Another go at the Next Big Language

Several weeks ago Steven Degutis posted the slides (1, 2) from his excellent presentation, The quest for the perfect programming language. In reading his slides I was reminded of a blog post made back in 2007 by Steve Yegge called The Next Big Language.

2007 was a different time for languages. While Java held the popular crown, the mainstream programming community were still coming to terms with Java 6. Released 3 months earlier, it was very much an evolution of the Java 5 watershed. Its arrival heralded the end of life for Java 1.4 and represented an opportunity to draw a line in the sand for a Java that assumed Generics and Annotation Processing. In turn this created an opening for alternate JVM languages like Groovy, JRuby and Scala, raising the discussion to a din and giving developers pause to consider a wider field of alternatives.

At the time, Yegge left me with the impression that D was his pick for the Next Big Language, although he suggested that the Next Big Language was not amongst the set on the market at that time. This fit my world view as I had just discovered D and felt  chuffed to be on the inside track of this up and coming language. D had everything that opened and shut; template metaprogramming, fast compilation, function literals, C like syntax and a memory model that someone coming from Java could grok. Two years later however, D was still stuck in 2007. This was in part due to the infighting between the standard library camps who had failed to learn from the mistakes of the Java class library and were busily adding bloat and verbosity to Phobos and Tango. Similarly those who wanted to hack on the language were bifurcated by the closed source DMD compiler and the slow moving gdc frontend. D may have been an excellent choice for those who wanted a better C++, but it wasn’t clear if actually was a market for a better C++.

At this same point in 2007, Rob Pike and Robert Griesemer were sitting, probably not far away from my office at the time, thinking the same thing. It took two years, and the addition of stalwarts like Ken Thompson, Russ Cox and Ian Lance Taylor for their creation to reach fruition; and several more years for their new language to gain mainstream awareness.

Therefore, with the benefit of hindsight that history provides, I would like to revisit the major points of Yegge’s Next Big Language, and address them in the context of Go.

Update: Go is licenced under a BSD like licence, not the MIT licence. Thanks to the astute readers on HN for noticing my mistake.

Update 2: The names of the D standard libraries are Phobos and Tango. I have also updated the list in rule 5 to be a table at the request by request.

The NBL does not replace C++, the NBL is garbage collected.

As Yegge said at the time, there will always be a bunch of engineers who think that’s evil, and they’ll continue to use C++. I think the experiences of  D have borne that out, but more importantly there is a lesson to be learnt that there is no one single language that is appropriate for all tasks. Go, as a general purpose language, is a mixture of decisions and tradeoffs that place it in the best position to reach and be relevant to mainstream developers. The choice of a garbage collected runtime was obvious for a language that held concurrency as one of its core tenets.

The NBL will have corporate backing

Looking at the origins of Java, Python, C++, Scala, with the notable exception of Ruby, Go follows the trend of having a strong corporate or academic benefactor. Google are generous and passionate supporters of Go, and while the Authors work for Google, there are many external contributors who have made substantial ongoing contributions to the language. Just as importantly, the entire project is BSD licensed (something which D was not able to do, and suffered for it) and driven by passionate, opinionated leaders. To my mind, this is the best of both worlds.

Rule #1: C-like syntax

I think of this as a courtesy to people who already have an investment in an existing mainstream language. The syntax of Go is spartan, and takes little opportunity to further this area of language design, instead leaving that to Scala or Haskell. Go’s most powerful claims in this area would be the adoption of the go fmt source code formatting tool and the elision of semicolons, both of which have a subtle, but profound impact.

Rule #2: Dynamic typing with optional static types

Go answers Yegge’s call by providing a static language with dynamic typing features through the pervasive use of interfaces and automatic type deduction.

Rule #3: Performance. The NBL will perform about as well as Java

For workloads which have at least some IO component, Go is as fast as Java or C++. It produces efficient, statically compiled programs that can be deployed trivially without the overhead of  a large runtime framework. Go programs perform as fast on their first cycle as their last, without the need for witchcraft often associated with languages targeting a JITed interpretor. While it may not be possible, because of Go’s more conservative approach to pointer arithmetic and memory safety, to best the raw computational speed of C, performance is a core design goal of the language and will continue to improve over time. Even now, I have no hesitation in recommending Go to displace any programming task which would previously have been targeted towards Java.

Rule #4: Tools

By comparison with Eclipse or Visual Studio, the automated tools available to Go programmers are limited. Taking the age of the language into account, this is to be expected. Interestingly for authors of Go programs, the experience is more akin to their dynamic cousins like Python and Ruby, who bucked the trend years before by adopting simple programming environments that offered little more than syntax highlighting.

Rule #5: Kitchen Sink

I’ll move quickly through Yegges list of must have features as their discussion would span several posts alone.

Object-literal syntax for arrays and hashesYes 
Array slicing and other intelligent collection operatorsYes 
Perl 5 compatible regular expression literals No
Destructuring bind (e.g. x, y = returnTwoValues())Yes 
Function literals and first-class, non-broken closuresYes 
Standard OOP with classes, instances, interfaces, polymorphism, etc. No
Visibility quantifiers (public/private/protected)Yes 
Iterators and generators No
List comprehensions No
Namespaces and packagesYes 
Cross-platform GUI No
Operator overloading No
Keyword and rest parametersYes 
First-class parser and AST supportYes 
Static typing and duck typingYes 
Type expressions and statically checkable semanticsYes 
Solid string and collection librariesYes 
Strings and streams act like collections No

The final tally is 11 affirmative, 7 negative, but with the addition of items from the next paragraph, specifically threading  and continuations, I believe Go answers many of the import must haves for a mainstream language entrant. While languages like Julia or Rust approach 100% coverage of Yegge’s laundry list, it is still to be seen if they will achieve mainstream adoption.

Rule #6: Multi-Platform

Go provides outstanding cross operating system and cross architectural support. Rather than adopt Java’s lowest common denominator approach, Go allows both an escape hatch to access features specific to one platform, and a simple file name based conditional compilation system to provide platform specific implementations without having to resort to interfaces.

Rereading Yegge’s essay five years after it was published, it is clear to me that even, as Yegge claimed, he had no knowledge of the ruminations of his colleagues, the stage was set for the Next Big Language.

I believe that Go is a strong contender for the Next Big Language and I urge you to give it serious consideration.

Posted in Go by Dave Cheney