Last month in an item about working with crime data I asked:

Will there be a role for IronPython (or IronRuby) here, someday, such that you could use these languages inside Excel? That’d be very cool.

Several folks suggested that I should take a look at Resolver, an IronPython-based spreadsheet that deeply unifies Pythonic object-oriented programming with the sort of direct manipulation that makes the spreadsheet so useful. Resolver was and still is in private beta, but today’s screencast (Flash, Silverlight) will give you a good sense of what it’s all about.

The presenters are Giles Thomas, managing director and CTO of Resolver Systems (and creator of his own Resolver screencast), and Michael Foord, who blogs about Python, contributes to the IronPython cookbook, and is also working on the forthcoming book IronPython in Action.

If you are (or would like to be) using Python to wrangle business data, Resolver will make sense immediately. You’ll love the idea of wielding Python’s powerful data manipulation features in that context. You’ll appreciate what it would mean to harness not only the Python standard libraries but, because Resolver is IronPython-based, also the .NET Framework and the universe of third-party .NET assemblies. And you’ll be intrigued by the way in which the IronPython code that represents and animates a Resolver spreadsheet can be reused elsewhere — for example, in web applications.

But there’s more to the story. Because a cell in a Resolver spreadsheet can contain a reference to any .NET object, Resolver creates, as Giles Thomas says, “a somewhat pathological but entirely new way of programming using a spreadsheet.” You can, for example, define an anonymous function — say, a function that returns the square of its argument — and store it in cell B4. Then you can place a value — say, 5 — in cell A2. Then you can store this formula in cell B6:

=B4(A2)

That says: “Apply the squaring function in B4 to the value in A2.” The result in B6 will be 25.

I’ve long argued that the interactive and exploratory style of dynamic object-oriented languages is an important but underappreciated benefit. As I may have mentioned before, IronPython’s creator Jim Hugunin told me that when he first showed IronPython to folks at Microsoft, he was surprised by their reaction. He thought the big wow would be IronPython’s ability to streamline and accelerate use of the .NET Framework. But while people did appreciate that, they were truly wowed by something that’s second nature to every Python programmer — the read/eval/print loop which traces all the way back to the earliest Lisp systems.

It is a magical and powerful thing to be able to explore and modify a running program’s code and data. From those early Lisp systems to today’s Python and Ruby implementations, we have been doing that exploration and modification using a command line.1 We can trick it out with recall, name completion, and search, but it’s still a command line with all the limitations that entails. If I’ve defined an object A and stored some code or data there, my definition and invocations of A will scroll out of view as I continue to work. They won’t be visually persistent.

In a Resolver spreadsheet, these objects are visually persistent. I haven’t yet got my hands on Resolver, but here’s an example of what I think that will mean. Suppose that I have a data set I want to transform, against which I’m testing five different versions of a transformation function. I’d put the data in cell A1, the functions in cells B1..B5, and the results in C1..C5. Now I’ll see everything at a glance. The spreadsheet that would conventionally have been the results viewer at the end of a series of tests becomes the environment in which the tests are written, performed, and evaluated.

The spreadsheet is also an important bridge between programmers and their business sponsors. It’s no accident that Ward Cunningham’s FIT (Framework for Integrated Test) was originally inspired by Ward’s experience of inviting business analysts to write test cases in spreadsheets. In its current form, FIT uses HTML tables in a wiki as the bridge between analysts who write tests and developers who write the code that must pass those tests. I think Resolver and FIT may prove to be a marriage made in heaven.

While Resolver will initially appeal to business programmers who appreciate Python as a language, and IronPython as a way of leveraging the .NET Framework and .NET-based business logic, the ideas it embodies transcend Python and .NET. I’ll be fascinated to see how this “pathological but entirely new way of programming using a spreadsheet” will evolve.


1 Smalltalkers will note that they have been using a three-pane browser all along, and that’s true. However the spreadsheet metaphor, in this context, is something else again.