Have Static Languages Won?
This is my bet: the age of dynamic languages is over. There will be no new successful ones.
Like him, I’ve noticed that despite the fact that there have been an enormous number of new programming languages coming out recently, the overwhelming majority of them are statically typed. Elben and others make the argument that this is because static languages are better equipped to deal with larger projects, they have better tooling, and programmers prefer them.
Dynamic languages are at a disadvantage. Most of the mainstream ones out there today were designed by amateurs, people with no formal CS background, or no adequate background in compiler construction. They were designed with no regard for performance, and an impractical mash of features that often poorly work together. Most of the dynamic languages you know are simply poorly crafted. This has resulted in some backlash. I think it’s pretty clear that there’s some amount of prejudice when it comes to dynamic languages.
In universities, computer science professors generally want little to do with dynamic languages. Compiler design courses are focused on statically typed and compiled languages. Type theoretic courses will teach you about Hindley-Milner type inference, but will leave you ill-equipped to understand dynamic typing. Students coming out of your average university compiler and PLT classes have no idea about the challenges involved in creating a JIT compiler, and know little about dynamic typing. It’s no big surprise that these students would go on to create statically typed programming languages.
There might be another factor at play here. Dynamic languages such as PHP, JS, Python and Ruby, in addition to being relatively poorly designed, are the languages that powered the explosion of the web. Nowadays, much (most?) of the programming happening in the world is web development. Much of this work is done by people with no formal CS background. The result is that you have millions of people with less formal education writing code in less well designed languages. JS, Python, PHP and Ruby, and by extension all dynamic languages, are seen by many academics as the programming languages of the riffraff, the unwashed masses, or maybe simply programming languages for relatively ignorant beginners.
Have static languages won? It seems to me that what people really like about static languages is IDE support for things like simple refactorings and autocompletion. Program analysis that can provide some guarantees, find certain classes of bugs without having to run programs with every possible combination of inputs. It’s perfectly legitimate for programmers to want these things. They help alleviate the cognitive burden of working with large (and small) codebases. But, these advantages aren’t inherently advantages of statically typed programming languages. I would argue that Smalltalk had (has) some amazingly powerful tools that go way beyond what the Eclipse IDE could ever give you.
I believe dynamic languages are here to stay. They can be very nimble, in ways that statically typed languages might never be able to match. We’re at a point in time where static typing dominates mainstream thought in the programming world, but that doesn’t mean dynamic languages are dead. So long as dynamic languages do offer advantages, either in terms of expressiveness or ease of learning, they will still be around. You should remember that, in the end, there is no war between static and dynamic languages. There are only tools and tradeoffs.
I will conclude by saying that in my view, programming languages are constantly evolving and influencing each other in what seems like an organic process. Features that are viewed as good ideas tend to spread from one language to many others. Think about closures, for instance. The functional crowd has been in love with closures since the days of LISP, and now, almost all mainstream programming language have closures. Going back to Elben Shira’s post, he states:
We will see a flourishing of languages that feel like you’re writing in a Clojure, but typed. Included will be a suite of powerful tools that we’ve never seen before, tools so convincing that only ascetics will ignore.
I’ve written, back in 2012, about my belief that static and dynamic typing can essentially be combined. You can have statically compiled languages that use type inference to realize what is effectively dynamic typing. That is, the compiler inserts union types where appropriate, and does so automatically. The Crystal programming language is a realization of this idea. This isn’t static languages winning a war over dynamic languages though. It’s the influence of dynamic languages bleeding into static languages. The Crystal language developers are entirely honest about the fact that this language is based on Ruby. Their aim is to build a language which captures much of the flexibility of Ruby’s dynamic typing and also provides you with static guarantees.