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Writing language standards is a cottage industry

August 8th, 2012 No comments

In the beginning programming language standards were written by one country’s National Standards body (e.g., ANSI did C/Cobol/Fortran for the USA and BSI did Pascal for the UK) and other countries were free to write their own version, adopt the existing work or do nothing (I don’t know of any country writing their own version, a few countries sometimes stuck their own front page on an existing document and the majority did nothing; update 4 Dec 2012, thanks to David Muxworthy for pointing out that around 1974 the UK, US, Japan and ECMA were all independently developing a standard for BASIC, by 1982 this had evolved to just ANSI and ECMA).

The UK people who created the Pascal Standard wanted the rest of the world (i.e., the US) to adopt it and the way to do this was to have it adopted as an ISO Standard. The experience of making this happen convinced the folk at BSI that in future language standards should be produced as an international effort within ISO (those pesky Americans wanted changes made to the document before they would vote for it).

During the creation of the first C Standard various people from Europe joined the ANSI committee, X3J11, so they could take part. Initially the US members were not receptive to the European request for a mechanism to handle keyboards that did not contain certain characters (e.g., left/right square brackets) but responded promptly on hearing that those (pesky) Europeans planned to publish an ISO C Standard that would contain those changes to the ANSI Standard needed to support trigraphs; the published ANSI Standard included support for trigraphs. The C ANSI committee were very receptive to the idea of future work being done at the ISO level; Bill Plauger/Tom Plum did a lot of good work to ensure it happened.

The C++ language came along and long story short an ISO committee was set up to create an ISO Standard for it, then Java came along and the Java Study Group failed to become an ISO committee and then various nonspecific language committees happened.

A look at the SC22 web site shows that ISO Standards exist for Forth and ECMAscript (it has not yet been updated to include Ruby) with no corresponding ISO committees. What is going on?

One could be cynical and say that special interests are getting a document of their choosing accepted by ECMA and then abusing the ISO fast track procedure to sidestep the need to setup an international committee that has the authority to create a document of its choosing. The reality is that unless a language is very widely used by lots of people (e.g., in the top five or so most commonly used languages) there are unlikely to be enough people (or employers) willing and able to commit the time and money needed to be actively involved in an ISO Standard committee.

Once a documented has been fast tracked to become ISO Standard any updates to it are supposed to be carried out under ISO rules (i.e., an ISO committee). In practice this is not happening with ECMAscript which continues to be very active (I don’t know what is happening with Forth or how the Ruby people plan to handle any updates), holding bi-monthly meetings; over the years they have fast tracked two revisions to the original fast tracked document (the UK did raise the issue during balloting but nothing came of it, I don’t think anybody really cares).

Would moving the ECMAscript development work from ECMA to ISO make a worthwhile difference? There might be a few people out there who would attend an ISO meeting who are not currently attending ECMA meetings (to join ECMA companies with five or less employees pay an annual fee of 3,500 Swiss francs {about the same number of US dollars} and larger companies pay a lot more) but I suspect the number would not be large enough to make up for the extra hassle of running an ISO committee (e.g., longer ISO balloting timescales).

Production of programming language standards is really a cottage industry that relies on friends in high places (e.g., companies with an existing membership of ECMA or connections into the local country standards’ body) for them to appear on the international stage.