Yesterday I was at the British Standards Institute for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming languages. Things have been rather quiet since I last wrote about IST/5, 18 months ago. Of course lots of work has been going on (WG21 meetings, C++ Standard, are attracting 100+ people, twice a year, to spend a week trying to reach agreement on new neat features to add; I’m not sure how the ability to send email is faring these days .
Taken as a whole programming languages standards work, at the ISO level, has been in decline over the last 10 years and will probably decline further. IST/5 used to meet for a day four times a year and now meets for half a day twice a year. Chairman of particular language committees, at international and national levels, are retiring and replacements are thin on the ground.
Why is work on programming language standards in decline when there are languages in widespread use that have not been standardised (e.g., Perl and PHP do not have a non-source code specification)?
The answer is low hardware/OS diversity and Open source. These two factors have significantly reduced the size of the programming language market (i.e., there are far fewer people making a living selling compilers and language related tools). In the good old-days any computer company worth its salt had its own cpu and OS, which of course needed its own compiler and the bigger vendors had third parties offering competing compilers; writing a compiler was such a big undertaking that designers of new languages rarely gave the source away under non-commercial terms, even when this happened the effort involved in a port was heroic. These days we have a couple of cpus in widespread use (and unlikely to be replaced anytime soon), a couple of OSs and people are queuing up to hand over the source of the compiler for their latest language. How can a compiler writer earn enough to buy a crust of bread let alone attend an ISO meeting?
Creating an ISO language standard, through the ISO process, requires a huge amount of work (an estimated 62 person years for C99; pdf page 20). In a small market few companies have an incentive to pay for an employee to be involved in the development process. Those few languages that continue to be worked on at the ISO level have niche markets (Fortran has supercomputing and C had embedded systems) or broad support (C and now C++) or lots of consultants wanting to be involved (C++, not so much C these days).
The new ISO language standards are coming from national groups (e.g., Ruby from Japan and ECMAscript from the US) who band together to get the work done for local reasons. Unless there is a falling out between groups in different nations, and lots of money is involved, I don’t see any new language standards being developed within ISO.