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Microcomputers ‘killed’ Ada

In the mid-70s the US Department of Defense decided it could save lots of money by getting all its contractors to write code in the same programming language. In February 1980 a language was chosen, Ada, but by the end of the decade the DoD had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; what happened?

I think microcomputers is what happened; these created whole new market ecosystems, some of which were much larger than the ecosystems that mainframes and minicomputers sold into.

These new ecosystems sucked up nearly all the available software developer mind-share; the DoD went from being a major employer of developers to a niche player. Developers did not want a job using Ada because they thought that being type-cast as Ada programmers would overly restricted their future job opportunities; Ada was perceived as a DoD only language (actually there was so little Ada code in the DoD, that only by counting new project starts could it get any serious ranking).

Lots of people were blindsided by the rapid rise (to world domination) of microcomputers. Compilers could profitably sold (in some cases) for tends or hundreds of dollars/pounds because the markets were large enough for this to be economically viable. In the DoD ecosystems compilers had to be sold for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars/pounds because the markets were small. Micros were everywhere and being programmed in languages other than Ada; cheap Ada compilers arrived after today’s popular languages had taken off. There is no guarantee that cheap compilers would have made Ada a success, but they would have ensured the language was a serious contender in the popularity stakes.

By the start of the 90s Ada supporters were reduced to funding studies to produce glowing reports of the advantages of Ada compared to C/C++ and how Ada had many more compilers, tools and training than C++. Even the 1991 mandate “… where cost effective, all Department of Defense software shall be written in the programming language Ada, in the absence of special exemption by an official designated by the Secretary of Defense.” failed to have an impact and was withdrawn in 1997.

The Ada mandate was cancelled as the rise of the Internet created even bigger markets, which attracted developer mind-share towards even newer languages, further reducing the comparative size of the Ada niche.

Astute readers will notice that I have not said anything about the technical merits of Ada, compared to other languages. Like all languages, Ada has its fanbois; these are essentially much older versions of the millennial fanbois of the latest web languages (e.g., Go and Rust). There is virtually no experimental evidence that any feature of any language is best/worse than any feature in any other language (a few experiments showing weak support for stronger typing). To its credit the DoD did fund a few studies, but these used small samples (there was not yet enough Ada usage to make larger sample possible) that were suspiciously glowing in their support of Ada.

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