OOPSLA Day 2: Gilad Bracha on Dart

Gilad Bracha started the day’s Dynamic Languages Symposium with an invited talk on Dart, a new Web programming language (read: JavaScript replacement) in which “Sophisticated Web Applications need not be a tour de force.”

OOPSLA is attended by academics, who are typically less interested in the surface appearance of a program (they’ve seen just about variation) and more interested in semantic questions whose impact in the real-world might not be felt for many years. So Bracha begins his talk by disavowing the “interesting-ness” of Dart: it’s a language whose constraints are entirely mundane:

  • Instantly familiar to mainstream prorgammer
  • Efficiently compile to JavaScript

(Personally, I take it as a damnation of the audience that “Of interest to 90% of the programming world” is not of importance, but the gracious interpretation is that these are the trail-blazers who are already deep in hostile territory.)

The gist of Bracha’s talk was on Dart’s “optional types” semantics. The great takeaway from this, I think, is that:
"Dart's optional types are best thought of as a type assertion mechanism, not a static type system"
which allows for code that can make your blood run cold; what certainly looks like a statement of programmer intention (“this variable is of type Foo”) can be blithely trod over at runtime (“in fact, this variable is of type Bar”) without so much as a by-your-leave.

The type expression is only evaluated at compilation time and, if the developer puts the compiler in “development” mode, you get warnings and errors. But once out of development mode, there are no runtime semantics of the type expressions. They have no behavior, but on the other hand, they have no cost. And, argues Bracha, this seemingly extreme position is important to support a language that remains truly dynamic and does not “put you in a box” wherein the type system becomes a restriction on expressiveness.

One of the seemingly-obscure corners of language design are the semantics of generics (the building blocks of collection classes). Generics in Dart are reified and covariant, which to an academic means “the type system is unsound.” Bracha acknowledges this and says that he’s “given up” on fighting this battle.

Another interesting design element of Dart is its recognition that the “classic” object-oriented constructor is a failed abstraction that only allows for “I want to allocate a new instance…” instead of common scenarios such as “I want to get an object from cache,” “I want an object from a pool of a specific size (often 1),” etc. So you can declare something that looks an awfully lot like a classical constructor, but in fact is “allowed” to return whatever the heck it wants. (I put “allowed” in quotes because, remember, all this type stuff is just epiphenomenal \<-- mandatory big word every paragraph!)

The lack of mandatory types preclude the creation of type classes or C#-style extension methods. Those are grating, but really of concern to me is that their lack also precludes type-based initialization. This leads to the disturbing design that variables will have the value null until they are assigned to; a “disturbing design” that is standard in the mainstream but hated by all.

…off to lunch, more later...