November 20, 2017

On ESR’s thoughts on C and C++

ESR wrote two blog posts about moving on from C recently. As someone who has been advocating for never writing new code in C again unless absolutely necessary, I have my own thoughts on this. I have issues with several things that were stated in the follow-up post.

C++ as the language to replace C. Which ain’t gonna happen” – except it has. C++ hasn’t completely replaced C, but no language ever will. There’s just too much of it out there. People will be maintaining C code 50 years from now no matter how many better alternatives exist. If even gcc switched to C++…

It’s true that you’re (usually) not supposed to use raw pointers in C++, and also true that you can’t stop another developer in the same project from doing so. I’m not entirely sure how C is better in that regard, given that _all_ developers will be using raw pointers, with everything that entails. And shouldn’t code review prevent the raw pointers from crashing the party?

if you can mentally model the hardware it’s running on, you can easily see all the way down” – this used to be true, but no longer is. On a typical server/laptop/desktop (i.e. x86-64), the CPU that executes the instructions is far too complicated to model, and doesn’t even execute the actual assembly in your binary (xor rax, rax doesn’t xor anything, it just tells the CPU a register is free). C doesn’t have the concept of cache lines, which is essential for high performance computing and on any non-trivial CPU.

One way we can tell that C++ is not sufficient is to imagine an alternate world in which it is. In that world, older C projects would routinely up-migrate to C++“. Like gcc?

Major OS kernels would be written in C++“. I don’t know about “major”, but there’s  BeOS/Haiku and IncludeOS.

Not only has C++ failed to present enough of a value proposition to keep language designers uninterested in imagining languages like D, Go, and Rust, it has failed to displace its own ancestor.” – I think the problem with this argument is the (for me) implicit assumption that if a language is good enough, “better enough” than C, then logically programmers will switch. Unfortunately, that’s not how humans behave, as as much as some of us would like to pretend otherwise, programmers are still human.

My opinion is that C++ is strictly better than C. I’ve met and worked with many bright people who disagree. There’s nothing that C++ can do to bring them in – they just don’t value the trade-offs that C++ makes/made. Some of them might be tempted by Rust, but my anedoctal experience is that those that tend to favour C over C++ end up liking Go a lot more. I can’t stand Go myself, but the things about Go that I don’t like don’t bother its many fans.

My opinion is also that D is strictly better than C++, and I never expect the former to replace the latter. I’m even more fuzzy on that one than the reason why anybody chooses to write C in a 2017 greenfield project.

My advice to everyone is to use whatever tool you can be most productive in. Our brains are all different, we all value completely different trade-offs, so use the tool that agrees with you. Just don’t expect the rest of the world to agree with you.