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Hedonism: The future economics of compiler development

April 27th, 2017 No comments

In the past developers paid for compilers, then gcc came along (followed by llvm) and now a few companies pay money to have a bunch of people maintain/enhance/support a new cpu; developers get a free compiler. What will happen once the number of companies paying money shrinks below some critical value?

The current social structure has an authority figure (ISO committees for C and C++, individuals or companies for other languages) specifying the language, gcc/llvm people implementing the specification and everybody else going along for the ride.

Looking after an industrial strength compiler is hard work and requires lots of know-how; hobbyists have little chance of competing against those paid to work full time. But as the number of companies paying for support declines, the number of people working full-time on the compilers will shrink. Compiler support will become a part-time job or hobby.

What are the incentives for a bunch of people to get together and spend their own time maintaining a compiler? One very powerful incentive is being able to decide what new language features the compiler will support. Why spend several years going to ISO meetings arguing with everybody about whether the next version of the standard should support your beloved language construct, it’s quicker and easier to add it directly to the compiler (if somebody else wants their construct implemented, let them write the code).

The C++ committee is populated by bored consultants looking for an outlet for their creative urges (the production of 1,600 page documents and six extension projects is driven by the 100+ people who attend meetings; a lot fewer people would produce a simpler C++). What is the incentive for those 100+ (many highly skilled) people to attend meetings, if the compilers are not going to support the specification they produce? Cut out the middle man (ISO) and organize to support direct implementation in the compiler (one downside is not getting to go to Hawaii).

The future of compiler development is groups of like-minded hedonists (in the sense of agreeing what features should be in a language) supporting a compiler for the bragging rights of having created/designed the languages features used by hundreds of thousands of developers.