The Avalanche Theory of Programming Language Evolution

One of the other things that listening to Bjarne Stroustrup reminded me of is an idea that I’ve had kicking around in my head for quite some time about the way programming languages evolve. I can’t exactly quote Bjarne here, but I think he said something to the effect of, “One of the reasons I give this talk is because people still think of C++ as it existed back in 1986, not as it exists today.” Which reminded me of something I read a long time ago about avalanches and the way that they work.

The interesting thing about avalanches is that, should you ever be unlucky enough to be caught in one, they go through two distinct phases. In the first phase, while the avalanche is making its way down the slope, it behaves almost as if it were a liquid. Everything is moving, and it’s theoretically possible (if you don’t get bashed in the head by a rock or tree or something, and you can tell which way is “up”) to “swim” to the top of the avalanche and sort of float/surf on top of it. And it turns out that it’s pretty important to do this if you happen to be caught in an avalanche. Because once the avalanche hits the bottom of the slope and stops moving, it suddenly transitions to another state: a solid. At this point, if you aren’t at least partially free of the avalanche (i.e. on top of it), you’re totally screwed because you are now basically encased in a block of concrete. Not only will you be totally unable to move, but you’re quickly going to suffocate because there’s no way to get fresh air. Unless someone is close by with a locator and a shovel, you’re basically dead.

Programming languages, as far as I can tell, seem to evolve in a way similar to avalanches. Once a programming language “breaks free”–and, to be honest, most never do–it starts accelerating down the slope. At this point, the design of the language is very fluid as new developers pour into the space. And by “design of the language,” I don’t just mean the language spec but everything that makes up the practical design of a language, from the minute (coding standards, delimiter formatting, identifier casing) to the large-scale (best practices for APIs, componentization, etc.). Everything is shifting and changing and growing and it’s very exciting!

And then… boom! It all stops and freezes into place, just like that. Usually, this happens around maybe the second or third major release of the language, long enough for the initial kinks to get worked out and for things to cool and take shape. And the interesting thing about it is that it’s not so much that the language designers are done, as it is that from that point on the language design effectively become fixed in the minds of the public. There are number of reasons, but I think that it has to do with reaching a critical mass of things like books, blog posts, articles, samples, course materials, etc. and a critical mass of developers who were trained in a particular version of a language. Once enough of that stuff is out there and enough people have adopted a particular usage of the language, they effectively become the “standard” for the language.

And from that point on, I think, the language designer is essentially like those poor souls trapped at the bottom of the avalanche–they’re still alive and kicking (well, for a while, at least) but they increasingly find that they can’t really move anything. They can pump out new features and new ideas, but smaller and smaller slices of the developers in those languages are even aware of those features, much less willing to retrain (and rethink) to take advantage of them.

It makes me seriously wonder about all the work we did in VS 2008 to add things like LINQ to VB and C#. I suspect the .NET development avalanche largely came to rest around the time of VS 2005 (or maybe even VS 2003), and while I think a lot of high-end developers like and use LINQ, I don’t know that it ever penetrated the huge unwashed masses of .NET developers. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done it–I think at very least, it helps push the language design conversation forward and influences the next generation of programming languages as they start their descent down the slopes–but just that I wonder.

And I also have to say that I’m very much a participant in this process. I originally learned C++ all by myself back in the ancient year of 1989 by buying myself Bjarne’s first C++ book and a copy of Zortech C++ for my IBM 386 PC. For a long, long time, C++ was effectively the C++ that I learned way back when C++ compilers were just front-ends for C compilers. Even with lots of exposure to more modern programming concepts while working on VB and so on, it’s taken me a long time to break the old habits and stretch within the C++ language. And, I have to admit, it’s really not a bad language once I did it. But I suspect I’m part of a somewhat small portion of the C++ market.

Anyway, all it really means is that I expectantly scan the metaphorical slopes, waiting for the large “BANG!” that will herald the descent of a new avalanche and the chance to try and surf it once again…

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