OK – so “switches” are a bunch of on/off’s (1’s and 0’s for +’s and -‘s) in some big bit-map inside the SAP kernel somewhere. (Or at least they should be in some such bit-map somewhere …)
And these various switches determine the behavior of certain SAP technical objects.
Well, this idea has been used for quite some time now by IBM spin-offs other than SAP. For example, there was an IBM spin-off called CyCare whose medical group automation software ran on Honeywell DPS-6’s under GCOS, and they used such on/off switch bitmaps to do their functional as well as technical system configuraton.
And even IBM itself used the same concept in SNA profiles, where the behavior of a particular hardware device was determined by whether certain properties were “on” or “off” in its profile (like for a controller, or tube, or whatever …)
But really – the idea goes back to some guys – Jakobson, Fant, and Halle – who were “coming up” in the late 40’s/early 50’s and were trying to apply information-theoretic constructs to the study of phonology (the systems of meaningful sounds in human languages.)
Their idea was to decompose all meaningful human speech sounds (known to laymen as “phonemes”) into their “distinctive features”. And these “distinctive features” were (and are) … guess what ? – nothing more than binary on/off switches indicating whether a particular sound has a particular physical property.
For example, three of the “distinctive” features of the meaningful sound “p” in English and German are:
-voiced, +bilabial. -aspirated
while three of the distinctive features of the meaningful sound “b” in English and German are:
+voiced, +bilabial, -aspirated.
And in ancient Sanskrit and modern Prakrits languages such as Hindi, p and b have “aspirated” counterparts (typically transcribed into the English alphabet as “ph” and “bh”) with the distinctive features
-voiced, +bilabial. +aspirated
+voiced, +bilabial, +aspirated.
(If you’re a speaker of English, you can get an idea of the difference between the “unaspirated” and “aspirated” versions of “p” by holding your hand in front of your mouth and first saying “pot” and then saying “spot”. You’ll note that when you say “pot”, there’s an outrush of breath that you can feel on your hand – that’s “aspiration”. But when you say “spot”, that outrush of breath isn’t there, and that’s why the “p” in “spot” is termed “unaspirated”. In English, we don’t think of aspirated and unaspirated “p” as two different “phonemes”, because the two sounds can’t be used to make a difference in meaning. But in Hindi, one can find many words which mean different things and differ only in the presence or absence of aspiration on a “p”.)
Anyway, why am I going on about this matter of “distinctive features” at length?
Because it illustrates how completely devoid of intellectual content IT has become.
As intellectually impoverished as the notions of “relational database” and “SQL” were, at least Codd pretended to provide a set-theoretic justification for them – even if this justification was really nothing more than common sense puffed-up into pseudo-theory.
But now, there’s not even a pretension to intellectual content in IT.
New stuff gets put out there as the latest and greatest with no reference to its theoretical and practical precedents, even though recognition of these precedents might in fact help fuel and shape even better developments in IT.
(As another example of this, conside the individual VM’s that SAP now provides in its Java stack so that one user can’t bring down all users. I’ve noted before at SDN how this idea goes back to the old idea of MUSASS – multi-user single address space – an idea all old-time IBM’ers will recall if they worked with any multi-user 4GL DB running under MVS or any of its successors.)
I knew a young prof at NYU’s Courant Institute back in the 70’s whose attitude toward theory in Comp Sci was very simple – he would always say:
“The right theory is the theory that gets us the grant in June.”.
That’s kind of the attitude which software vendors seem to have these days – they seem to make no attempt to discharge their responsibilities as contributors to the theoretical foundations on which good IT must always draw. Rather, the attitude of SW vendors seems to be:
“The right idea is the idea that gets us the largest increase in market share”.
I think that software vendors would do well to remember a saying used by scientists:
“We stand on the shoulders of giants”.
So do software vendors, even though they introduce every new tweak as if it’s never been thought of before.
And maybe SW innovation would benefit from a little more ‘historicism”, and a little more understanding of how we got to where we are now.