Daily Archives: July 25, 2013

Development Freedom in New Platforms

I started writing code when I was somewhere around 1st grade, hacking some rudimentary BASIC on a TRS-80. Since then, I’ve used more programming languages than I can count; everything from C to Prolog, Python to Haskell, and probably a dozen others. I enjoy diversity in programming languages and tools.

I’ve had an interest in both web and mobile development for some time, but have done little with either. Reflecting on that lately, I realize that both platforms severely restrict my freedom to use the tools I choose. Even on an old x86 with 640K of RAM, I had choices; BASIC, Pascal, and C would work under DOS. (Plus assembler, but I had yet to learn that at the time.) On Android, my choices are Java or… Java. (OK, or something that compiles to Java, but those selections are still limited.) Plus it seems like I’d have to use Eclipse, which seems to have taken the kitchen sync crown from Emacs long ago, and not in a good way. On iOS, the choices are Objective C. And on the web, it’s JavaScript.

The problem with all this is that there’s little room for language innovation on those platforms. If predictions about the decline of development on the PC pan out, how will the next advance in programming languages gain traction if the hot spots for development are locked down to three main languages? Will we find ourselves only willing to consider languages that can compile to Java/Dalvik bytecode? And won’t that put limits on the possible space for innovation to occur within?

Yes, I know about things like Mono and the Android Scripting Environment, which offer some potential for hope, but I think it’s still safe to say that these platforms are pretty closed to development in “unofficial” languages. I don’t know of major apps in the Android market written in Python, for instance.

I know of efforts such as Ubuntu’s, but even they simply lock down development to a different toolkit. There is no choice there of GTK vs. Qt, or such things.

Sadly, I don’t think it has to be this way. My phone has way more power than my computer did just a few years ago, and that computer was capable of not just executing, but even compiling, code written in all sorts of different languages.

But I don’t know if there’s much we can do to change things. Even with native code on Android, plenty still has to go through Dalvik (at least that’s my understanding). If you wanted to write a Python app with a full graphical touch interface on Android, I don’t think this would be all that easy of a task.