As you probably saw by now, JetBrains just announced that they are working on a brand new statically typed JVM language called Kotlin. I am planning to write a post to evaluate how Kotlin compares to the other existing languages, but first, I’d like to take a slightly different angle and try to answer a question I have already seen asked several times: what’s the point?
We already have quite a few JVM languages, do we need any more?
Here are a few reasons that come to mind.
New languages are exciting! They really are. I’m always looking forward to learning new languages. The more foreign they are, the more curious I am, but the languages I really look forward to discovering are the ones that are close to what I already know but not identical, just to find out what they did differently that I didn’t think of.
Allow me to make a small digression in order to clarify my point.
Some time ago, I started learning Japanese and it turned out to be the hardest and, more importantly, the most foreign natural language I ever studied. Everything is different from what I’m used to in Japanese. It’s not just that the grammar, the syntax and the alphabets are odd, it’s that they came up with things that I didn’t even think would make any sense. For example, in English (and many other languages), numbers are pretty straightforward and unique: one bag, two cars, three tickets, etc… Now, did it ever occur to you that a language could allow several words to mean “one”, and “two”, and “three”, etc…? And that these words are actually not arbitrary, their usage follows some very specific rules.
What could these rules be? Well, in Japanese, what governs the word that you pick is… the shape of the object that you are counting. That’s right, you will use a different way to count if the object is long, flat, a liquid or a building.
Mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Here is another quick example: in Russian, each verb exists in two different forms, which I’ll call A and B to simplify. Russian doesn’t have a future tense, so when you want to speak at the present tense, you’ll conjugate verb A in the present, and when you want the future, you will use the B form… in the present tense. It’s not just that you need to learn two verbs per verb, you also need to know which one is which if you want to get your tenses right. Oh and these forms also have different meanings when you conjugate them in past tenses.
End of digression.
The reason why I am mentioning this is because this kind of construct bends your mind, and this goes for natural languages as much as programming languages. It’s tremendously exciting to read new syntaxes this way. For that reason alone, the arrival of new languages should be applauded and welcome.
Kotlin comes with a few interesting syntactic innovations of its own, which I’ll try to cover in a separate post, but for now, I’d like to come back to my original point, which was to give you reasons why you should be excited about Kotlin, so let’s keep going down the list.
2) IDE support
None of the existing JVM languages (Groovy, Scala, Fantom, Gosu, Ceylon) have really focused much on the tooling aspect. IDE plug-ins exist for each of them, all with varying quality, but they are all an afterthought, and they suffer from this oversight. The plug-ins are very slow to mature, they have to keep up with the internals of a compiler that’s always evolving and which, very often, doesn’t have much regards for the tools built on top of it.