Monday, August 04, 2008

Languages Readability and Tool Support

I received a few comments on my blog about type inference and its affect on readability saying that the problem isn't really a problem if you have proper tool support.  You have API docs, IDE based assistance, and even interesting tools like the OCaml Browser.  The problem is that these don't really address the problem.  Programming requires a lot of concentration and is best done in a state of flow.  This means that anything that causes distraction or disruption is the enemy.  Flipping to another window in order to see some documentation requires a non-value added thought.  So does moving the cursor so that an IDE will display a popup with the inferred type.  Thoughts simply flow better if the code is readily readable, and code that requires a special tool to read is not readable.

There's also less benefits to having code that is readable without external assistance.  While code may spend most of its life being displayed in an IDE, it certainly doesn't spend all of its life there.  Books, articles, blogs, and other such media often contain code as well.  Despite the ubiquity of the internet, I think having at least one book in dead tree format is still essential for a programming languages to be successful (and in some cases even taken seriously), and the last time I checked dead trees don't have popup windows.  Most online postings don't have intelligent help, either, although I suppose it would be possible if someone really wanted to put in the effort.  Regardless, the readability of a language in these formats will have a major impact on how easy a language is to learn, and ultimately how well it is accepted.

The bottom line is that despite all the great and useful tools there are out there, it is still critical for a language to stand on its own without major tool support.

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