Google executive frustrated by Java, C++ complexity

Google's Rob Pike makes the case for simpler programming languages

Today's commercial-grade programming languages -- C++ and Java, in particular -- are way too complex and not adequately suited for today's computing environments, Google distinguished engineer Rob Pike argued in a talk Thursday at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference.

Pike made his case against such "industrial programming languages" during his keynote at the conference in Portland, Oregon.

"I think these languages are too hard to use, too subtle, too intricate. They're far too verbose and their subtlety, intricacy and verbosity seem to be increasing over time," Pike said. "They're oversold, and used far too broadly."

Pike detailed the shortcomings of such languages as a way of describing the goals that he and other Google engineers have for a new programming language they developed, called Go.

As an illustration of the complexity of such languages, Pike showed a few examples of C++ code. One example was of a variable declaration that stretched nearly across an entire line of the screen.

"How do we have stuff like this [get to be] the standard way of computing that is taught in schools and is used in industry?" he asked, rhetorically. This sort of programming "is very bureaucratic. Every step must be justified to the compiler," he said.

While Pike admitted that he was being somewhat facetious, he asserted that such questions still should be asked. C++ came about because of people's frustration with working with the low-level C language, and Java came about as a way to simplify C++. Over time, however, new features were added to both languages, making them more and more complex.

"Noise comes with sophistication," he said.

Pike also added that such languages were developed before the advent of multicore processing and widespread networking, so they don't easily accommodate these new environments.

Pike is not the lone Google employee expressing dissatisfaction with traditional commercial-grade languages.

At the USENIX annual conference last month, Gmail engineer Adam de Boor surprised the audience by noting that the company's Gmail service was written entirely in JavaScript, and that all of its code, around 443,000 lines worth, was written by hand.

He noted that while Java is more expressive, it is also more verbose. "At this point to me it's a matter of choice which language you use," de Boor said.

JavaScript is one of a whole batch of languages -- others include Ruby and Python -- that have been developed over the past 10 years in response to the growing complexity of C++ and Java. But while having a simpler syntax, such languages have their drawbacks as well, he argued.

These new languages tend to be slower, don't scale as well, and can harbor more errors, Pike elaborated.

The languages tend to be interpreted rather than compiled, meaning the programs written in such languages aren't compiled before running, so tend to run slower as a result. They also tend to be dynamically typed, meaning programmers don't need to specify what type of data their variables will hold.

"Dynamic typing is not necessarily good. You get static errors at run time which you really should be able to catch at compile time," he said.

With all this in mind, Pike then described Go as an attempt to fuse the best attributes of both sets of languages.

"Go is an attempt to combine the safety and performance of statically typed languages with the convenience and fun of dynamically typed interpretative languages," he said, before adding, "to the extent that it succeeds you'll have to judge for yourself."

One member of the audience, Larry Augustin, the CEO of customer relationship management software provider SugarCRM, agreed with Pike's assessment that C++ and Java have gotten too complex, although he noted that this typically happens with all languages as they grow to meet a wider range of use cases.

"The reason that these languages have grown in complexity is because the more they are used, the more errors and ambiguities we've found, and the attempts to remove those ambiguities and errors have created something more complex," said Augustin, who has a background in software engineering and programming language design.

"I appreciate his goal," he said of Pike's efforts. "The question is can he achieve his target result? or does Go [become more complex] as more people use it," Augustin said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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Tags Development toolsapplication developmentLanguages and standardsGooglesoftwareRob Pike

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