Java vs. C++?
Java looks a lot like C++, so naturally it would seem that C++ will be replaced by Java. But I’m starting to question this logic. For one thing, C++ still has some features that Java doesn’t, and although there have been a lot of promises about Java someday being as fast or faster than C++, we’ve seen steady improvements but no dramatic breakthroughs. Also, there seems to be a continuing interest in C++, so I don’t think that language is going away any time soon. Languages seem to hang around.
I’m beginning to think that the strength of Java lies in a slightly different arena than that of C++, which is a language that doesn’t try to fit a mold. Certainly it has been adapted in a number of ways to solve particular problems. Some C++ tools combine libraries, component models, and code-generation tools to solve the problem of developing windowed end-user applications (for Microsoft Windows). And yet, what do the vast majority of Windows developers use? Microsoft’s Visual BASIC (VB). This despite the fact that VB produces the kind of code that becomes unmanageable when the program is only a few pages long (and syntax that can be positively mystifying). As successful and popular as VB is, it’s not a very good example of language design. It would be nice to have the ease and power of VB without the resulting unmanageable code. And that’s where I think Java will shine: as the “next VB.” You may or may not shudder to hear this, but think about it: so much of Java is intended to make it easy for the programmer to solve application-level problems like networking and cross-platform UI, and yet it has a language design that allows the creation of very large and flexible bodies of code. Add to this the fact that Java’s type checking and error handling is a big improvement over most languages and you have the makings of a significant leap forward in programming productivity.
If you’re developing all your code primarily from scratch, then the simplicity of Java over C++ will significantly shorten your development time—the anecdotal evidence (stories from C++ teams that I’ve talked to who have switched to Java) suggests a doubling of development speed over C++. If Java performance doesn’t matter or you can somehow compensate for it, sheer time-to-market issues make it difficult to choose C++ over Java.
The biggest issue is performance. Interpreted Java has been slow, even 20 to 50 times slower than C in the original Java interpreters. This has improved greatly over time (especially with more recent versions of Java), but it will still remain an important number. Computers are about speed; if it wasn’t significantly faster to do something on a computer then you’d do it by hand. (I’ve even heard it suggested that you start with Java, to gain the short development time, then use a tool and support libraries to translate your code to C++, if you need faster execution speed.)
The key to making Java feasible for many development projects is the appearance of speed improvements like so-called “just-in-time” (JIT) compilers, Sun’s own “hotspot” technology, and even native code compilers. Of course, native code compilers will eliminate the touted cross-platform execution of the compiled programs, but they will also bring the speed of the executable closer to that of C and C++. And cross-compiling a program in Java should be a lot easier than doing so in C or C++. (In theory, you just recompile, but that promise has been made before for other languages.)