PCTE: a vestige of a bygone era of ISO standards

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The letters PCTE (Portable Common Tool Environment) might stir vague memories, for some readers. Don’t bother checking Wikipedia, there is no article covering this PCTE (although it is listed on the PCTE acronym page).

The ISO/IEC Standard 13719 Information technology — Portable common tool environment (PCTE) —, along with its three parts, has reached its 5-yearly renewal time.

The PCTE standard, in itself, is not interesting; as far as I know it was dead on arrival. What is interesting is the mindset, from a bygone era, that thought such a standard was a good idea; and, the continuing survival of a dead on arrival standard sheds an interesting light on ISO standards in the 21st century.

PCTE came out of the European Union’s first ESPRIT project, which ran from 1984 to 1989. Dedicated workstations for software developers were all the rage (no, not those toy microprocessor-based thingies, but big beefy machines with 15inch displays, and over a megabyte of memory), and computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools were going to provide a huge productivity boost.

PCTE is a specification for a tool interface, i.e., an interface whereby competing CASE tools could provide data interoperability. The promise of CASE tools never materialized, and they faded away, removing the need for an interface standard.

CASE tools and PCTE are from an era where lots of managers still thought that factory production methods could be applied to software development.

PCTE was a European funded project coordinated by a (at the time) mainframe manufacturer. Big is beautiful, and specifications with clout are ISO standards (ECMA was used to fast track the document).

At the time Ada was the language that everybody was going to be writing in the future; so, of course, there is an Ada binding (there is also a C one, cannot ignore reality too much).

Why is there still an ISO standard for PCTE? All standards are reviewed every 5-years, countries have to vote to keep them, or not, or abstain. How has this standard managed to ‘live’ so long?

One explanation is that by being dead on arrival, PCTE never got the chance to annoy anybody, and nobody got to know anything about it. Standard’s committees tend to be content to leave things as they are; it would be impolite to vote to remove a document from the list of approved standards, without knowing anything about the subject area covered.

The members of IST/5, the British Standards committee responsible (yes, it falls within programming languages), know they know nothing about PCTE (and that its usage is likely to be rare to non-existent) could vote ABSTAIN. However, some member countries of SC22 might vote YES, because while they know they know nothing about PCTE, they probably know nothing about most of the documents, and a YES vote does not require any explanation (no, I am not suggesting some countries have joined SC22 to create a reason for flunkies to spend government money on international travel).

Prior to the Internet, ISO standards were only available in printed form. National standards bodies were required to hold printed copies of ISO standards, ready for when an order to arrive. When a standard having zero sales in the last 5-years, came up for review a pleasant person might show up at the IST/5 meeting (or have a quiet word with the chairman beforehand); did we really want to vote to keep this document as a standard? Just think of the shelf space (I never heard them mention the children dead trees). Now they have pdfs occupying rotating rust.