Monday, October 03, 2005

How Important is Syntax?

I spent the last week at Kool-aid central for Borland's Delphi RAD
development tool. I was speaking at the Entwickler Conference
("Entwickler" is German for "developer") in Frankfurt, talking about
Java and .NET. This conference is ostensibly a general developer's
conference, but Borland is one of the main sponsors and it has
traditionally been the European gathering place for Delphi developers.
The faithful only get one Delphi focused conference per major land
mass, so they all come. The Java and .NET guys can get information
anywhere. Probably 70% of the talks at this conference either focus on
Delphi or overlap significantly (for example, I did an "Updated
Design Patterns in .NET " in C#, but the material also applies to

The interesting part of my trip were the discussions between sessions,
at dinner, and in the halls. Even though Delphi is a niche development
tool with a shrinking market, the people at this conference are
unusually passionate about their tool. I sought to understand this
blazing exuberance. I traverse several different languages and tools
pretty regularly (Java, .NET, and Ruby), and to me they are just tools
-- each has its own strengths and weaknesses. I also used Delphi
pretty much exclusively for about 4 years (and wrote one of the first
Delphi books), so I understand the tool and language. But I've never
gotten so vein-bulging-in-the-forehead excited when someone told me
they thought something else was better.

This crowd has its back against the wall: Borland's clear future
direction with Delphi is to make it Yet Another .NET Language
(YA.NL?). The last couple of versions of Delphi have supported both
Win32 and .NET capabilities (and most of the developers in Germany are
still doing Win32 applications). In my opinion, this marginalizes
Delphi to also-ran status with C# and Visual Studio. Sure, if you are
building in Delphi now and have a bunch of code, you'll stick to Delphi
(maybe). But if you are starting a new project, there is no way you
would pick Delphi over C#. The IDE isn't any better (and it is less
stable) than Visual Studio, and it will not have a version that
supports .NET 2 until mid-next year.

Tiptoeing around the fanatics, I asked a few people if the above
assessment is true. "No! The next version of Delphi will win converts in
droves!". At the end of the day, it boils down to which syntax do you
like (if the tools are at about parity and the framework is the same,
you are down to begin...end pairs vs. curly braces). I've always had an
easy time switching syntaxes, both between similar (Java and C#)
languages and very different ones (Java and Ruby). I asked some of
these folks: "Is the syntax of the language really that important to
you?" I got a resounding "Yes!" from several people. They are willing
to use a third-world development tool just so they get to type Pascal
all day instead of C#. Just like all marginalized peoples, they
overcompensate anytime someone like me desecrates the object of their

You see some of the same fervency in the Ruby and Lisp crowds, but they
are genuinely different from their peers. The Delphi vs. C# crowd are
supporting the same platform, with different syntaxes. Would you be
willing to jeopardize your job over the syntax of a programming
language? I still do not get it.

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