No next big language?

Ola Bini, one of the JRuby hackers, and a very bright guy, posits that there “won’t be a next big language”:

There might be some that are more popular than others, but the way development will happen will be much more divided into using different languages in the same project, where the different languages are suited for different things. This is the whole Polyglot idea.

I’m dubious, and wonder what he would consider to be the underlying sociological and economic factors driving this change. Programming languages are, in the end, about people in all their weirdness, so to understand where languages are going to go, you have to consider those human factors, as I’ve attempted to do here.

One trend that points to a slow proliferation of languages is of course the lock-in cited in my article. Today’s big languages (Java, and on the web, PHP) won’t just go away from one day to the next, just as C, Cobol and Fortran have not disappeared with the advent of Java. That process will continue, making it likely that new languages will carve out new territory for themselves rather than exclusively cannibalizing existing installations from older languages. This naturally leads (slowly) to more languages, even if the next generation has a Next Big Language.

And why shouldn’t there be one? Ola talks about a situation where various languages run and interact on top of a runtime (JVM). Isn’t that similar to what we’ve had with C, though? Perl, Tcl, Python, etc… all run on top of C. Sure, the JVM is a step up from that in some ways, most notably GC, being a bit more consistently cross-platform, and having a wider array of libraries, but in the end, it still comes down to the network effects of being able to read and write a common language, whatever it runs on. Obviously, the network externalities of programming languages are not so strong that they hit a tipping point after which one language crushes all the others, but they are strong enough to consolidate leadership in one or a few languages. Programmatically, Jython, JRuby, (and Hecl?:-) may even find it easier to interact on the same platform, but the humans writing the code will still push for consistency and the minimum set of common tools in order to aid the sharing and review of code.

Another way to look at it might be from an organizational point of view. Today’s biggest fish in the pond, Google, only allows four languages for their production systems. What would a “no big language future” organization look like? I can’t believe they’d welcome a big hodge podge of things.

In conclusion, as computers are ever more widely used, it’s certain that more languages will be utilized. However, it’s also likely that from time to time a few languages, with one in the lead, will emerge as the leaders.

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