Sunday 11 August 2019

Why Are There No Big New Ideas in Programming?

Modern mainstream programming languages are all much of a muchness these days. Take some object orientation, add in some ‘dynamic typing’, maybe add on a fast compiler to give you the programming benefits of a ‘scripting language’ with the efficiency benefits of C… I keep reading the same sorts of claims made for all kinds of ‘new’ languages. Far from seeming at all new, they strike me as lots of old stuff mixed up together in different ways.

Where are all the truly new ideas now?

In all the languages I’ve use in the last forty years or so, only three have struck me as having a ‘big vision’ – languages that have a profound belief in the value of their design; and that belief shapes the language itself from start to finish. None of those languages, however, is now widely used. They are: Modula-2, Prolog and Smalltalk.

The be-all and end-all of Modula-2 was its modularity. You put code inside well-defined units called ‘modules’ and once in there, that code cannot be accessed from outside the module unless it is very precisely imported and exported. If you think this sounds like the modules, units and mixins of most other languages, think again. Java, C#, Ruby, Object Pascal and many other languages are far less strict in their modularity. In fact, it has been my experience that most programmers have so little experience of modular programming that they often have great difficulty even trying to understand the concept and the benefits of strict modularity. That’s one reason why – even though Modula-2 itself may have failed to take the world by storm – I think it would be useful to most programmers, whatever languages they usually use, to have at least some experience of programming Modula-2 or its successor, Oberon.

But even more ‘visionary’ than Modula-2 are Prolog and Smalltalk.  If you have never programmed in Prolog (and I suppose it must be highly likely that you haven’t) I’ll explain why it was such an exciting and ambitious language in my next post.