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Of opposable thumbs and software engineering

Where will evolution take us

C++ evolution is steered by Bjarne Stroustrop in an ISO standardisation process managed on the open standards website. If the info is too dry for you then Herb Sutter provides a friendlier overview.

C++, for all its expressive power, the natural syntax, its cross-paradigm support, the interoperability with C, the two phase template dependent name lookup ... OK, I’ll stop, my apologies - but I’m a fan. For all that stuff its virtual machine-targeting friends have an important competitive advantage. A native language has to wait for reasonable cross platform support before it can incorporate new features or support for new paradigms. The abstraction proposed by a virtual machine however is not bound by this restriction. This capacity to evolve quickly to support new paradigms and frameworks in its targeting languages is extremely significant.

For example, exploiting concurrency is the next big challenge in software development. We’ve all seen that clock speeds on processors no longer double every two years, and yet the complexity of software continues to increase (I’m not looking at the latest version of any family of operating systems in particular). The only solution to increasing complexity without increasing instruction speed is to use the CPU more efficiently. This means that that second core on that multi-core CPU is going to have to start pulling its weight, and that means application developers have to start writing multi-threaded code.

Lock step

However, writing multithread code is difficult even with the concurrency support in modern languages. The problem with today’s synchronisation paradigm is that locks proliferate and become global resources before eventually a need to prevent deadlock by inter module coordination emerges.

This is complicated and a single error is hard to find and can be enough to render the system broken. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Researchers at Microsoft and elsewhere are finding new ways to handle the challenges of concurrent programming. Transactional memory looks particularly promising and could potentially be implemented as a feature in a virtual machine, enabling targeting language to offer the new concurrency paradigm to developers. This and other aspects of the concurrency problem will be looked at in an upcoming article.

There’s evolution in other areas too, we’re also seeing the resurgence of domain specific languages. Whenever there’s been explosive growth in a technology in the past, such as object oriented programming, it has always been preceded by long drawn-out proof of concepts.

Domain specific languages certainly fit that profile with big success stories in applications such as parsing and with the inclusion of a DSL workbench in Visual Studio 2008. Could they bridge the communication gap between domain exports and software developers? Keep tuned to Register Developer for analysis.

Users aren't losers

If we go briefly back to the earlier discussion about evolutionary drivers; you may be surprised to hear there is a another agenda that we haven’t yet talked about. Recently I spoke to an architect who had selected .NET for a new project despite the prevailing tide in his organisation for Java and C++.

When I asked what the reasons were for this technology choice I expected an answer like the development environment was better integrated in the Microsoft platform, or there was some framework that could be leveraged to reduce the estimate for the project.

However, these were not the motivating factors: the choice was actually made because it was a desktop application and it was felt that a better user experience could be offered with .NET and Windows Presentation Framework. End user experience is becoming more and more important. Could the day arrive where it could outweigh a technical factor? Sun don’t seem to want to take the risk, it's also working on the UI side of Java with a very impressive Java FX toolkit in the pipeline.

There’s a famous Dijkstra quotation, "The tools we use have a profound influence on our thinking". In other words, when the only available tool is a hammer, all the problems start to look like nails. As developers we must make the distinction between the solution we’d like to offer and the solution we’re able to implement with available technology, when there’s a difference we apply selection pressure to the tool vendors and make the evolutionary process work in our interests! ®

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