What's all the C Plus Fuss? Bjarne Stroustrup warns of dangerous future plans for his C++

Language creator calls proposals 'insanity'

Register: Is there a desired state for the language or rather do you strive simply for a desired adaptability to what programmers require at any given time?

Stroustrup: Both. I’d like to see C++ supporting a guaranteed completely type-safe and resource-safe style of programming. This should not be done by restricting applicability or adding cost, but by improved expressiveness and performance. I think it can be done and that the approach of giving programmers better (and easier to use) language facilities can get us there.

That end-goal will not be met soon or just through language design alone. We need a combination of improved language features, better libraries, static analysis, and rules for effective programming. The C++ Core Guidelines is part of my broad, long-term approach to improve the quality of C++ code.

Register: Is there an identifiable threat to C++? If so, what form does that take? (e.g. slow evolution, the attraction of emerging low-level languages, etc...your note seems to suggest it may be too many proposals.)

Stroustrup: Certainly; we have had 400 papers this year already. They are not all new proposals, of course. Many relate the necessary and unglamorous work on precisely specifying the language and its standard library, but the volume is getting unmanageable. You can find all the committee papers on the WG21 website.

I wrote the “Remember the Vasa!” as a call to action. I am scared of the pressure to add language features to address immediate needs and fashions, rather than to strengthen the language foundations (e.g. improving the static type system). Adding anything new, however minor carries a cost, such as implementation, teaching, tools upgrades. Major features are those that change the way we think about programming. Those are the ones we must concentrate on.

The committee has established a “Direction Group” of experienced people with strong track records in many areas of the language, the standard library, implementation, and real-word use. I’m a member and we wrote up something on direction, design philosophy, and suggested areas of emphasis.

For C++20, we recommend to focus on:

  • Concepts
  • Modules (offering proper modularity and dramatic compile-time improvements)
  • Ranges (incl. some of the infinite sequence extensions)
  • Networking Concepts in the standard library

After the Rappwerwil meeting, the odds are reasonable, though getting modules and networking is obviously a stretch. I’m an optimist and the committee members are working very hard.

I don’t worry about other languages or new languages. I like programming languages. If a new language offers something useful that other languages don’t, it has a role and we can all learn from it. And then, of course, each language has its own problems. Many of C++’s problems relate to its very wide range of application areas, its very large and diverse user population, and overenthusiasm. Most language communities would love to have such problems.

Register: Are there any architectural decisions about the language you've reconsidered?

Stroustrup: I always consider older decisions and designs when I work on something new. For example, see my History of Programming papers 1, 2.

There are no major decisions I regret, though there is hardly any feature I wouldn’t do somewhat differently if I had to do it again.

As ever, the ability to deal directly with hardware plus zero-overhead abstraction is the guiding idea. The use of constructors and destructors to handle resources is key (RAII) and the STL is a good example of what can be done in a C++ library.

Register: Does the three-year release cadence, adopted in 2011 it seems, still work? I ask because Java has been dealing with a desire for faster iteration.

Stroustrup: I think C++20 will be delivered on time (like C++14 and C++17 were) and that the major compilers will conform to it almost instantly. I also hope that C++20 will be a major improvement over C++17.

I don’t worry too much about how other languages manage their releases. C++ is controlled by a committee working under ISO rules, rather by a corporation or a “beneficent dictator for life.” This will not change. For ISO standards, C++’s three-year cycle is a dramatic innovation. The standard is 5- or 10-year cycles.

Register: In your note you wrote:

We need a reasonably coherent language that can be used by 'ordinary programmers' whose main concern is to ship great applications on time.

Are changes to the language sufficient to address this or might this also involve more accessible tooling and educational support?

Stroustrup: I try hard to communicate my ideas of what C++ is and how it might be used and I encourage others to do the same.

In particular, I encourage presenters and authors to make useful ideas accessible to the great mass of C++ programmers, rather than demonstrating how clever they are by presenting complicated examples and techniques. My 2017 CppCon keynote was “Learning and Teaching C++” and it also pointed to the need for better tools.

I mentioned build support and package managers. Those have traditionally been areas of weakness for C++. The standards committee now has a tools Study Group and will probably soon have an Education Study group.

The C++ community has traditionally been completely disorganized, but over the last five years many more meetings and blogs have sprung up to satisfy the community’s appetite for news and support. CppCon, isocpp.org, and Meeting++ are examples.

Design in a committee is very hard. However committees are a fact of life in all large projects. I am concerned, but being concerned and facing up to the problems is necessary for success.

Register: How would you characterize the C++ community process? Are there aspects of the communication and decision making procedure that you'd like to see change?

Stroustrup: C++ doesn’t have a corporately controlled “community process”; it has an ISO standards process. We can’t significantly change the ISO rules. Ideally, we’d have a small full-time “secretariat” making the final decisions and setting directions, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, we have hundreds of people discussion on-line, about 160 people voting on technical issues, about 70 organizations and 11 nations formally voting on the resulting proposals. That’s messy, but sometimes we make it work.

Register: Finally, what upcoming C++ features do you feel will be most beneficial for C++ users?

Stroustrup:

  • Concepts to significantly simplify generic programming
  • Parallel algorithms – there is no easier way to use the power of the concurrency features of modern hardware
  • Coroutines, if the committee can decide on those for C++20.
  • Modules to improve the way organize our source code and dramatically improve compile times. I hope we can get such modules, but it is not yet certain that we can do that for C++20.
  • A standard networking library, but it is not yet certain that we can do that for C++20.

In addition:

  • Contracts (run-time checked pre-conditions, post-conditions, and assertions) could become significant for many.
  • The date and time-zone support library will be significant for many (in industry).

Register: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Stroustrup: If the C++ standards committee can focus on major issues to solve major problems, C++20 will be great. Until then, we have C++17 that is still far better than many people’s outdated impressions of C++. ®




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