July 2005

Name: Jag Venugopal

Subject: Is Perl relevant any longer?

With the emergence of .NET, J2EE, Python, PHP, et. al, has Perl lost its niche as a scripting glue language? The buzz is all around PHP these days and also around Python. The complaints about Perl 6's complexity are only getting louder. Besides, Perl does not occupy the central position in O'Reilly's offerings that it once did.

Is Perl on its way out?

Jag


Hi Jag,

While I agree that the long wait for Perl 6 has harmed Perl, and many Perl programmers do in fact find what they've seen to be unnecessarily complex (one well-known Perl programmer of my acquaintance referred to it as "performance art"), I've learned never to count Perl out. There was a similar slowdown in Perl in the mid-90s, and it saw a huge resurgence as "the duct tape of the internet." Perl is so useful that there may yet come another new market for which it is uniquely suited. It's a powerful, adaptable language, and the folks creating Perl 6 have a history of "seeing around corners" and developing features that turn out to be just right for some emerging market. So when Perl 6 comes out, we certainly won't be on the publishing sidelines. We'd love to be in the position to do some substantial updates to our bestselling Perl books!

That being said, there has always been an element of snobbery in the Perl market--I remember trying to persuade the authors of the second edition of Programming Perl, back in 1996, to pay more attention to the web. I was told that web programming was "trivial" and didn't require any special treatment. Of course, languages like PHP, which considered the web to be central, eventually came to occupy that niche. If book sales are any indicator, PHP is twice as popular as Perl.

I've always believed that one of the most important things about scripting languages is that they (potentially) make a new class of applications more accessible to people who didn't previously think of themselves as programmers. Languages then grow up, get computer-science envy, and forget their working-class roots.

In terms of the competitive landscape among programming languages, in addition to PHP, Python has long been gaining on Perl. From about 1/6 the size of the Perl market when I first began tracking it, it's now about 2/3 the size of the Perl book market. The other scripting language (in addition to Perl, Python, and PHP) that we're paying a lot more attention to these days is Ruby. The Ruby On Rails framework is taking the world by storm, and has gone one up on PHP in terms of making database backed application programming a piece of cake.

And while JavaScript is not generally thought of as an alternative to these fuller-featured languages, the conjunction of JavaScript and XML that has so meme-felicitously been named AJAX is driving a new surge of interest. The JavaScript book market is now slightly larger than the Perl book market--quite a bit larger if you consider JavaScript variants such as Macromedia's ActionScript.

I recently wrote about the relative market share of programming languages in my O'Reilly Radar blog. The posting focuses on the rise of open source Java books, but includes a graph showing the relative share of all programming language books, in terms of sell-through data from Neilsen BookScan. (See also this blog entry for a description of BookScan and our technology trend tracking tools.)

Tim O'Reilly

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