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The New Native Languages


To many developers, the recent trend of reversion to true compiled languages implies a re-engagement with C and C++, or for denizens of smaller niches, a renewed embrace for Pascal, Fortran, Ada, and other languages of the pre-2000 era. But for some programmers, this native trend, which is most heavily touted by Microsoft as part of its re-engagement for C++, leaves a certain sense of dissatisfaction. C and C++ look a lot like they did in 1995. And even though C11 and C++11 have added useful features that we have been carefully chronicling in Dr. Dobb's, the languages can have the feel of a past era onto which contemporary elements have been grafted.

For developers who yearn for something more modern, languages that reflect current concepts of parallelism, immutability, large libraries, extended data types, and the like there are interesting alternatives; especially since many of them key off the basic C syntax, which makes them comparatively easy to adopt. Chief among these are D (from Digital Mars), Go (from Google), Rust (from Mozilla), and Vala (from Gnome). All four languages are available free and all but D are completely open source. (D is almost completely open source). Looking at these languages provides interesting insights in language design and shows in some ways what C and C++ are lacking. I quickly summarize these four languages in this short slideshow.

All four languages represent simpler approaches to native OO programming than C++. In some ways, this set of language designs underscores a fundamental issue in C++ that the new standard only marginally addresses: an unbridled complexity. More than any other language, C++ lends itself to long explanations of esoteric subtleties and unexpected gotchas hidden away in language features. It's easy, bordering on glib, to say that this is the price you pay for a language that is so powerful, but I don't find that argument convincing. It's the price you pay for the historical habit of glomming on new features that are not tightly managed.

The upshot is that to be truly expert in C++ requires far more education and far more effort than comparable mainstream OO languages (notably, Java and C#). The offsetting problem is that the primary native alternative, C, simply lacks too many features to be used for green-field projects that should not be coded at a low level. The four languages presented here represent interesting options between C's spartan approach and C++'s complexity that offer varying mixes of features and designs. Because I think they should be part of the discussion of the return to native code, we'll explore them in upcoming articles on Dr. Dobb's. Of course, our rich tradition of covering C and C++ will continue unabated. It's just that we'll be adding a few colors to the palate for the time being.

— Andrew Binstock
Editor in Chief
alb@drdobbs.com
Twitter: platypusguy


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