July 14, 2014

D: The Next Big Thing in Programming Languages?

It started as many ideas do, involving beer. But when Andrei Alexandrescu and Walter Bright got together for beer one night at a bar in Seattle, way back in 2005, each had the start of an interesting idea that was likely to go nowhere: creating a fundamental change in the way the world not only creates, but also uses, software. It's called the D programming language, and it may well present that fundamental change in a fashion users can get behind.

Most languages, as Bright noted, never really go anywhere, so even if a language has some “interesting ideas,” as he described it, getting people to actually use a new language when the old one often does the job is a tough sell. But D, Bright's language, was actually fairly well-developed, and Alexandrescu may have had that little extra push that made D into a potential winner. Alexandrescu was then persuaded to drop the language he was building—known at the time as Enki—and move some of Enki's “interesting ideas” over into D. The result is that D is actually offering some very exciting possibilities, and a startup valued at around $200 million, Sociomantic, recently bought by Tesco for just that sum–built its entire online system out of D. That might be impressive enough until it's considered who else is looking into D. Here, that other name starts with “Facebook.”

Alexandrescu is currently a research scientist with the social media titan, and the company is actually putting D to work in several of its components. Bright, too, has been involved on this front, though as an outside contractor, showing that one of the biggest names on the Web thinks that D just might have the tools needed to keep Facebook (NewsAlert) alive and well.

So what's the big deal about D? Brad Anderson, who's been programming in C++ for a good while now, actually compares D to C++, but favorably. Anderson called it “…high performance, but…expressive” and further noted that users could “…get a lot done without very much code.” Essentially, D looks to combine the power and speed of C++ with the ease of use and rapid programming capabilities of languages like PHP, Python and Ruby. This isn't a new goal, however, as languages like Apple's Swift (NewsAlert) and Google's Go seek to do likewise. But with 10,000 people downloading the D platform every month, and D-related activity showing up on Stackoverflow and GitHub, the end result suggests that D is in pretty good shape indeed. But what D really needs is a champion, someone who can put a lot of time and promotion behind D to make it the Java of its era.

Facebook could well ultimately become that sponsor, though it—as even Alexandrescu would note—is not such a sponsor right now. The growing numbers of users getting in on that language suggests that it might have room for organic growth, but that can only go so far so fast. Promotion will be very important to D's long-term future, and based on what's known about it so far, it would be a shame to see D relegated to the dustbin of “nice to have but no one's using it” languages.

Only time will tell if anyone can supply the necessary promotional mojo to make D the next C++, but it could be a very big deal indeed. It could, in fact, ultimately change the way we use and make software, and that's just what its creators had in mind.

Edited by Adam Brandt


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