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According to Hoyle

According to Hoyle...

C++0x Part 6: Final Thoughts



March 2010

by Jonathan Hoyle


This month we conclude our series on the upcoming changes in the C++ language (known as C++0x).  For those who have missed the previous installments, feel free to visit these links:

            • C++0x Part 1: What is It (and Does It Even Matter)?
            • C++0x Part 2: A Step Forward
            • C++0x Part 3: Making Coding Easier
            • C++0x Part 4: Smart Pointers
            • C++0x Part 5: Rvalue References

In these previous articles, we have discussed some of the technical details for these changes and some of the pros and cons for them.  This month, I want to focus on where the C++0x draft currently stands, and what it means for the future of C++.

Where We Are Now

The original ANSI C++ specification was ratified in 1998, although the 1997 draft was fairly complete.  Even before that however, most C++ compiler vendors were continually trying to keep up with the latest versions of the specification draft, marketing their compliance with the draft as it stood.  You may recall that Metrowerks CodeWarrior at the time was being released four times a year, with C++ improvements each quarter.  Despite Microsoft's penchant for dismissing industry standards, even Visual C++ continued to be improved during this period.  When the spec went final, most vendors - and consumers - were already for it.  (Although scandalously, it took Microsoft until Visual Studio 2005 before their C++ tools were finally ANSI/ISO compliant.)

Even the last minute surprising inclusion of the Standard Template Library (STL) did not hold up for long the final ratification of the standard.

Fast forward 10 years, and it is the rare software developer who has even heard that there is a new specification in the making.  The C++0x initiative began in 2003, being named such since it was unknown when in 200x this new standard would be finalized (presuming C++09 being the worst case scenario).  Well, here we are in early 2010, and even with the most optimistic of assumptions, we will not see it ratified prior to the end of 2011 (more likely 2012 or 2013).


What Happened ???

I think that the ISO committee has been affected too much by both feature creep as well as scope creep.  In attempting to keep C++ comparable with newer languages, the committee has entertained a number of changes that are just not appropriate for C++.

And even with features that are theoretically good ideas, some of the implementations (designed by committee) were just syntactically awful.  Case in Point: Concepts.  The idea with C++ Concepts is to help limit the range of types in a template class (a laudable goal for simplification).  This would be great.  However, I found the syntax that was proposed simply awful.  It was verbose and clunky, and I can't imagine anyone really using it.  At the Frankfurt meeting of the standards committee last July, Concepts was finally dropped from C++0x (to which I said "Thank God!").

The only "big" feature that (in my opinion) should have been tackled by the C++0x committee was Garbage Collection, as this is sorely lacking in C++, and found in all of the newer languages.  C++'s defect in not having it has been one of the chief reasons that software developers have jumped to other languages, such as C# and Java.  Microsoft has incorporated Garbage Collection in its own C++ language variant called C++/CLI (although did so in its usually clumsy way).  I had hoped that the ISO committee could have done a better job, but they instead dropped it.  Sigh.

 And as the committee spins its wheels, delays just keep pushing out the ratification date.  When I first wrote about C++0x in a column three years ago, the committee timeline was expected to have the draft completed by the end of 2007, the general review in 2008, and ratification in 2009.  Today, the timeline reads the same way with the dates moved up exactly three years:  the draft completed by the end of 2010, the general review in 2011, and ratification in 2012.  And there's no guarantee that this won't slip yet another year.

For additional information, an online presentation of C++0x written in mid-2007 is available to view, although some of the information contained therein is no longer operative (such as the timeline and the inclusion of Concepts).


The obvious question remains: What value is there in updating C++ in today's world?  After all, Apple is pushing its developers onto Objective-C whilst Microsoft is pushing theirs to C#.  Aside from the Unix/Linux community (and many of them are either old C programmers, or skipped C++ completely and jumped to Java), is it even useful to have a new C++ specification?  Well yes, it is very useful.  Despite the missed opportunities of Garbage Collecting, an updated specification is needed to keep C++ fresh and alive today, moving into the new decade of the 2010's.  The changes in the language will make C++ both easier and more powerful than it ever was before.  Longtime C++ developers may not universally embrace every change coming down the pike, but they will certainly take advantage of some of them, even most of them.  It now remains to the ISO C++0x committee members to buckle down and focus at the task at hand to deliver this much needed update.


To see a list of all the According to Hoyle columns, visit: