Stanley Lippman has a long history with the C++ language and
the C++ community in general. He was one of the first users and implementers of
C++, he worked under
Bjarne Stroustrup at the Bell Laboratories Foundation Project, was the principal software engineer at Walt
Disney Feature Animation and has written a number popular titles such as the
Stanley recently joined Microsoft as the Architect for
Visual C++ so I caught up with him to have a chat on what he sees as the past,
present and future of Visual C++, and what his own personal goals are for
Visual C++. First and foremost my aim was to provide a definitive answer as to
what's in store for us C++ developers. Many of us are wondering whether or not our
skillset will remain valuable in a .NET world. Will C++ be relegated to win32
development? Will Microsoft make good on it's promise to pursue C++ compliance?
It’s important to remember that Stanley is the architect for the Visual C++
language - and new to the job - and so libraries such as MFC, ATL, WTL, and tool
such as Visual Studio are outside Stanley’s role sphere of influence and experience.
The interview therefor concentrated on the questions that most developers
have been asking: What is the future of Visual C++.
Firstly I asked
Stan what it was that attracted him to work for Microsoft.
Stanley's background is in Unix, and he's developed against many
different platforms. Obviously some platforms are easier than others. When it came
to .NET Stanley absolutely loved the concepts behind it. “The framework is amazing,
rich and interesting.” Stanley has worked on platforms where even simple concepts such as threading are intensely painful to
get working, so having a comprehensive Base Class Library that provides you
with such things as a comprehensive threading model that can be accessed using any
.NET language of your choice is very important.
Stanley initially had only limited notions of where Visual C++ fitted into the .NET
picture, but once he investigated further he was pleasantly surprised when he realized that
C++ was not left out of .NET, but was in fact a first class .NET language.
So what do you see as the future of Visual C++, and as the new Architect what are your goals?
Stanley is very clear on the future: “I believe Visual C++
has a prosperous future”. He has met the Visual C++ team and says they have
undeniable enthusiasm and energy. His goal is very simple: “I want Visual C++
to be the C++ implementation of choice”. Stanley’s personal goal is to
have C++ developers choose Visual C++ not only because of the tools and
platform, but because it’s the premier implementation of the C++ standard.
In terms of C++ compliance Stanley admits that the latest release
(Visual C++ 7.0) isn’t quite there, but the substantial work that has been
carried out on the underlying implementation means that moving towards a more
comprehensively compliant implementation is within reach. He’ll be pushing
forward with compliance especially in the area of templates.
though Visual C++ 7.0 does not have the full range of features that Stanley
would like to see implemented, he says it is still by far the most compliant
implementation of C++ that Microsoft have released. It’s not 100% perfect, but
it’s still an excellent compiler with high compliance to the standards. Areas that still have issues are fully
documented in the VS.NET documentation in the article titled "Standard
Compliance Issues in Visual C++".
goal is to have a ‘competitively compliant’ compiler – meaning it won’t be 100%
compliant. There are a couple of features of the ANSI/ISO standard (for
instance the ‘export’ keyword as applied to template classes) that won’t be
implemented because they are considered by Microsoft to be obscure and, at this
stage, theoretical. Microsoft is however working to ensure that Visual
C++ will compile the most popular libraries such as Boost, Blitz, Loki and a
fully compliant version of STL. The emphasis is on a level of compliance that
allows popular libraries to be compiled, not 100% compliance.
Hodapp, Microsoft’s C++ Product Manager also added that while high compliance
is definitely a very important goal Microsoft will not sacrifice code-generation quality or
robustness at the cost of extreme compliance. However in recent lab tests they
are still beating several popular compilers on conformance tests.
When will we see the next version?
laughs and says if it were up to him he’d email out updates each week, but
there are pesky things like quality control and processes that must be adhered
to in anything as complex as Visual C++. With the latest version to be released
around February 2002 he would like to see an update for the compiler late the
same year, but is unsure as to whether that is possible. He’ll certainly be
fighting for an early update. Nick Hodapp backs this up by saying that it’s extremely likely that an update to
VC7 will be available next year. Microsoft are investigating the best mechanism
to release a compiler refresh next year that would focus on compliance
developers feel that Microsoft is relegating Visual C++ to the sideline in
favour of the newer languages such as C#.
Stanley wants C++ to be far more a part of .NET than it is
currently. At the moment the biggest benefit of managed C++ is as a
transitional language. You are able to move your native apps into the .NET
framework or consume .NET components within your native applications, but it’s
not quite the language of choice for developing fully managed applications.
For the pending release of Visual
C++ .NET (VC7) Microsoft focused on enabling interop features. VC7 has the best interop scenarios of all the
managed languages and includes the ability to have both managed and unmanaged
code in the same image. They also
focused on enabling optimization technology on the generated MSIL - the result
is that VC7 is the only compiler to generate optimized MSIL. In future releases Microsoft will focus on
ANSI/ISO conformance (enabling many more features for both managed/unmanaged
code), as well as features that will give Visual C++ feature parity with C# -
WinForms, for example. Visual C++ will
be positioned as the power-systems language for .NET.
support and generic programming are a must and Microsoft are very keen to implement codeDOM
support, both for ASP.NET and WinForms. With these added features Stanley
sees Visual C++ as being the power programmers language of choice for
the .NET framework - to compliment it’s current role as the language of choice
in unmanaged development. Even without the template support that is currently
being pursued Stanley sees Visual C++ as the only language suitable for those
who need more than C# or VB.NET can offer.
Stanley went on to congratulate Microsoft for shifting
away from being corporate oriented and moving towards being a more
developer-centric organization. To this end he will be pushing even more to
open up the company to developers and would like to see Microsoft to be even
more responsive to the developer community. Microsoft is renowned for pushing
ahead with innovation but there can be dangers in moving too far head of not
only standards, but also developer’s needs. Stanley will be pushing to ensure
that Microsoft listens more to what the developer community has to say while
ensuring higher standards compliance.
New features such as those in the C99 specification
On the topic of extending Visual C++ to embrace the new
features found in the C99 specification Stanley stated that these are issues
for the relevant Standards bodies. There is growing concern that a rift is
developing between C and C++, with C++ no longer being a superset of the
former. Microsoft’s aim is to have the most standards compliant implementation
so if the C++ standard is updated to include new features then Microsoft will
work towards implementing them in Visual C++.
Microsoft’s approach to adding new
features is whether those features are
used in code that other compilers can build, or
those features are compelling enough that it becomes apparent that their customers want them.
Microsoft will not simply implement
features because they are specified in the standard. They will implement them when people want them because they are
The Message for us?
The message is that Visual C++ is definitely alive and kicking and has a very
bright future in the .NET world. Stanley's aim is to have the compiler at
a point where it’s the benchmark against which all other compilers are compared
– in terms of simplicity, fun factor and conformance. It should be easy to use,
versatile, enjoyable, and it should be what developers think of whenever they
think C++. Continuing improvements in C++ compliance along with future support
for ASP.NET and WinForms will ensure that Visual C++ be the power language for .NET
and for native development.
As to the question of whether developers will move to C# instead of managed
C++ Stanley thinks there will be more of a move from VB to C# than C++ to C#.
C++ is the better, more versatile and the only optimised compiler available in