=head1 NAME

Magazine_Article_01 - Report on the Perl 6 Announcement, Why? How?

=head1 AUTHOR

Mark-Jason Dominus L<mjd@songline.com>

=head1 VERSION

It was published July 25, 2000 on perl.com and not changed since.
Find the original under:


=head1 ARTICLE

Last Monday, nobody knew that anything unusual was about to happen.
On Tuesday, the Perl 6 project started.  On Wednesday, Larry announced
it at his "State of the Onion" address at the Perl conference.

Yes, it all really did happen that fast.

Several problems have seemed to beset Perl in the past year:

Infighting on p5p, the main Perl developers' list, seemed out of control for
a while, and, although the problems seem to have been solved by the addition 
of refereeing (See 
for details), several important developers had quit the list already.

But not a lot seems to have happened to Perl in the last year. The last
really interesting Perl development was probably POE, which won the
"Best New Module" award at I<last> year's Perl conference.
There was a Perl 5.6 release, but most of the changes were not
user-visible.  There was better support for threads (including support
for C<fork()> on Windows systems, which is very impressive) and
Unicode.  But it's hard to get excited about this, and it was really
hard to put in, and incomplete.

Perl development was stuck.

=head2 Stuck How?

There are two big problems with Perl 5.

First, the internals are extremely convoluted.  It's I<hard> to hack on
Perl's internals.  There's a lot of accumulated cruft, and Perl 5 has
reached that stage of maturity in which it's difficult to make a change
or fix a bug without introducing some new bug. The excellent test suite
prevents the new bugs from getting into the release, of course, but it also
prevents the new feature from getting into the release.

The addition of threads, the compiler, bytecode generation, and Unicode
support is still incomplete, because none of those things were designed
into Perl 5; they are all being bolted on afterwards, and it shows.

The other big problem is thirteen years of backward compatibility history.
The porters might like to rationalize the syntax a little, or clean up Perl's 
semantics, but that might break old code, and Perl is committed to not 
breaking old code.  We can't add a new built-in function because it might
break old code.  It's extremely difficult to remove even the most bizarre 
and little-used old features, because it might break old code.  Every few 
months, someone suggests replacing Perl's garbage collector with a more 
modern one, but there are always objections from people who have written 
code that assumes that the garbage collector will always be reference-count
based and that it can control when objects will be destructed.

Technically, there's not very much "wiggle room" in the source code,
because the internals are so convoluted and difficult. And there's not much
"wiggle room" in the language itself, because of the need to support 
ten-year-old Perl 2 code.

=head2 Tuesday

I had to miss the Tuesday meetings, because I was teaching classes.
So this part of the report is hearsay.

A meeting of the Perl 5 Porters was scheduled to take place in the afternoon.
In the morning, Chip Salzenberg held a pre-meeting for discussion of
"constitutional issues," to change the way Perl development was run.
But after a while, according to Larry, "Jon Orwant ... pointed out that it
was going to be useless to invent a new constitution if everyone was just
going to say, 'Ho, hum.'" Jon suggested that Perl try to go in a new
direction, and do something new and big; he used Napster as an example of a
new, big idea. This was the catalyst for the discussion to go in a new
direction.  At the end of the the morning, the decision was made to start
working on Perl 6.

=head2 What About Perl 6 ?

Perl 6 will be a complete rewrite of Perl, starting from scratch. The
internals will be redesigned.  Threading, Unicode, and reliable signal
handling will be designed in from the bottom up.  The external API will be
cleaned up; the core will be smaller and faster, and the XS system for
extension modules will be scrapped in favor of something simpler and cleaner.
One perennial problem has been that installing a new version of Perl has
frequently broken binary compatibility with older versions and required that
all of Perl's unbundled extension modules be recompiled; this may be fixed
in Perl 6.

At the same time, the social structure behind Perl will also be redesigned.
Larry said that the perl5-porters model was not working well any more, and
led to too much talk and too little action.  Perl is too big for one person
to manage, and the pumpkings burn out quickly. The new model will probably be
several separate working groups, each charged with the design and
implementation of one aspect of Perl. Larry said that Perl 6 would be designed
by the community, and not by one person, and that with the new organization,
Perl would be able to evolve into the language that we need in 2020.

Probably most amazing was that the Porters agreed to break backwards
compatibility.  As Larry said on Wednesday, the language itself needs
revision.  On Wednesday, Larry mentioned several small, specific changes:

=over 2

=item * The C<system()> function will return true on success and false on failure.

=item * The C<localtime()> function will return the four-digit year.

=item * The notion of "currently selected filehandle" will probably go away.

=item * Typeglobs may be eliminated.


But these are just by way of example.  Larry said "We're really serious
about reinventing everything that needs reinventing." Everything is up for
discussion, and the suggestions so far have even included giving Perl a
pattern-matching system more like the one in SNOBOL.

It seems that the big technical inspiration that came out of the Tuesday
afternoon meeting was that it doesn't I<have> to be backward
compatible.  Perl 5, right now, can compile a Perl program into its internal
syntax tree and then uncompile the tree back into source code, using the
C<B::Deparse> module.  But you don't necessarily have to produce the same
source code you took in; you could instead rearrange the code to produce a
Perl 6 program to do the same thing. So the upward  migration path from
Perl 5 to Perl 6 will probably be to run your code through a translator.

Larry promised not to abandon Perl 5.  The 5.6 maintenance track will
continue as planned, and the 5.7 development track will eventually yield
Perl 5.8, as planned.  5.8 will be the final release of Perl 5, but it will
continue to be maintained and stable.  Larry pointed out that Perl 4 had not
yet gone away, and there was no reason to expect Perl 5 to go away either.
CPAN itself can serve as a test suite for Perl 6:  When it can run most of
the things in CPAN, either directly or post-translation, it's ready.

Larry said that easy things should stay easy, hard things should get easier, 
and impossible things should get hard.  He promised code in one year: alpha 
code, but well-designed alpha code, and he called on each person to play 
their part.

=head2 Questions

At the end of Larry's announcement, Jon Orwant graciously offered to cancel
his talk on "Rebuilding Postapocalyptic Civilization with Perl" so that 
Larry could have a question and answer session. These are the questions 
that people asked, with Larry's answers.

=over 2

=item B<Will Perl 6 be in C++?>


=item B<When can we expect the grand plan ?>

Larry said that culturally, it has started already, and that we should
expect a roadmap this month.  His personal goal as language designer
was to have something substantial to say by the time of his Linux Expo
keynote speech in October.  But the schedule is not yet nailed down.

=item B<Will Perl 6 have a spec ?>

Larry said he did not know how strict it would be, and that he was not
big on specs.  He likes the reference implementation approach.
He said he wanted to particularly stress not a spec, but the
development of acceptance tests into regression and validation tests
that would say "This is Perl; this isn't."  He said that this was more
important than mere verbiage.

=item B<Will you look into technical infrastructure to support more 
constructive discussion than mailing lists can?>

Larry said that the Porters were thinking about 2-tier mailing lists that 
each have a person in charge, and an RFC-like mechanism.  He said that we 
would be paying less attention to the "Wouldn't it be nice if..." type of 
proposals, and that proposals would need to be more formal and official.

=item B<Can you hint at some of the language changes ?>

Larry said that everything was negotiable.  He specifically mentioned
that Perl's old "formats" feature should probably be in a module
instead of in the core, and that he wanted to clean up ambiguities in
the indirect object syntax.  (This question concerns whether the

    my $x = new Carrot (...);

parses as if you had written:

    my $x = new(Carrot(...));

or as if you had written:

    my $x = 'Carrot'->new(...);

instead.  At present, this construction is rather fragile.)

Larry said that since the Porters had decided to bite the bullet of
backward incompatibility anyway and require translation of Perl 5 to
Perl 6 code, they would consider any change at all, as long as it
could be translated.  He said that if 95% of all scripts could be
translated 95% accurately, and if 80% of scripts could be translated
100% accurately, that was probably good enough.

He said that the Porters wanted Perl to have all the features that
other languages say "nyah nyah" about, such as byte-compilation.  He
suggested that Perl's garbage collector might be replaced with a more
modern mark-sweep garbage collector, and that object finalization
might be separated from destruction.

=item B<One problem of language translation is that you lose comments and 

Larry replied that C<a2p>, the AWK-to-Perl translator that is bundled with 
Perl, which he wrote, doesn't have this problem, and that he didn't think 
that the person asking the question would need to worry about this.

=item B<Is there a possibility of getting a switch construction ?>

(At this point Damian Conway shouted "I have a paper on that!")

Larry said, "Certainly." (Meaning that there certainly was a possibility,
not that there certainly would be one.) Then he said that he would not 
promise one.

=item B<Will there be an ISO or ANSI standard for Perl ?>

"We will be our own standards body."

=item B<How long have you been thinking about this ?>

"Since yesterday."

=item B<What about POD ?>

Larry said it was all negotiable.

=item B<Which languages will you borrow from this time ?>

"All of them."

(Then Larry said that they probably wouldn't borrow COBOL's 
C<IDENTIFICATION DIVISION> syntax, and that part of the reason there was so 
little COBOL poetry is because it's hard to write a poem that begins 
C<IDENTIFICATION DIVISION>.) He also mentioned the bytecode issue again,
and said that it would be nice to have a cleaner object-oriented interface
to I/O.

=item B<Some people using Perl to develop large software want features like 
strong type checking. Is there a possibility of providing this ?>

Larry said there was, and suggested a C<use strict 'typechecking'>
directive, or maybe C<use stricter>. He also said that perl 6 should
get rid of many of the stranger global variables, such as C<$#>.


=head2 Other Resources

The official web site for Perl 6 right now is L<http://www.perl.org/perl6/>
The site has a list of short-term goals, a list of the roles that have been
assigned to various people, the notes from the Tuesday afternoon meeting, 
and press releases concerning Perl 5 maintenance and Perl 6 development.

=head2 Editorial Conclusion

Perl is interesting again.