Wednesday, January 17, 2007

 

C# as evolution

When introduced with trumpets and fanfares, Microsoft's C# language provided little beyond the C++ language, for which Microsoft already offered a widely used tool set, that was not also provided by the Java language. Unlike the extensive, collaborative and sometimes public efforts in which Bjarne Stroustrup designed C++ and James Gosling designed Java, the design of C# was a mostly private process. Initially rather constricted and viewed by some as a crippled C++, the C# language was revised in a fall, 2005, release that improved its capabilities.

While C++ and Java were each major innovations, C# has an industrial tone. It is mostly a language for applications rather than systems. It disfavors pointers, which can crash applications but are often necessary for systems. As did Java, it revives from classic application languages like PL/I constructs such as built-in strings, arrays and streams that may be misfits or excess baggage in systems. Thread management is provided by built-in constructs similar to Java, while the ability to pass function arguments by reference rejects Java's limitations. The native class library was strengthened in the second edition with type-safe "generic" classes, but collections classes remain scattershot as compared with the C++ template library.

C# is performance-oriented. Although it allows copy-constructors, it rejects the C++ convention of using them for collection objects, gaining run-time performance at a potential cost in robustness. Passing function arguments by reference likewise trades performance against robustness, protected to some extent by requiring matching "ref" or "out" attributes in function declarations and references. Unlike Java, C# retains the "enum" and the "struct" from C++, originally taken from C in round-about inheritance from Pascal, PL/I and COBOL. In C#, however, the "struct" is distinct from the class, more efficiently allocated and accessed and providing no inheritance. Once again the main benefit is performance.

A key differentiator for C#, not apparent from syntax, is strong typing when implementing its type-safe classes, improving performance as compared to Java and preventing run-time errors as compared to C++. Distinctive features of C# syntax are built-in constructs for events and delegates, main ingredients of ASP.NET applications, and for class properties. In a similar spirit of automation its development environment automatically prepares declarations for and extracts them from compiled assemblies, eliminating "header" files of declarations.

Perhaps as a marketing ploy, Microsoft has played up what it calls "innovations" in C#, but nearly all are new words or new implementations for well-established concepts. The "managed code" concept is a good (and key) example; its roots are in the automatic bounds checking of PL/I and other classic procedural languages. The Ada language remains a reference standard for managed environments, with rigorous component definition, type safety, bounds checking, automatic garbage collection and exception handling. C# joins these concepts with a concise syntax and an orientation to high-performance, event-driven applications.

The future development of C# is reported to be integration with database access, currently supported by class libraries. That would be a risk-laden approach for Microsoft, likely to be seen as a venture to build out a monopoly for its SQL Server database products. Signals as to Microsoft's intents, if such a road is taken, will be whether or not unique features or syntax of SQL Server become imbedded in C# language constructs.

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