Being Popular.

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A friend of mine once told an eminent operating systems expert that he wanted to design a really good programming language. The expert told him that it would be a waste of time, that programming languages don't become popular or unpopular based on their merits, and so no matter how good his language was, no one would use it. At least, that was what had happened to the language he had designed.

What does make a language popular? Do popular languages deserve their popularity? Is it worth trying to define a good programming language? How would you do it?

I think the answers to these questions can be found by looking at hackers, and learning what they want. Programming languages are for hackers, and a programming language is good as a programming language (rather than, say, an exercise in denotational semantics or compiler design) if and only if hackers like it.

1 The Mechanics of Popularity.

It's true, certainly, that most people don't choose programming languages simply based on their merits. Most programmers are told what language to use by someone else. And yet I think the effect of such external factors on the popularity of programming languages is not as great as it's sometimes thought to be. I think a bigger problem is that a hacker's idea of a good programming language is not the same as most language designers'.

Between the two, the hacker's opinion is the one that matters. Programming languages are not theorems. They're tools, designed for people, and they have to be designed to suit human strengths and weaknesses as much as shoes have to be designed for human feet. If a shoe pinches when you put it on, it's a bad shoe, however elegant it may be as a piece of sculpture.

It may be that the majority of programmers can't tell a good language from a bad one. But that's no different with any other tool. It doesn't mean that it's a waste of time to try designing a good language. Expert hackers can tell a good language when they see one, and they'll use it. Expert hackers are a tiny minority, admittedly, but that tiny minority write all the good software, and their influence is such that the rest of the programmers will tend to use whatever language they use. Often, indeed, it is not merely influence but command: often the expert hackers are the very people who, as their bosses or faculty advisors, tell the other programmers what language to use.

The opinion of expert hackers is not the only force that determines the relative popularity of programming languages-- legacy software (Cobol) and hype (Ada, Java) also play a role-- but I think it is the most powerful force over the long term. Given an initial critical mass and enough time, a programming language probably becomes about as popular as it deserves to be. And popularity further separates good languages from bad ones, because feedback from real live users always leads to improvements. Look at how much any popular language has changed during its life. Perl and Fortran are extreme cases, but even Lisp has changed a lot. Lisp 1.5 didn't have macros, for example; these evolved later, after hackers at MIT had spent a couple years using Lisp to write real programs. [1]

So whether or not a language has to be good to be popular, I think a language has to be popular to be good. And it has to stay popular to stay good. The state of the art in programming languages doesn't stand still. And yet the Lisps we have today are still pretty much what they had at MIT in the mid-1980s, because that's the last time Lisp had a sufficiently large and demanding user base.

Of course, hackers have to know about a language before they can use it. How are they to hear? From other hackers. But there has to be some initial group of hackers using the language for others even to hear about it. I wonder how large this group has to be; how many users make a critical mass? Off the top of my head, I'd say twenty. If a language had twenty separate users, meaning twenty users who...
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