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Posts Tagged ‘IST/5’

Cobol 2014, perhaps the definitive final version of the language…

November 6th, 2014 No comments

Look what arrived in the post this morning, a complementary copy of the new Cobol Standard (the CD on top of a paper copy of the 1985 standard).

Photo of Cobol 2014 and 1985 Standards

In the good old days, before the Internet, members of IST/5 received a complementary copy of every new language standard in comforting dead tree form (a standard does not feel like a standard until it is weighed in the hand; pdfs are so lightweight); these days we get complementary access to pdfs. I suspect that this is not a change of policy at British Standards, but more likely an excessive print run that they need to dispose of to free up some shelf space. But it was nice of them to think of us workers rather than binning the CDs (my only contribution to Cobol 2014 was to agree with whatever the convener of the committee proposed with regard to Cobol).

So what does the new 955 page standard have to say for itself?

“COBOL began as a business programming language, but its present use has spread well beyond that to a general purpose programming language. Significant enhancements in this International Standard include:

— Dynamic-capacity tables

— Dynamic-length elementary items

— Enhanced locale support in functions

— Function pointers

— Increased size limit on alphanumeric, boolean, and national literals

— Parametric polymorphism (also known as method overloading)

— Structured constants

— Support for industry-standard arithmetic rules

— Support for industry-standard date and time formats

— Support for industry-standard floating-point formats

— Support for multiple rounding options”

I guess those working with Cobol will find these useful, but I don’t see them being enough to attract new users from other languages.

I have heard tentative suggestions of the next revision appearing in the 2020’s, but with membership of the Cobol committee dying out (literally in some cases and through retirement in others) perhaps this 2014 publication is the definitive final version of Cobol.

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An ISO Standard for R (just kidding)

July 24th, 2014 4 comments

IST/5, the British Standards’ committee responsible for programming languages in the UK, has a new(ish) committee secretary and like all people in a new role wants to see a vision of the future; IST/5 members have been emailed asking us what we see happening in the programming language standards’ world over the next 12 months.

The answer is, off course, that the next 12 months in programming language standards is very likely to be the same as the previous 12 months and the previous 12 before that. Programming language standards move slowly, you don’t want existing code broken by new features and it would be a huge waste of resources creating a standard for every popular today/forgotten tomorrow language.

While true the above is probably not a good answer to give within an organization that knows its business intrinsically works this way, but pines for others to see it as doing dynamic, relevant, even trendy things. What could I say that sounded plausible and new? Big data was the obvious bandwagon waiting to be jumped on and there is no standard for R, so I suggested that work on this exciting new language might start in the next 12 months.

I am not proposing that anybody start work on an ISO standard for R, in fact at the moment I think it would be a bad idea; the purpose of suggesting the possibility is to create some believable buzz to suggest to those sitting on the committees above IST/5 that we have our finger on the pulse of world events.

The purpose of a standard is to create agreement around one way of doing things and thus save lots of time/money that would otherwise be wasted on training/tools to handle multiple language dialects. One language for which this worked very well is C, for which there were 100+ incompatible compilers in the early 1980s (it was a nightmare); with the publication of the C Standard users finally had a benchmark that they could require their suppliers to meet (it took 4-5 years for the major suppliers to get there).

R is not suffering from a proliferation of implementations (incompatible or otherwise), there is no problem for an R standard to solve.

Programming language standards do get created for reasons other than being generally useful. The ongoing work on C++ is a good example of consultant driven standards development; consultants who make their living writing and giving seminars about the latest new feature of C++ require a steady stream of new feature to talk about and have an obvious need to keep new versions of the standard rolling down the production line. Feeling that a language is unappreciated is another reason for creating an ISO Standard; the Modula-2 folk told me that once it became an ISO Standard the use of Modula-2 would take off. R folk seem to have a reasonable grip on reality, or have I missed a lurking distorted view of reality that will eventually give people the drive to spend years working their fingers to the bone to create a standard that nobody is really that interested in?

2013 in the programming language standards’ world

August 29th, 2013 1 comment

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.

Does the UK need the PL/1 Standard?

September 25th, 2011 No comments

Like everything else language standards are born and eventually die. IST/5, the UK programming language committee, is considering whether the British Standard for PL/1 should be withdrawn (there are two standards, ISO 6160:1979 which has been reconfirmed multiple times since 1979, most recently in 2008, and a standardized subset ISO 6522:1992, also last confirmed in 2008).

A language standard is born through the efforts of a group of enthusiastic people. A language standard dies because there is no enthusiast (a group of one is often sufficient) to sing its praises (or at least be willing to be a name on a list that is willing to say, every five years, that the existing document should be reconfirmed).

It is 20 years since IST/5 last had a member responsible for PL/1, but who is to say that nobody in the UK is interested in maintaining the PL/1 standard? Unlike many other programming language ISO Standards there was never an ISO SC22 committee responsible for PL/1. All of the work was done by members of the US committee responsible for programming language PL 22 (up until a few years ago this was ANSI committee X3). A UK person could have paid his dues and been involved in the US based work; I don’t have access to a list of committee meeting attendees and so cannot say for sure that there was no UK involvement.

A member of IST/5, David Muxworthy, has been trying to find somebody in the UK with an interest in maintaining the PL/1 standard. A post to the newsgroup comp.lang.pl1 eventually drew a response from a PL/1 developer who said he would not be affected if the British Standard was withdrawn.

GNU compiler development is often a useful source of information. In this case the PL/1 web page is dated 2007.

In 2008 John Klensin, the ISO PL/1 project editor, wrote: “No activities or requests for additions or clarifications during the last year or, indeed, the last decade. Both ISO 6160 and the underlying US national document, ANS X3.53-1976 (now ANSI/INCITS-53/1976), have been reaffirmed multiple times. The US Standard has been stabilized and the corresponding technical activity was eliminated earlier this year”.

It looks like the British Standard for PL/1 is not going to live past the date of its next formal review in 2013. Thirty four years would then be the time span, from publication of last standard containing new material to formal withdrawal of all standards, to outlive. I wonder if any current member of either of the C or C++ committees will live to see this happen to their work?

Ruby becoming an ISO Standard

August 12th, 2011 No comments

The Ruby language is going through the process of becoming an ISO Standard (it has been assigned the document number ISO/IEC 30170).

There are two ways of creating an ISO Standard, a document that has been accepted by another standards’ body can be fast tracked to be accepted as-is by ISO or a committee can be set up to write the document. In the case of Ruby a standard was created under the auspices of JISC (Japanese Industrial Standards Committee) and this has now been submitted to ISO for fast tracking.

The fast track process involves balloting the 18 P-members of SC22 (the ISO committee responsible for programming languages), asking for a YES/NO/ABSTAIN vote on the submitted document becoming an ISO Standard. NO votes have to be accompanied by a list of things that need to be addressed for the vote to change to YES.

In most cases the fast tracking of a document goes through unnoticed (Microsoft’s Office Open XML being a recent high profile exception). The more conscientious P-members attempt to locate national experts who can provide worthwhile advice on the country’s response, while the others usually vote YES out of politeness.

Once an ISO Standard is published future revisions are supposed to be created using the ISO process (i.e., a committee attended by interested parties from P-member countries proposes changes, discusses and when necessary votes on them). When the C# ECMA Standard was fast tracked through ISO in 2005 Microsoft did not start working with an ISO committee but fast tracked a revised C# ECMA Standard through ISO; the UK spotted this behavior and flagged it. We will have to wait and see where work on any future revisions takes place.

Why would any group want to make the effort to create an ISO Standard? The Ruby language designers reasons appear to be “improve the compatibility between different Ruby implementations” (experience shows that compatibility is driven by customer demand not ISO Standards) and government procurement in Japan (skip to last comment).

Prior to the formal standards work the Rubyspec project aimed to create an executable specification. As far as I can see this is akin to some of the tools I wrote about a few months ago.

IST/5, the committee at British Standards responsible for language standards is looking for UK people (people in other countries have to contact their national standards’ body) interested in getting involved with the Ruby ISO Standard’s work. I am a member of IST/5 and if you email me I will pass your contact details along to the chairman.