If Java Is A Dinosaur, Then I Must Be In The Triassic Era

January 07, 2008

I keep reading blog posts where people equate Java with Cobol, that it's a dying language not suited for work today, and that people who use Java are generally less intelligent about programming in general. Given that dinosaurs ruled the earth another 50 million years or so after the Triassic period, I'd say Java still has a long useful lifespan.

Not that it's perfect at all, but I've been using Java for almost 10 years now, and compared to my years of C and C++ I am fairly glad I moved on. I've worked for years starting with Basic, then Fortran, Pascal, Assembly, C, C++, Objective-C and finally to Java; I've seen a steady improvement in my ability to be productive with my language and its entourage (frameworks, libraries and communities). Like the dinosaur, every language eventually falls out of favor as new "mammals" appear but rarely does a language die out completely. Like most animals and plants, they survive and even thrive in different environments way beyond the general evolutionary landscape that might otherwise kill them off. How else can you explain Object Cobol?

For me I find I can do almost anything in Java, provided a reasonable set of choices for the environment I am writing code in. I dislike most of J2EE but there are so many better ways that have sprung up to write Java applications unless you are forced to use the worst of breed "standards". It's not the language that kills so much as the accompanying baggage you have to drag around with you. Java may not be a perfect language design (if such as thing can even be agreed on) but it gets my job done.

Not that I intend to sit on my butt and become dinosaur fodder. Scala, Erlang and Haskell are languages I find fascinating to study, although Scala being JVM based makes it more likely to be useful to me. I think of Groovy as a more laid-back Java, and relatively easy to pick up as well for us Triassic Java coders.

Give me any decent language, and I can write any decent program. The difference is always in how long will it take, how reliable will it be, and how well can it be maintained. That is the mark of a good programmer no matter what they use to write with. Of course the choice of language does make a difference, but choosing the right tools for the job is also a mark of a good programmer. Often you have no choice (other than seek alternative employment or become an advocate for change) and you have to work with what you have. There is real skill in writing good code, and real skill in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen (or forced upon) toolset.

Often a language which requires a great deal of experience and understanding to master leads the average programmer to fail miserably. I'm sorry, writing complex C++ programs is not for a beginner. Even Java can be difficult (such as at my newest job where a whole set of mainframe programmers face the difficulty of learning a new language or having to leave) if you are not familiar with the concepts of OO programming. Is there a market for people who need a simpler language? Of course there is; but never assume mastery of a simple language or toolset means automatically that you can move on to more complex projects, or even assume your basic language choice can itself handle tougher problems. The world is littered with way too many VB/Access apps on an enterprise scale, for example.

So is there something wrong with learning Java, or using Java, or even improving Java? No there isn't, unless you take the approach that you will stop using Java when they pry it from your cold dead hands. It isn't the final stop on the programming roadway but it's a powerful, useful language with an enormous open source community, great tools, and works for a variety of uses.

Face it, there isn't any one solution to writing code, any more than there was when I started in 1981 writing Fortran. No matter what your favorite new language is, someday it will suck and people will laugh at you. So the trick is to work with the best choices available to you, and keep your eyes open for the new mammals on the block.

If I'm still coding in 50 million years I'll probably not be using Java.