3 Jan 2005 titus   » (Journeyer)

Is development of new software tools "moribund"?

I've always enjoyed Philip Greenspun's take on things; about 50% of what he says goes straight to the point. Unfortunately the other 50% seems to be complete crud. (I'm never sure how seriously he's taking himself, so it's hard to know if he's just trying to be thought-provoking. Even if not, separating out the gems from the crap is enjoyably difficult and hence worthwhile.)

His most recent weird post talked about a fairly simple Perl script to spam friends with invitations. In the comments, someone tweaked Philip about being a "Perl whore" despite his lauding of AOLserver, a Tcl-only (well, mostly) Web server. Philip responded that he had good reasons for liking AOLserver (connection pooling &c.), and since it happened to use Tcl, he used Tcl himself. Philip then felt compelled to say that he thought software tools were moribund, because his friends coding in .NET, his students working with Java, and people working with PHP weren't as productive as people who used AOLserver -- a technology designed over 10 years ago.

In the comments, I remarked that whinging about how Web software development tools haven't moved on since 1992 by citing Tcl, .NET, Java, and PHP was silly. Why not look at languages that support (and support well) a variety of techniques? Python (and by reputation Perl and Ruby) tools have come a loooong way in the last few years. In Python you can now choose between at least 5 different frameworks, all of them at least moderately mature. All of the popular Web programming techniques are represented between the various frameworks: the object publishing paradigm (Zope/Quixote), the object-kit templating paradigm (WebWare/CherryPy), and of course the utility belt that is Twisted.

The real question is, why not use Tcl, PHP, .NET, and Java for Web programming? It comes down to two conflicting considerations:

  1. the "each page is a class method" model encouraged by Java is overwrought for the simple pages that make up 20%-80% of any Web site (depending on the site, of course); it seems to be great for more complicated sites, though.

  2. the "each page is a string of spaghetti code" model encouraged by Tcl and PHP is great for the simple pages (20%-80% of any site) but disastrous for more complicated sites.

Or, to put it another way, straight scripting languages are great for constructing simple pages, while higher-level abstractions are needed for more complex pages. Most Web sites require both kinds of pages, but many languages do not support both kinds of programming well.

Python offers a great intermediate: it is a scripting language that deals well with outputting strings, but which offers nice higher-level ways of building out a framework. (This is likely true of other scripting languages that support object-oriented programming, such as Perl, [incr Tcl], Ruby, OCaml, ... what am I missing? VBA?)

Bas Scheffers pointed out (in the comments, again) that "it's not the tool, it's the programmer". Well, yes, this is the usual last resort of any language anti-advocate: heck, they're all identical at some level of abstraction, right? And you can write spaghetti code in any language, right? So how dare you say that language A is better than language B? Well, my experience tells me (and other people that you should trust more) that Python is better than both Tcl and Java for many things. And so the question is, why? I'm sure there are many considerations that make sense to people, but one that I haven't seen mentioned before is that of how examples are coded.

Since most programmers liberally "appropriate" code -- from books, from open-source programs, and especially from cookbooks and examples -- the quality of that code has a lot to do with the way they write programs. It also has a huge effect on the way they learn to code in the language. And I think this effect is grossly underestimated.

For Python, there's a nice tutorial, a variety of books (caveat: most of which I haven't read), and many, many examples from both the comp.lang.python newsgroup and the Python cookbook. By and large, the code contained in examples is clean, simple, short, and documented. It also lives at a level of abstraction that fits: classes/objects used when appropriate, and not used when not appropriate. Yes, there's plenty of gunk in Python, but it's not what you first encounter & it's easy to find pretty examples.

For other languages, example code is often much nastier. Spaghetti-code style may not be required by Tcl and PHP, but most of the example code I've seen can't be classed any other way. Overwrought object-oriented gunk may not be required by Java, but most of the example code I've seen certainly fits the description.

It could be that simple: if you write uncomplicated yet useful code examples, and people learn your language from them, then in the end your language will be used to write prettier code. And there will be less unmaintainable spaghetti code, or ugly overcomplex OOgunk, written in that language. And, if you're lucky & you've figured out how to grow your language over time with the help of the community, your language will continually move towards supporting that kind of coding.

Why Python examples are pretty is a different question, and the answer may be more sociological than technical. Perhaps it's as simple as Python fitting my brain better than other languages do, and it's not true for everyone else. Or, perhaps it's more than that -- for example, our beloved BDFL may be particularly good at designing a certain type of language.

In the end, supporting good mechanisms of abstraction may be necessary for good programming, but it is obviously not sufficient. It doesn't do much good to have a language that supports a bunch of mechanisms that don't cleanly fit into example code. Nor will it do the language any good in the long run if the example code is poorly constructed.

So, I don't think that the development of software tools is moribund -- but it may be time to move on from Tcl for doing Web programming.

Philip Greenspun's company died a horrible death several years ago partly because they were trying to transition a hideously complex mess o' Tcl into Java. I wonder what would have happened if they'd chosen to use something more scriptable than Java but a little more supportive of abstraction than Tcl?


p.s. I'm pretty supportive of using Java for other things, such as GUIs. I'm just not smart enough to make it do data reduction fast... so I switched to C++ / FLTK.

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