Interview with Donald Knuth
Andrew Binstock and Donald Knuth converse on the success of open source, the problem with multicore architecture, the disappointing lack of interest in literate programming, the menace of reusable code, and that urban legend about winning a programming contest with a single compilation.
Andrew Binstock: You are one of the fathers of the open-source revolution, even if you aren’t widely heralded as such. You previously have stated that you released TeX as open source because of the problem of proprietary implementations at the time, and to invite corrections to the code—both of which are key drivers for open-source projects today. Have you been surprised by the success of open source since that time?
Donald Knuth: The success of open source code is perhaps the only thing in the computer field that hasn’t surprised me during the past several decades. But it still hasn’t reached its full potential; I believe that open-source programs will begin to be completely dominant as the economy moves more and more from products towards services, and as more and more volunteers arise to improve the code.
For example, open-source code can produce thousands of binaries, tuned perfectly to the configurations of individual users, whereas commercial software usually will exist in only a few versions. A generic binary executable file must include things like inefficient "sync" instructions that are totally inappropriate for many installations; such wastage goes away when the source code is highly configurable. This should be a huge win for open source.
Yet I think that a few programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, will always be superior to competitors like the Gimp—for some reason, I really don’t know why! I’m quite willing to pay good money for really good software, if I believe that it has been produced by the best programmers.
Remember, though, that my opinion on economic questions is highly suspect, since I’m just an educator and scientist. I understand almost nothing about the marketplace.