Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sven Efftinge on Java-killer languages

I just ran across Sven Efftinge's fun post on what he wants to see in a Java-killer language.

My list would be something like: remove boilerplate for common coding arrangements, make things easier to understand, be compatible with existing Java code, and otherwise leave everything alone.

Sven has a more detailed list. Here are his bullet points and some thoughts on them:

1. Don't make unimportant changes. Gosh yes. Changing = to :=, or changing the keywords, adds a barrier to entry for anyone learning the language. Don't do it without a real benefit.

2. Static typing. Static typing is one of those choices where the up-front choice is far from obvious and has many intangibles, but once you choose, many of the follow-up choices are fairly clear to people who know the area. I think it is perfectly reasonable to have untyped languages on the JVM, and I think it's perfectly reasonable to have simply typed languages with generics only used for collections. Note that the choice will strongly influence what sorts of applications the language is good for, however. Additionally, I would emphasize that today's type systems have gotten more convenient to use, so the niche for untyped languages is smaller than it used to be.

3. Don't touch generics. Java's type system is long in the tooth. While its basic parametric types are fine, there are parts that are simply bad: raw types, wildcards, arrays, and primitive types. If you are developing a Java killer, improving the type system is one of the ways you can improve the language. You'd be crazy not to consider it.

4. Use type inference. Absolutely. This is a large source of boilerplate in Java.

5. Care about tool support (IDE). I agree. When I joined the Scala project in 2005, I was glad to see that the core team was working on a number of tools, including: scaladoc, the scala command (repl, script runner, and object runner), scalap, ant tasks, and the Eclipse plugin. Nowadays there are even more tools, including an excellent IntelliJ plugin and integration with a larger number of build tools.

In a nutshell, making programmers productive requires more than a good programming language. There are huge benefits to good tools and rich libraries. The overall productivity of a programmer is something like the product of language, tools, and libraries.

6. Closures. Yes, please. The main reason to leave it out historically is the lack of garbage collection. I don't understand why Java has been so slow to adopt them, and I was terribly saddened to hear Guy Steele at OOPSLA 1998 pronouncing that Java didn't look like it really needed closures. It was surreal given the content of the talk that he had given just minutes before.

7. Get rid of old unused concepts. Yes, in general. However, this can be hard to do while also maintaining compatibility and generally letting people write things in a Java way if they want. For the specific things Sven lists: totally agreed about fall-through switch; totally agreed about goto, but it's not in Java anyway; not so sure about bit operations. Bit operations are useful on the JVM, and besides, Java's numerics work reasonably already. Better to focus on areas where larger wins are possible.

1 comment:

Aspiring Feminist said...

Please don't call dynamically-typed languages "untyped". I'm sure you know the difference - there hasn't really been an untyped language since BCPL.

You may prefer static or dynamic typing (I go back and forth, myself) and Scala makes a good case for static on the JVM, but both have their place.

The only reason for untyped languages (or weakly-typed like C) is because you don't see how to build a type system with the power you think you need, with the performance that you think you need. But it's telling that essentially no languages since C and BCPL have made those choices. Although a few more modern languages do have an "unsafe" mode if/when you need to escape.