Wednesday, January 9, 2008

iDrone reprint: The Perfect Programming Language

iDrone reprint: The Perfect Programming Language
By Matt Ball, written some time in 2006

I’ve recently become interested in finding the ‘perfect’ programming language. This is mostly because I use one of the more out-dated languages, “C”. I work as an embedded software (firmware) engineer, where I create firmware for tape drives. Embedded systems is one of the few industries that hasn’t switched wholesale to Java or one of the .NET variants. As a result, I’m stuck in a sea of developers who have been programming C and nothing but C for the last 20 years. Just to retain my sanity, I’ve got to look at other approaches.

The idea of a ‘perfect’ language is a little far-fetched, but makes a good started point for knowing what to look for in a new language. If a perfect language existed, it would likely have some of these features:

  • Compiles to code that runs as fast as C (or even faster). This removes the excuse to ever use C (or C++).
  • Does not use a pre-processor
  • Contains built-in garbage collection
  • Allows creation of low-level data structures and data types.
  • Natively supports integers of any size, between a single bit and an arbitrary large number of bits (BigNum). Along the same lines, natively supports modulo arithmetic to facilitate RSA and D-H cryptography (e.g. X * Y mod Z).
  • Supports all the ‘good’ object oriented features, including single inheritance (not multiple like C++)
  • Provides a build-in mechanism for determining whether parameters and data can be trusted.

The list goes on from there.

Relating to this subject, I found an interesting Slashdot article talking about someone from IBM that is doing a series on a similar topic. He’s approaching the problem from the perspective of a Java programmer looking at other languages, but the goal is roughly the same: look at several programming languages and find their strengths and weaknesses.

One good language that I found is the “D” programming language. This language is meant as an enhancement to C and C++, and provides several of the things in the list above. Unfortunately, D is still in the beta stage, so it’s not possible to use this in a real product. It also doesn’t have any books that I know of (having a book is one of Paul Graham’s requirements for a good programming language).

Of course, there are many other good programming languages out there, like Ruby, Python, and Lisp, but none of these languages compile tightly enough, or provide enough low-level control for embedded systems. This ‘perfect’ language needs to have the ability to compile small, if needed.

Finding the perfect language will be a long journey, but in the end I expect it will be well-worth the time, and if nothing else, will provide insight into how to use existing languages more effectively.

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