naming and numbering perl

Matt S Trout wrote a very reasonable suggestion to brand the current Perl 5 implementation as Pumpkin Perl. The gist is something like, “take the emphasis off of 5, which sounds like one less than 6, and put it on the thing itself: the really nice language, all plump and ready to be used in a pie.” I can get behind that.

The part that starts to wrankle me is this:

So what if next year’s release, instead of saying

perl revision 5, version 20


pumpkin perl, version 20

It’s not that I think Matt’s proposal says we should drop the five as its first, key point. It’s a bit more: “Look, everybody knows this is five. Focus on the thing that does keep changing and marking nice improvements!” (I will state for the record that I do not want to remove the five from many places, although moving it around a little might happen.) The problem is the huge influx of expectation that this is really is about dropping the five and using this as some sort of breaking point with history. This frustrates me for a few reasons.

There’s an occasionally repeated refrain that “if only we could break backward compatibility,” Perl 5 would surge forward with new innovations. “We’d finally throw off the yoke of some feature the speaker doesn't use and be free!” The problem, of course, is that somebody else uses that feature. Pretty often the speaker is his own somebody else, and just doesn’t realize it. Prototypes? Test::More. Tied variables? DBI and Config. AUTOLOAD? CPAN and Encode. Typeglobs? Much of the Net namespace (not to mention anything that exports). Other times, the feature is old and goofy, but not really in the way of anything.

So there’s one blocker to breaking backward compatibility: you’ll make it a nice language in which you’ll get to reimplement all the stuff you love about using the language. Whoops!

That’s not the most important blocker, either. The more important blocker is that nobody is actually coming forward and saying, “If we can break X, we can get a big improvement to Y.” Maybe this is because there is a feeling that backcompat is so deeply entrenched, and so pervasive about the smallest foibles of the language that there is no point. I think this would be a shame, because I can pretty confidently say that we can break backward compatibility for the right win. How much, for what? I don’t know. We’d need to see an offer, and then a patch.

Of course, there are limits. Perl is used to power multi-billion-dollar businesses. This constrains its paths forward. It won’t cease to exist, nor will it be abandoned, but it can’t break the code bases of those businesses. Also, note that I’m speaking in the plural. If there was one massive enterprise that owned Perl and drove it forward, there would be a very clear set of guidelines for what could break: anything but the code making billions of dollars for the sponsors. Instead, there are a bunch of enterprises and upgrading them all in sync and keeping all their code working forever is not a simple matter.

This is the problem with success. As a language grows successful, it loses agility. That’s one of Perl 6’s strengths: it hasn’t yet become a big success, so it can change anything it wants whenever a design flaw is made. If we want to regain that kind of agility, all we have to do is agree to give up our success.

That’s what forking a project is about: you get a whole bunch of code (warts and all) for free, without the burden of success. Then again, maybe after a brief and extremely liberating romp through the free prairies of obscurity, you can try to steal the success of your ancestor. Remember: you’ll be giving up that agility again.

This is where I get back to liking Pumpkin Perl.

If you want to break backward compatibility, you can sketch out your plan and say, “Hey, I figured out that if we drop support for reset, we can get a 4% speedup to local!” This will result in a response of “no, never!” or “yes, surely!” or “hm, show us a patch?” If it goes in, great. There’s a deprecation period to ease everybody off of reset, and then local gets faster. If it doesn’t, what do you do?

Either you grin and bear it, or you go work on another Perl. The Perl you work on doesn’t care about reset. Heck, it doesn’t care about dump, either, so you can save another 2% on something there. You won’t be working on Pumpkin Perl, of course, but on Antelope Perl, or Hubbard Perl, or Kurila Perl.

Are these forks viable? Of course. They are viable as long as they have people using them, just like Pumpkin Perl. Perl is free software, so anybody’s fork can continue to incorporate changes from the mainline, while it’s possible, and changes determined to be massive improvements can be brought back to Pumpkin Perl after a proving period. GitHub showed us all that forking is good, because a fork is just a branch. That works here, too, and naming “the” perl5 is a way of saying, “This is one branch: the most conservative, commonly relied-upon one.” The distinction it creates from Perl 6 is, to me, a minor side benefit.

Matt’s posts have all been very clearly trying to avoid talking about forking perl and breaking backcompat, so I hope he isn’t bothered to see me going directly to those two topics in this post. A lot of other responses went there, though, and I think those topics really need to be addressed.

If “Pumpkin Perl” is going to be a thing, it’s going to be a very low-key change: we’ll call the thing at “pumpkin perl,” and it will answer to use 5.x.y, and it will still say “revision 5, version X,” more or less. The freedom we get is a freedom of expression, granted by having a clearer way to refer to one branch of perl as an equal amongst others. By giving the first fork a name, we make room for future forks to exist and have their own names, without having to “break” this one.

Written on February 20, 2013