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What language was an executable originally written in?

April 11th, 2010

Apple have recently added an unusual requirement to the iPhone developer agreement “Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript …”. As has been pointed out elsewhere the real purpose is stop third party’s from acquiring any control over application development on Apple’s products; the banning of other languages is presumably regarded as acceptable collateral damage.

Is it possible to tell by analyzing an executable what language it was originally written in?

There are two ways in which executables contain source language ‘signatures’. Detecting these signatures requires knowledge of specific compiler behavior, i.e., a database of information about the behavior of compilers capable of creating the executables is needed.

Runtime library. Most compilers make use of a language specific runtime library, rather than generating inline code for some kinds of functionality. For instance, setjmp/longjmp in C and vtables in C++.

The presence of a known C runtime library does not guarantee that the application was originally written in C; it could have been written in Java and converted to C source.

The absence of a known C runtime library could mean that the source was compiled by a C compiler using a runtime system unknown to the analyzer.

The presence of a known Java, for instance, runtime library would suggest that the original source contained some Java. This kind of analysis would obviously require that the runtime library database not restrict itself to the ‘C’ languages.

Compiler behavior patterns. There is usually more than one way in which a source language construct can be translated to machine code and a compiler has to pick one of them. The perfect optimizing compiler would always make the optimal choice, but real compilers follow a fixed pattern of code generation for at least some language constructs (e.g., initialization of registers on function entry).

The presence of known code patterns in an executable is evidence that a particular compiler has been used; how much depends on the likelihood it could have been generated by other means and how many other patterns suggest the same compiler. In the case of the GNU Compiler Collection the source language might also be Fortran, Java or Ada; I don’t know enough about the behavior of GCC to provide an informed estimate of whether it is possible to recognize the source language from the translated form of constructs shared by several languages, I suspect not.

The fact that an executable can be decompiled to C is not a guarantee that it was originally written in C.

Some languages support source language constructs whose corresponding machine code is unlikely to ever be generated by source from another language. The Fortran computed goto allows constructs to be written that have no equivalent in the other languages supported by GCC (none of them allow statement labels appearing in a multi-way jump to appear before the jump test):

10    I=I+1
20    J=J+1
       goto (10, 20, 30, 40) J
30    I=I+3
40    I=I*2

The presence of a compiled form of this kind of construct in the executable would be very suggestive of Fortran source.

Apple are famously paranoid and control freakery. It will be very interesting to see what level of compliance checking they decide to perform on executables submitted to the App Store.

On another note: What does “originally written” mean? For instance, many of the mathematical functions (e.g., sine, log, gamma, etc) contained in R were originally written in Fortran and translated to C for use in R; this C source is what is now maintained. Does this historical implementation decision mean that R cannot be legally ported to the iPhone?

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