Integration Watch: The end for Perl?

Andrew Binstock
January 15, 2009 —  (Page 1 of 2)
In 1996, I hired a writer/programmer named Randal Schwartz to write a column on Perl for Unix Review, the magazine I headed up at the time. I believe I was one of the first, if not the first, editor of a broad-circulation tech publication to feature regular coverage of Perl. The rationale was that I could see the rapid adoption of Perl in the Unix community—combined with the difficulty new users had in coming up to speed on the language.

Schwartz was probably the biggest name in Perl at the time (his book was the equivalent of K&R to C or the Pickaxe book to Ruby) after Larry Wall, the language’s inventor. The column, Perl Advisor, was very popular during and after my tenure Unix Review, and it lasted until the magazine folded several years later.

Had I stayed on at the magazine (and had it continued on), I would have eventually supplanted the Perl column with one on Python. As Python emerged, it was clear even in its early years that it offered a superset of Perl’s functionality and that it lacked Perl’s penchant for near-hieroglyphic syntax.

Much of Perl’s original popularity was its clear superiority to CGI for gluing together Web functionality. The fact that it could be used for application development was a secondary aspect in those days, but one that attracted a loyal following. However, even then there was some perception that writing large applications in Perl was using the language for more than what it was designed to do.

Python, in contrast, came out of the box with a stronger orientation towards application development, and I found that many of the Perl application developers were excited all over again doing development work in Python. Python appeared to most folks as the first truly modern dynamic language. My perception, then and now, is that Python’s capabilities would inevitably trump Perl in popularity. This has now come to pass.

During much of the present decade, according to the Tiobe index, Perl has held a sizable lead in the marketplace. In 2003, for example, it was the fourth most popular language (after Java, C and C++). This year, it has dropped to eighth place, behind the previous three and (in order) PHP, Visual Basic, C# and, crucially, Python. Of the top 10 languages, none lost more ground in 2008 than Perl. If it loses as much again in 2009, it will fall to 11th place. Google and show similar declines.

Related Search Term(s): Java, Perl, Python, Google

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01/15/2009 12:34:55 PM EST

Hooray for the circling pundit vultures! SD Times columnist Andrew Binstock has come out with another poorly informed column that says nothing more than "Perl hasn't updated in years, and therefore is irrelevant." Let's look at his errors and FUD: * Not recognizing Perl 5.6, 5.8 and 5.10 as "major releases" * "Perl’s penchant for near-hieroglyphic syntax." * Quoting TIOBE as a meaningful indicator of anything. * "Perl 6 release is still a long way off" -- Can you tell us when it will be, Mr. Binstock? * "still five years later, we’re years away." -- Apparently, he thinks he can, and he's wrong. * "Perl has only the original Perl implementation plus an experimental version in Haskell under development." Read more at

United StatesAndy Lester

01/15/2009 12:56:58 PM EST

Since you referenced me in your article, allow me to say that the Perl 6 development process is alive and well, and gaining incredible speed. Rakudo (Perl 6 on Parrot) is rapidly approaching beta status, with more useful functionality being generated every day. A usable public beta release should appear at OSCON this summer, with an early-adoptor production-ready release available by year's end. Sure, it's a long time since Perl6 was first announced, and a few false starts to test implementation ideas have come and gone, but with each round, more was learned about how to tame this beast. A language that has all the things we've come to appreciate in classic Perl, as well as all the things people expect from a modern language, is not an easy task. The work to create a solid VM base that will allow language interoperability (20+ languages have proof-of-concept implementations) that would also support Perl's unusual demands was a bit more difficult than had been initially imagined, and that led to some delay as well. We've also had to deal with illnesses and distractions of some of the key members. I'm still fully committed to updating our seminal Learning/Intermediate/Mastering Perl series for Perl 6 as soon as we get closer to a good beta release, and continuing to have Stonehenge be the leading boutique training and consulting company for both Perl 5 *and* Perl 6.

United StatesRandal L. Schwartz

01/15/2009 03:31:14 PM EST

"Much of Perl’s original popularity was its clear superiority to CGI for gluing together Web functionality." It's possible that you may have some interesting points to make about the relative popularity of Perl and Python. But with that one statement you completely destroy any authority that you might have. Saying that Perl is superior to CGI is a complete non-sequitor. Perl is a programming language. CGI is a protocol. You write CGI programs in any language you want - including Perl. Perl's popularity in the second half of the 90s was largely because it was great language for writing CGI programs. Not because it was superior to CGI. Your statement makes no sense. If you're going to pontificate on these subjects then it helps if you try to understand the basic concepts involved. Otherwise you just end up looking stupid. Read Piers Cawley's article at for an alternative viewpoint.

United KingdomDave Cross

01/15/2009 05:08:01 PM EST

Here read this. It is much better than what you wrote:

United StatesRobert Hicks

01/15/2009 05:12:24 PM EST

Popularity? Maybe try looking at a metric that is actually meaningful:

GermanyChristian Walde

01/15/2009 05:44:18 PM EST

Dave: sure the article could benefit from a little editing, maybe he was referring to the superiority of the language in comparison to other programming languaguages used for writing CGI programs at the time, as you also specified. while some could argue that the article is an example of sloppy journalism, it does present the community a chance to speak up. and improved communication and formalization in regards to certain basic topics in the community could make it easier for anyone involved in the media to represent the perceived and factual story more correctly.


01/15/2009 06:27:52 PM EST

Principal Analyst? Are you asleep or something? If you claim to be in the know about programming languages, then please make sure you actually ARE first! Ok, since you are the Principal Analyst, you can call me God from now on. I'm normally not rude like this, but responding to this kind of bogus, I am. Sorry.

BelgiumVincent Vercauteren

01/16/2009 10:14:29 AM EST

We used python for our company's first foray into online operations and the codebase had grown to about 12 thousand lines, pretty complicated, and we had a catastrophic bug in our code which came down to inserting a few spaces instead of a tab in front of a line of code. This is the first instance I've ever seen that a bug was caused by a character you could not see in the code editor. We since made it policy to move to java and have let all of our python programmers go. You would also do well to not buy the python hype or you could lose millions of dollars too. Just say no to python!

United Statespatrick

01/16/2009 10:41:16 AM EST

@patrick: If you are not able to find such a bug quite quickly, then I'm questioning your ability as a programmer. There are of course situations in which java is more appropriate than python, the nuxeo guys are an example for that, but that doesn't mean all python projects are doomed to fail. Every editor I work with has a mode to show invisible characters and if you are using tabs even the python styleguide discourages them, its your own fault. And then, 12k lines of code is not THAT big. Also, try to insert the wrong character in a makefile, so you are screwed as well, and I had a pretty nasty encounter with invisible characters in java property files. So stop please stop spreading your FUD.


01/17/2009 01:56:50 PM EST

Using Google trends as an argument is very lame. Perl is not specifically loosing ground to Python or Ruby, it's just that the dev languages market is more sparse now with so many great newcomers. Throw "java" (or "php") into the equation and you'll see that it declined steadily and in sync with Perl's decline. Does that mean Java's dead? I don't think so. Only Zed is dead, baby. ---Besides, matching the reserved "perl" token against the more universal "python" and "ruby" is bogus. Maybe the Perl language should be renamed "Pearl" for the sake of good search volume and lax columnists. Look closely to find a threefold python peak in 2005 due to the news of a real life python bursting after trying to eat an alligator.


01/21/2009 10:03:20 AM EST

You can't complain about Perl without the religious zealots coming out. Of course all the *tons* of people who have a hard time with it's cartoon-character-swearing syntax are wrong, it's easy! If most Perl projects are filled with gawd awful code, that's because of the programmers, it couldn't possibly be because the tool itself is flawed. We definitely want the programming language we use to be like a natural language so we have even more chance to misunderstand each other like we do with people all the time! And we all want surprise in our life, so we would definitely want a language that even gurus get surprised by [1]. [1]

United StatesProgrammer

01/22/2009 05:25:18 AM EST

Why is it that when someone has extensively used Python and Perl they always choose Python and caution against Perl? Why is it that the people who choose Perl have never even tried Python except to quickly prove to themselves that they wont like it? Why is it that Perl people always describe a framework as good when it "stays out of my way" and every other language in existence describes a framework as good when it makes the job easier?

United StatesSensibility

01/31/2009 09:44:30 PM EST

There is an interesting trend in Python's *growth rate* also on the same site linked above: while having the lowest absolute demand, the chart shows an effect for Python that can be described as exponential, compounding, 'fastest growing', what-have-you.

United StatesPeter Kirby

02/03/2009 01:14:58 PM EST

Seriously, if syntax is your biggest concern for avoiding a language; good riddance. In more practical terms, Perl is still a great language. The development of the Moose object system is a testament to the flexibility of Perl. A significant indicator of the power of a language lies in its ability to allow programmers to modify or extend the functionality it offers. Perl so far has been pretty good at this (it's no Lisp, but it does well for what it is). More often than not however, I think detractors of languages such as Perl are really application developers masquerading as programmers. They're not paid to think about programming or computing problems and thus any language that complicates their job is bad. It's a perfectly valid argument, but in the context of an argument that suggests "language flub is bad because it's difficult to understand" just spreads FUD (even if its unintentional). Besides, syntax should be one of the least important concerns when honestly evaluating the usefulness of a language.

CanadaJ Kenneth King

02/04/2009 01:09:07 PM EST

Perl will probably be around for a while, but at least where I live, there are no Perl jobs. The few that show up are low-paying maintenance grunt jobs or part of a larger set of required skills (and not programming jobs). Most, if not all the out of town Perl jobs I've been contacted about were for porting Perl to Java, .NET, or Rails. I'm not saying young Perl developers don't exist, but most of the kids I see are learning Python, PHP, and/or Ruby/Rails, which was apparent when we tried to hire a Perl developer (we finally did, but it took six months to find one). I've done Perl for 10+ years - it's absolutely something I consider legacy only, not only where I work now, but as far as my career. In fact, I wouldn't take a Perl job now unless I was desperate, maybe not even then..but really, I don't get this "I'll only do Perl" (or fill in the blankk) mentality. Yeah, I'll occasionally crank out a quick Perl script for some backend task (never for anything web related), but I'm more inclined these days to use Ruby or Python. Perl just quit being fun - it was Catalyst that put me over the edge, and its definitely something I'm going to bet on to keep me employed. Good luck Perl, you've served me well, but I'm not looking back (but thank you for teaching me so much about regular expressions). Anybody want to buy my Perl 6 Essentials book (pub 2003)?

United Statesjames

02/04/2009 01:28:56 PM EST

Correction: Perl is definitely something I'm not going to bet on to keep me employed...

United Statesjames

02/10/2009 03:53:34 AM EST

Uh oh, here comes Zealot "J Kenneth King". Once again with the tired old "if you don't understand it you're just not *smart* enough". You could paint a house with a toothbrush but you wont *impress* anyone with how hard you worked. It's just stupid to work that hard to do something simple. Just like fighting with Perl is stupid when you could just use a sensible language. "References"? List flattening? Why bother? As for "just don't get it", I've likely done more in Perl then you ever have (ever hacked the core? Back before SWIG, etc. and waaaaay before inline). But you see, the difference between you and me is: you are a blub programmer. You've worked so hard to learn this that you just can't accept you wasted your time learning garbage. Me? I've moved on, learned lots of languages since then (and I don't consider a language learned until you implement something complicated in the language that plays to the strengths of *that* language). I know you can't see it from where you are so just take my word for it: learn a modern programming language. Python will be ok, though something like Clojure would be better. Fight through your withdrawals, because once you finally become a programmer (instead of a *Perl* programmer) you will realize the language has nothing.

United StatesProgrammer

12/28/2009 07:35:14 PM EST

I really hope that line was supposed to be: "Much of Perl’s original popularity was its clear superiority FOR CGI..." As Dave said, anyone who has the slightest familiarity with the history of web programming over the last decade should know that Perl and CGI are not competitors.

United StatesAaron

06/18/2010 04:05:08 PM EST

Long live PERL!

United StatesProgrammer

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