Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mono not Chasing Tail Lights

I've been on vacation and just got back and heard about this whole Richard Stallman spouting nonsense about Miguel being a traitor thing and saw that OSNews had an article criticizing Stallman for such ridiculous statements, so figured I'd skim the comments. Unsurprisingly someone attacked Miguel and Mono for "always chasing tail lights" which is a common logical fallacy that the anti-Mono folks love to argue, but in response there was, what I thought, a pretty good post by elanthis that rings fairly accurately as far as I remember events happening back in 2001 while I was at Ximian so figured I would quote it in order to share.

This "Mono is just chasing tail lights" crap is getting silly.

If you take Mono to mean "a project whose sole goal is to enable running Windows .NET apps on Linux" then yes, Mono will always be behind.

If you take Mono for what it actually is meant to be and what it is actually freaking used for, which is "a project that provides a clean, modern language on which to more efficiently develop and deliver Linux applications" then you realize that Mono isn't chasing anything, it's actually 20 steps _ahead_ of anything else on the Linux front.

If Microsoft came along and said, "we're going to assert some mythical patents and Mono can't be compatible with the ECMA CLR or class library anymore," Linux and Mono would not be devastated in the least by it. Mono would drop the offending bits and it would _still_ be a clean, modern language with a helluva-efficient runtime library providing a ton of brand-new non-Microsoft-derived Linux-focused APIs and libraries (from POSIX to dbus to GTK to OpenGL and so on) that real applications like Tomboy or Banshee or iFolder or MonoDevelop or Unity3D or SunUO or Landell and countless others can continue to be built on top of, taking full advantage of the features of C# (or even a "very similar to C#" language, if some change were forced on Mono by MS), the high quality Mono runtime implementation, and the quality APIs and tools developed by the Mono community.

There's no difference in theory behind a project like Mono and a project like Python, other than that Mono leisurely follows a language specification for the sake of being compatible __as a nice side benefit__ while Python just makes shit up as it goes. Oh, and Mono is way faster, has significantly better documentation, has better tools, and is already used in large-scale commercial apps (that have NO dependency on being Microsoft .NET compatible) despite having been around for a far shorter amount of time.

Honestly look around and see how many people try to use or even _care_ about using Mono as a way to run apps developed for Microsoft .NET. You just don't see it. Mainsoft makes a business out of making it easy to get ASP.NET apps running on Linux servers and that's about the end of it. All of the really cool users of Mono are people that are using it either because it provides a top-notch embeddable VM that blows away every other FOSS scripting engine (e.g., Unity3D) or because it provides some of the best APIs around for creating brand-new Linux-specific applications (e.g. Beagle).

The only people who are even remotely hung up on chasing Microsoft's taillights are the people who don't understand what the purpose of Mono is and use their misconception as a strawman argument against the Mono project.

Mono was conceived by the Ximian folks because of their experience with Evolution. They were writing big Linux desktop apps. Writing them in C sucked. Writing them in C++ sucked slightly less. Writing them in Python sucked far less in some ways and far more in other ways. Writing them in any FOSS-friendly language available was a nightmare. They saw C#. They saw it was like Java, except it fixed many of the things that sucked about Java. They thought, "it would be sweet if we had a language like that to develop in." They thought, "we could write a language like that to develop in." They thought, "we could write a totally new language, but then we have to solve a bunch of problems that have already been solved over and over and over" and they knew that good engineers don't waste time resolving old problems. They thought, "if we make a C# compiler and runtime for Linux, not only do we get what we want, but what the heck maybe it'll help bring more ex-Windows developers over to the Linux side and make the world a better place." And, instead of sitting around bitching about all the hard work other people are doing, they went ahead and made the project. Their lives got easier, the lives of quite a few Linux developers got easier, the lives of even a number of Windows developers got easier, and the regular users started seeing some cool software that none of the Linux developers were making pre-Mono because it was such a time-consuming pain in the ass to do it before, and Windows users even started seeing more cool software because now there was this awesome tool for embedding high-performance reliable easy-to-write scripts into larger applications which made the applications more awesome.

Everyone has won because of Mono, and because Miguel and the many other awesome contributors to Mono have done something FOSS never did before. The only thing the FOSS world has that even comes close to Mono is Java, and that was only just recently Open Sourced, and Sun's Java is actually already way behind Mono despite being far older.

So, seriously, quit with the taillight chasing crap. The Microsoft specification is largely irrelevant to just about all users of Mono, it's not even a priority for the Mono developers, and Mono has far surpassed anything else the FOSS community has in the same field.

C/C++ are a pain in the ass to work with and are light years behind modern languages in ease of use and features, and modern VM technology is already more or less on par with C/C++, and upcoming VM technology is quite likely to exceed the performance of C/C++. Python, Ruby, Perl, and so on are all great languages for some tasks but are total whores to work in for a great deal of other tasks, and they'll never be able to match Mono in speed (simple fact -- even if you implement the same VM technology in something like Parrot as you have in Mono, dynamic typing will always be slower; even if you use the same tracing optimizing JIT to compiler both C# and Python to machine code, the C# result will need far less type guards than the Python result would... which you can even prove by just using IronPython on Mono).

The point of Mono is NOT CLR compatibility. It's not even C# the language. The point of Mono is having a runtime and multiple languages that make developing real-world applications easy and making those applications more reliable, which frees up more developer time to work on actual features and performance rather than working on endless layers of complicated framework code or debugging stupid bugs that only exist because of poor language design.

As always, you have the typical know-it-alls who attacked the response saying that C# doesn't have many advantages over C++/Qt, but as usual, they neglect to consider the fact that not everyone wants to program using C++ or Qt.

As one of the developers involved in the development of Evolution, neither C++ nor Qt were tools that would have helped to solve our problems. First off, Evolution was a GNOME program (thus making Qt useless) and C++ was plagued with problems in those days. I'm also not sure that the C++ bindings for Gtk+ were even mature enough to use at the time. Even had these not been problems, none of us wanted to use C++ anyway.

Even today, with the surviving members of the original Evolution team now working on Moonlight (Chris Toshok, Larry Ewing and myself) which is partially written in C++, we have stuck with a very minimal subset and have gotten frustrated with a number of idiosyncrasies in C++ that were not a problem in C.

As a contributor to the Mono project (along with MonoDevelop and Moonlight), I feel that the Mono detractors are woefully uninformed and seem unwilling to educate themselves, but I guess that's their loss. The Mono Project will continue whether they call us traitors or not, whether they approve of the project or not, and whether they go on making fools of themselves across the internet or not.

We're not interested in childish popularity contests, we're interested in making great cross-platform development tools and making the Linux Desktop more inviting to a wider audience of both users and developers.

And we are succeeding.

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