In yesterday’s address to the Ruby community, Dave Thomas invited Rubyists to fork Ruby, to freely research and experiment with new and interesting features. If this process is successful, many of these features will inevitably see their way back into Ruby’s core, thus improving the language in leaps and bounds. And I feel he couldn’t have been any more right. In fact, the whole industry is experiencing the trend of incorporating features developed in less common languages, research languages, “toy languages” if you prefer, within mainstream ones.
Experimenting with these alternative languages is important because occasionally they themselves become widely used, and even when they fail to do so, they lend their insight to the world of software development, finding their way into other languages. This approach greatly accelerates the development of common languages for the good of their large user bases and the improvement of the software industry. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved and for the development community as a whole.
Pay attention to the development community online, and you’ll quickly notice a few non-mainstream programming languages appear over and over again. I’m referring to languages like F#, Erlang, Haskell, Scala and Clojure. I’ll admit to a certain selection bias, given that I tend to hang out in communities where hackers and developers actively pursue the betterment of their programming skills, beyond the stereotypical 9 to 5 requirements. But nevertheless, three or four years ago the average developer probably wouldn’t have heard about any of them (at least the ones that existed at the time). And today all of these languages have active communities, books being published about them, and most programmers have at least encountered some of these names.
They are all different languages, but their common denominator is the functional paradigm. Notice that I titled this post “The Rise of the Functional Paradigm” and not “The Rise of Functional Languages”. In a sense the latter is true as well, since there’s been much more attention towards functional programming languages lately. But there is a subtle difference. I don’t expect purely functional languages to become the most used programming languages anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, I don’t predict US companies to outsource Haskell jobs to India or China, like they do today for Java or .NET projects.
Yet these functional languages serve a higher purpose. Not only do they satisfy the needs of intellectually curious developers and companies looking for a competitive advantage, but they also have a great deal of influence on the rest of the development world.
We are seeing a convergence between these two groups of languages. Functional languages will strive to become as useful as possible, with libraries and tools that are more adequate for mainstream developers, while conserving their functional purity (I’m looking at you almighty Haskell). Meanwhile, mainstream languages will slowly adopt powerful features found in these functional and other research languages, adding further expressiveness and capabilities to their largely adopted foundations. F#, the evolution of C# and the addition of LINQ should be enough evidence that this is the case at least for the .NET platform. And even C++0x and D are leaning towards the incorporation of some functional features (e.g. lambda expressions and closures). The two types of languages come from different directions but will reach a similar destination.
If the 90s were characterized by the rise of the Object Oriented paradigm, and this decade can be considered as a transition phase, then the future belongs to the functional paradigm. Whether developers prefer to mix this with other paradigms (e.g. in languages like Ruby, Python, C#, etc…), like a powerful cocktail, or shoot it straight down (e.g. in purely functional languages like Haskell), the functional paradigm is here to stay.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and Technical Evangelist at IBM. He authored 'Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers' by Wrox (2009) and 'Technical Blogging' by The Pragmatic Bookshelf (2012). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an IBM educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.