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The Economics -- and Politics -- of Software Language Evolution

Posted by editor on September 8, 2009 at 5:58 AM PDT

Joe Darcy has posted a very interesting blog on the similarities between his own experience as a Project Coin lead and what the leaders of the C++ standards team experienced as that language evolved. He titles his post "Project Coin: Solidarity with C++ Evolution". The use of the word "solidarity" reflects a team or band of soldiers who are under fire, perhaps significantly outnumbered, and facing attacks on multiple fronts. Indeed, if you've been following the reactions to the progress of Project Coin, in particular the reaction to the final list of JDK 7 features, it's easy to see how the Project Coin team would find justification and support in looking at what Bjarne Stroustrup and the C++ committees experienced (as stated in Bjarne's paper "Evolving a language in and for the real world: C++ 1991-2006").

Prior to reading that paper, the Project Coin team might recently have been asking themselves: "Is it us? Are we being unreasonable in some manner?" But Bjarne's experiences tell them "no, it's not you, this is just the nature of software language evolution, and community reactions to the necessities imposed by reality... you're the messenger, and they shoot you -- no matter what you do."

Here's a key quote Joe cites from Bjarne's paper:

As ever, there are far more proposals than the committee could handle or the language could absorb. As ever, even accepting all the good proposals is infeasible. As ever, there seems to be as many people claiming that the committee is spoiling the language by gratuitous complicated features as there are people who complain that the committee is killing the language by refusing to accept essential features. If you take away consistent overstatement of arguments, both sides have a fair degree of reason behind them. The balancing act facing the committee is distinctly nontrivial.

And what is Joe's reaction to this? An interesting presentation of the economics and politics of software language evolution:

Viewed over the long term, one goal to evolving a platform is trying maximize value delivered over time. This is analogous to a net present value-style consideration from economics. A feature delivered in the future is less valuable than having the feature today, but the value of choosing to do a feature needs to be weighed against the
opportunity costs of doing something else instead. Developers are chronically optimistic and eager to deliver something sooner rather than later, especially when the next release vehicle may be in the relatively distant future. As previously indicated, I too would prefer to see additional language changes as part of Project Coin in JDK 7. However, given the available resources, overcommitting to a large set of features is not responsible; either the large set won't get done in the end, it won't get done well, or the schedule would slip — all of which lead to reduced value too.

I myself have a generally sympathetic view toward what Joe is expressing. It's always easy for non-decision-makers to loudly criticize those who have undertaken the task of trying to advance a platform, and do so in a balanced manner that accounts for the real-world limits of resources and time. What a software language committee faces is not all that different from what an elected leader of a nation faces at times. No matter what you do, for a significant segment of the populace, it's wrong -- and what's going wrong for your particular society is all your fault!

If you'd like to express your own reaction to the proposed final JDK 7 features list, our current poll provides you with a fast and simple opportunity to do that. Voting will be open through Thursday.

Or, if you'd like, post a comment below, or post a comment to Joe's post.

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