Monday, September 08, 2014

More on programming language adoption, from Meyerovich and Rabkin

A little bit of vindication from Meyerovich and Rabkin; a quote I found particularly interesting (emphasis added):

A given prior language only occasionally correlated with the choice of a specific different language for the next project. Most notably, developers have high propensities to switch between Windows scripting and application languages, such as VBScript and C#. These languages also correlate with Microsoft web-development languages such as ASP. Such correlations are also visible in the results of Karus and Gall [12], who found groupings such as WSDL and XML being used in conjunction with Java.

Notably, we do not see significant exploration within linguistic families. There is a relatively low probability of switching between Scheme and LISP, or between Ruby, Python, and Perl. We conclude that developer movement between languages is driven more by external factors such as the developer’s background or technical ecosystem than by similarity of the underlying languages. This implies that language advocates should focus on a domain and try to convince programmers in that domain, instead of trying to convince programmers who use languages with semantic similarities to the new language.

Note that this clearly weighs against the Chaudhuri/Hicks hypothesis that education or unfamiliarity with functional programming is the "real problem". If developers tended to choose languages based primarily on comfort and familiarity, then we would expect them to switch more frequently among languages within a family than across families. Instead we observe the converse pattern: developers switch quite freely between programming language families whenever they need to do so in order to get work done in their domain.

In fact I think Meyerovich and Rabkin are too tentative in their formulation (maybe appropriate in an academic paper, but here we don't need to be so tentative). I think it is quite unlikely that developer background is a major deterrent to new language adoption. To repeat something I said the other day, developers routinely learn all kinds of weird, complicated, and frequently frustrating technologies in the course of their work. New programming languages are not fundamentally harder than all these other technologies, and programmers will learn them when they need to in order to get work done. The problem most unpopular programming languages face is simply that nobody needs them to get work done.

Overall, people who wish to change the mix of programming languages currently in use should spend less time extolling the virtues of their language (and criticizing competing languages!), and much, much more time developing platforms and libraries to make their language of choice a stellar tool in some concrete domain.

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