Monday, August 25, 2014

Dylan: the harsh realities of the market

So, this is a little case study.

I did everything for Dylan. And when I say everything, I mean everything.  Here's my resumé:

  • I got excited about Dylan as a user, and I used it. I bought an old Mac that I don't ever remember the designation for, it's so '90's old, and got the floppies for the Dylan IDE from Apple research.
I'm not joking.

  • I integrated Dylan into my work at work, building an XML parser then open-sourcing it to the community under the (then) non-restrictive license. I think mine was the only XML parser that was industrial-strength for Dylan. Can't claim originality: I ported over the Common-LISP one, but it was a lot of (fun) work.
  • I made improvements to the gwydion-dylan compiler, including some library documentation (you can see my name right there, right in the compiler code), including some library functionality, did I work on the compiler itself? The Dylan syntax extensions or type system? I don't recall; if not in those places, I know I've looked at those guts: I had my fingers all over parts of the compiler.
I was in the Dylan compiler code. For you ll-types ('little language') that's no big deal.

But ask a software developer in industry if they've ever been in their compiler code. I have, too: I've found bugs in Java Sun-compiler that I fixed locally and reported up the chain.
  • I taught a course at our community college on Dylan. I had five students from our company that made satellite mission software.
  • I effing had commercial licenses bought when the boss asked me: what do we have to do to get this (my system) done/integrated into the build. I put my job on the line, for Dylan. ... The boss bought the licenses: he'd rather spend the $x than spending six weeks to back-port down to Java or C++.
  • I built a rule-based man-power scheduling system that had previously took three administrative assistants three days each quarter to generate. My system did it, and printed out a PDF in less than one second. I sold it, so that means I started a commercial company and sold my software.
I sold commercial Dylan software. That I wrote. Myself. And sold. Because people bought it. Because it was that good.

Hells yeah.

Question: what more could I have done?

I kept Dylan alive for awhile. In industry. For real.

So why is Dylan dead?

That's not the question.

Or, that question is answered over and over and over again.

Good languages, beautiful languages, right-thing languages languish and die all the time.

Dylan was the right-thing, and they (Apple) killed it in the lab, and for a reason.

Who is Dylan for?

That's not the question either. Because you get vague, general, useless answers.

The question is to ask it like Paul Graham answered it for LISP.

Lisp is a pointless, useless, weird language that nobody uses.

But Paul and his partner didn't care. They didn't give a ...


... what anybody else thought. They knew that this language, the language they loved, was built and designed and made for them. Just them and only them, because the only other people who were using it were college kids on comp.lang.lisp asking for the answers for problem-set 3 on last night's homework.

That's what Lisp was good for: nothing.
That's who Lisp was good for: nobody.

Same exact scenario for Erlang. Exactly the same. Erlang was only good for Joe Armstrong and a couple of buddies/weirdos like him, you know: kooks, who believed that Erlang was the right-thing for what they were doing, because they were on a mission, see, and nothing nobody could say could stop them nor stand against them, and all who would rise up against them would fall.


What made Lisp and Haskell and Erlang and Scala and Prolog (yes, Prolog, although you'll never hear that success story publicly, but $26M and three lives saved? Because of a Prolog system I wrote? And that's just one day in one month's report for data? I call that a success) work when nobody sane would say that these things would work?

Well, it took a few crazy ones to say, no, not: 'say' that it would work, but would make it work with their beloved programming language come hell or high water or, worse: indifferent silence, or ridicule, or pity from the rest of the world.

That is the lesson of perl and python and all these other languages. They're not good for anything. They suck. And they suck in libraries and syntax and semantics and weirdness-factor and everything.

But two, not one, but at least two people loved that language enough to risk everything, and ...

They lost.

Wait. What?

Did you think I was going to paint the rosy picture and lie to you and say 'they won'?

Because they didn't.

Who uses Lisp commercially? Or Haskell, except some fringers, or Scala or Clojure or Erlang or Smalltalk or Prolog

... or Dylan.

These languages are defined, right there in the dictionary.

Erlang: see 'career wrecker.'

Nobody uses those languages nor admits to even touching them with a 10-foot (3-meter) pole. I had an intern from college. 'Yeah, we studied this weird language called ML in Comp.sci. Nobody uses it.'

She was blown away when I started singing ML's praises and what it can do.

A meta-language, and she called it useless? Seriously?

Because that's what the mainstream sees.

Newsflash. I'm sorry. Dylan, Haskell, Idris: these aren't main-stream, and they never will be.

Algebraic types? Dependent types? You'll never see them. They're too ... research-y. They stink of academe, which is: they stink of uselessness-to-industry. You'll be dead and buried to see them in this form, even after they discover the eternity elixir. Sorry.

Or you'll see them in Visual Basic as a new Type-class form that only a few Microserfs use because they happened to have written those extensions. Everybody else?


Here's how Dylan will succeed, right now.

Bruce and I will put our heads together, start a company, and we'll code something. Not for anybody else to use and to love and to cherish, just for us, only for us, and it will blow out the effing doors, and we'll be bought out for $40M because our real worth is $127M.

And the first thing that Apple will do, after they bought us, is to show us the door, then convert the code into Java. Or Swift. Or Objective-C, or whatever.

And that's how we'll win.

Not the $40M. Not the lecture series on 'How to Make Functional Programming Work in Industry for Real' afterwards at FLoC and ICFP conferences with fan-bois and -girls wanting to talk to us afterwards and ask us how they can get a job doing functional programming.

Not that.

We'll win because we made something in Dylan, and it was real, and it worked, and it actually did something for enough people that we can now go to our graves knowing that we did something once with our lives (and we can do it again and again, too: there's no upper limit on the successes you're allowed to have, people) that meant something to some bodies. And we did that. With Dylan.


I've done that several times already, by my counting: the Prolog project, the Dylan project, the Mercury project, and my writing.

I'm ready to do that, again.

Because, actually, fundamentally, doing something in this world and for it ... there's nothing like it.

You write that research paper, and I come up to you, waving it in your face, demanding you implement your research because I need it to do my job in Industry?

I've done that to three professors so far. Effing changed their world-view in that moment. "What?" they said, to a person, "somebody actually wants to use this?" The look of bemused surprise on their faces?

It was sad, actually, because they did write something that somebody out there (moiself) needed, but they never knew that what they were doing meant something.

And it did.

Effing change your world-view. Your job? Your research? Your programming language?

That's status quo, and that's good and necessary and dulce and de leche (or decorum, I forget which).

But get up out of the level you're at, and do something with it so that that other person, slouched in their chair, sits up and takes notice, and a light comes over their face and they say, 'Ooh! That does that? Wow!' and watch their world change, because of you and what you've done.

Dylan is for nothing and for nobody.

So is everything under the Sun, my friend.

Put your hand to the plow, and with the sweat of your brow, make it yours for this specific thing.

Regardless of the long hours, long months of unrewarded work, and regardless of the hecklers, naysayers, and concerned friends and parents, and regardless of the mountain of unpaid bills.

You make it work, and you don't stop until it does.

That's how I've won.

Every time.


MaggieL said...

"Who uses Scala commercially?"

I had to check the date on this, but it *was* posted today.

Mateus Caruccio said...

AFAIK, RabbitMQ is written in Erlang, isn't it?

Rick Fleischer said...

That was beautiful. Almost made me all misty-eyed. And no, I'm not joking.

sgoguen said...

Thank you for writing this. I needed it.

Michael Hendricks said...

I'd love to hear more about your Prolog and Mercury projects.

Will said...

RabbitMQ, ejabberd (used in whatsapp and fb chat), couchdb (and couchbase, partially, by extension), tsung, riak, SimpleDB, Wings3D are all written in erlang. OpenX among others in adtech use it, including one of my former employers (its found a niche in RTB). Heroku uses it, as well (don't know what for, I just know they employ erlang devs). Not to mention ericsson and a couple other telcoms.

llaisdy said...

Very good post: passionate, stirring. And true.

(apart from about erlang: as has been pointed out, this started off as an industrial language, not an academic language, and it is used in industry a lot).