Dynamic programming futures

JavaScript, Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby, and other dynamic languages are remaking the Web and bringing programming to the masses. Where should developers place their bets?

What will the world of dynamic programming languages and Web applications look like in five years? This is one of those highly personal and deeply philosophical questions best saved for after dessert is served, the drinks are poured, and the sidearms are safely locked away.

At the simplest level, the debate seems crucial. Choose the right language and new libraries magically appear because, well, the coolest programmers use the right language. The hottest languages attract the most developer energy, which usually turns into new libraries with the latest ideas.

Choosing the wrong language means filling your brains with semantic cruft that must be paged out to make room for yet another way of writing a loop. No one will be able to make sense of your code, and no one but you will care.

Most programmers who've been around long enough to survive the rise and fall of programming languages such as Cobol and Fortran recognize that the problem isn't a life-or-death matter. There won't be one winner, and backing the wrong horse won't be fatal. These stable old hands point out that Cobol continues to run strong. At this writing, more than 1 percent of the listings on Dice.com include Cobol. By comparison, JavaScript draws a bit more than 7 percent!

Still, choosing poorly saps one's energy. Some languages will be the dominant choice in certain niches. Choosing poorly means duplicating effort and looking longingly at the fast progress of others.

Commons or craft

Rob Malda, one of the founders of Slashdot, says that he chose Perl for the site because there were so many good libraries available in the CPAN (Comprehensive Perl Archive Network).

"I think Perl's primary advantage in 1997 when I original selected it was the active development occurring on CPAN," Malda explained. "There was a library for everything useful, and usually very quickly. This was critical because new technologies and versions for core functions were updating constantly."

But today, he added, "We have a much better idea of what you need for Web site building, and the tools and libraries have stabilized. All languages can handle the obvious things nice enough now."

This is a nice, politically neutral statement, but it doesn't solve the problem that in many shops, there must be only one Highlander. Only a kindergarten teacher would smile and say that all are equally good.

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