Thirty years ago today Richard Stallman announced the availability of a beta version of gcc on the mod.compilers newsgroup.
Everybody and his dog was writing C compilers in the late 1980s and early 1990s (a C compiler validation suite vendor once told me they had sold over 150 copies; a compiler vendor has to be serious to fork out around $10,000 for a validation suite). Did gcc become the dominant open source because one compiler would inevitably become dominant, or was there some collection of factors that gave gcc a significant advantage?
I think gcc’s market dominance was driven by two environmental factors, with some help from a technical compiler implementation decision.
The technical implementation decision was the use of RTL as the optimization+code generation strategy. Jack Davidson’s 1981 PhD thesis (and much later the LCC book) describe the gory details. The code generators for nearly every other C compiler was closely tied to the machine being targeted (because the implementers were focused on getting a job done, not producing a portable compiler system). Had they been so inclined Davidson and Christopher Fraser could have been the authors of the dominant C compiler.
The first environment factor was the creation of a support ecosystem around gcc. The glue that nourished this ecosystem was the money made writing code generators for the never ending supply of new cpus that companies were creating (that needed a C compiler). In the beginning Cygnus Solutions were the face of gcc+tools; Michael Tiemann, a bright affable young guy, once told me that he could not figure out why companies were throwing money at them and that perhaps it was because he was so tall. Richard Stallman was not the easiest person to get along with and was probably somebody you would try to avoid meeting (I don’t know if he has mellowed). If Cygnus had gone with a different compiler, they had created 175 host/target combinations by 1999, gcc would be as well-known today as Hurd.
Yes, people writing Masters and PhD thesis were using gcc as the scaffolding for their fancy new optimization techniques (e.g., here, here and here), but this work essentially played the role of an R&D group trying to figure out where effort ought to be invested writing production code.
Sun’s decision to unbundle the development environment (i.e., stop shipping a C compiler with every system) caused some developers to switch to another compiler, some choosing gcc.
The second environment factor was the huge leap in available memory on developer machines in the 1990s. Compiler vendors cannot ship compilers that do fancy optimization if developers don’t have computers with enough memory to hold the optimization information (many, many megabytes). Until developer machines contained lots of memory, a one-man band could build a compiler producing code that was essentially as good as everybody else. An open source market leader could not emerge until the man+dog compilers could be clearly seen to be inferior.
During the 1990s the amount of memory likely to be available in developers’ computers grew dramatically, allowing gcc to support more and more optimizations (donated by a myriad of people targeting some aspect of code generation that they found interesting). Code generation improved dramatically and man+dog compilers became obviously second/third rate.
Would things be different today if Linus Torvalds’ had not selected gcc? If Linus had chosen a compiler licensed under a more liberal license than copyleft, things might have turned out very differently. LLVM started life in 2003 and one of my predictions for 2009 was its demise in the next few years; I failed to see the importance of licensing to Apple (who essentially funded its development).
With success came new existential threats, in particular death by a thousand forks.
A serious fork occurred in 1997. Stallman was clogging up the works; fortunately he saw the writing on the wall and in 1999 stepped aside.
Money is what holds together the major development teams supporting gcc and llvm. What happens when customers wanting support for new back-ends dries up, what happens when major companies stop funding development? Do we start seeing adverts during compilation? Chris Lattner, the driving force behind llvm recently moved to Tesla; will it turn out that his continuing management was as integral to the continuing success of llvm as getting rid of Stallman was to the continuing success of gcc?
Will a single mainline version of gcc still be the dominant compiler in another 30 years time?
Time will tell.