that things were thrown. I’m only reporting what was
said.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cream_puff

The lunch, originally budgeted for 1 hour, ended up taking 3 hours,
and during that time the decision was made: “What the hell. Let’s do
both.” We adjourned back to the meeting room, where Oliver Steele
joined us. Architectural diagrams were drawn and erased on the
whiteboard in a ferocious blur. I struggled and failed to understand
what the hell everybody was talking about. But it was fun just
watching. One of the people from the Venture company stopped in and
asked, “Is there anything I can get for you?” Henry said, “How about
thirteen million dollars?” The fellow didn’t hear him, however, and
Amy covered for Henry with some nice platitudes. The rest of us all
bit our lips and nearly died from suppressed laughter. (Some of you
may recall the cash situation at the time. . .)

About then Max read to us a private memo from David reprimanding him
for inappropriately sending a memo to “all laszlo”. Max said, “I
think I’ll reply to him and copy all Laszlo. I really love yanking
David’s chain.” We prevailed upon him not to do so, since we clearly
needed Max for this new project.

A snowstorm came up and Jim made a dash for the airport. The rest of
us went out and many of us drank beer or tequila until very late. All
hating was set aside.

Later, Jim Grandy suggested the project name “legals” in honor of the
luncheon at which this decision was made.

Other participants at the lunch that day may remember things slightly
differently.

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3 Comments

  1. Stearns says:

    Legals is a terrific restaurant, but it aint cheap. Here in the capital-starved and “sensible” mid-north of the country, people buy their own lunch save but maybe once a year, and balk at anything over $5 per on all occassions. My local colleagues have a hard time imagining the importance of venture-backed food fights involving $20 and more per plate. But I think such intellectual greasing is a big part in making a bold decision.

  2. John says:

    Please don’t get the impression that Laszlo is an extravagant, dot-com-bubble kind of place: it most certainly is not. In fact, when I travel on business to San Mateo, which I do several times a year, my per-diem guidelines in nominal (that is, not inflation-adjusted) dollars is less than it was when I worked at Sun twenty years ago. Five dollar lunches sounds about right. A bunch of engineers eating at a fancy place like Legals is & expensing the meal is not standard procedure at Laslzo.

    However, the Legals luncheon was extraordinary, and if ever there was a meal expense for which Laszlo got its money’s worth, that was it. In proof of which assertion I offer OpenLaszlo 4 Beta Release Candidate 1, which is available for download from the OpenLaszlo website now, just about one year after it was envisioned. Either that is one astounding bit of software engineering, or I am a purple-assed baboon. And my ass is not purple (I have looked).

    So yes, Legals is expensive, and it’s not a typical venue for us Laszlovians to discuss software strategy and architecture. Especially not us worker bees.

    But here’s the thing I was trying to capture: to me it felt like I was watching Lennon and McCartney decide to form a band. Well, maybe that’s overstated. Or not, actually. I felt like I was watching enormously talented and extremely playful and likeable bunch of people collaborating on something new, significant, and beautiful. A year later, it still feels that way .

  3. Stearns says:

    Indeed. But don’t go timid on me, John. I think there’s something to the idea and the moment of getting a group to do what you’re not supposed to. I think you were touching on this in talking about Max’s interaction with Adam or David. I’m finding life in Lake Woebegone to be a little safe and unsatisfying. I don’t think Boston and S.F. has a monopoly on brilliant people. There are plenty here, but there is also a culture in which some things just aren’t done. People here complain about the lack of venture capital compared to S.F. and Boston, but I think the real issue is knowing what to do with it. Henry wasn’t asking for $13M to do the same thing Macromedia had already done. That would be pointless. He was proposing that they do something interesting and maybe as naughty as a $20/plate food-fight.

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