Tcl development in "limbo" after Sun drops development effort

But community optimistic about future of language

By Robert McMillan, SunWorld staff

July  1998
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San Francisco (July 1, 1998) -- John Ousterhout says that he took the development of his Tcl/Tk scripting language out of the rather protected world of Sun Labs because he thought it would be good for Tcl. And in two weeks he will officially launch the engine that is supposed to drive Tcl development into the twenty-first century: his new company, Scriptics Corp.

But Ousterhout is discovering that the real world can throw out some real tomatoes. Tcl developers at last month's Usenix conference in New Orleans were told that Sun's April decision to abruptly pull the plug on its four-year Tcl/Tk development effort would put the next release of the core Tcl/Tk technologies a full year behind schedule.

Ousterhout had himself been overseeing Tcl's development at Sun until he left Sun this February to form Scriptics. Sun, apparently, wants to speak only one language these days, and it ain't Tcl.

When Ousterhout departed, Sun's Tcl team's final task had been to put out the next major release of Tcl -- version 8.1 -- but Sun Labs management decided that the team no longer had the "critical mass" required to sustain a development effort, according to Ousterhout. So, although Tcl 8.1 has been available in alpha code since January, "the final release is in a bit of a limbo right now," says Ousterhout.

With his own developers working to produce the for-profit Tcl Pro 1.0 development suite in time for its September ship date, Tcl 8.1's release has been bumped back by about a year. Ousterhout says the final release should happen around March 1999.

These are interesting times for Ousterhout. He must convince the Tcl community that important Tcl development will, in fact, continue and he must make the call as to which of the Scriptics technologies are sold and which go out for free with the core libraries. And of course he needs to run a profitable startup at the same time.

"In an ideal world we would have gotten 8.1 out sooner," says Tcl's creator, but noting the response from the Usenix crowd, he adds, "It didn't look like there were a lot of people there whose lives were going to be ruined by the delay."


User reaction optimistic
Reaction in the Tcl community has been guardedly optimistic. Though developers who want either the internationalization features, the improved multithreading, or the regular expression package improvements promised in 8.1 are understandably impatient, others are more sanguine. "When I first heard that he [Ousterhout] was moving to Scriptics, I was a bit worried," said Tcl developer Tom Tromey, after listening to Ousterhout speak in New Orleans. After hearing of the planned release dates for Tcl 8.1, Tromey said he was fearful that development might be moving too slowly. "But," he said of Ousterhout, "his plan, and the fact that Scriptics isn't just a two-person operation is encouraging."

Jeffrey Hobbs, a long-time Tcl developer with Siemens AG, calls the move "a double-edged sword for the Tcl community." On the one hand, there is no dedicated funding source for Tcl development until Scriptics gets on its feet, he says. But the move also frees Tcl from "the whims of Sun management."

In fact, though he may not have the time or the developers or the money to develop the core Tcl technologies right now, Ousterhout does seem to have one commodity in abundance: the goodwill of the Tcl community. Ousterhout says when Sun hired him in 1994, there was concern that it would hurt the development of Tcl. But Tcl thrived in Sun Labs, and developers seem to expect it to do well at Scriptics, too.

"I think that John is more likely to be with a company where things come out on time than just about any other person," says Peter Salus, the director of the Tcl/Tk Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Tcl.

John Ousterhout

Though some developers have suggested that Tcl 8.1's release could be expedited if Ousterhout would relinquish some control and allow the core technologies to be developed outside of Sun or Scriptics, there are many who do not want this to happen. Referring to Eric Raymond's Cathedral and the Bazaar software development models, Salus says "basically Tcl is toward the Cathedral end, but it's not that far from the middle." Salus points out that the less rigidly controlled Linux or Perl development model may be faster, but it's not perfect. "Otherwise we'd end up with Tcl being much like Unix ended up a decade or two ago," he says.

Ousterhout himself says that it comes down to a matter of personality. He calls the Tcl approach "sort of Bazaar like" -- the source code is open and anyone may modify it, but it is Ousterhout himself who decides what does and what does not go into the Tcl/Tk core. "There's a more distributed set of people who have the final say for what goes into Perl," he says. "I think our approach gives a little bit more stability and maybe slows down the pace of evolution a bit." But the trade-off says Ousterhout, is that Tcl has "a really strong architectural component."

Software development guru Brian Kernighan is said to have once called Tcl "the best kept secret in programming." And though nobody knows the actual number of Tcl developers (estimates vary from 500,000 to 1,000,000), it remains overshadowed by flashier languages like Perl and JavaScript.

To remedy this, Ousterhout is spending the next few weeks on a cross-country press tour, and Scriptics will do an official company launch on July 13. When Tcl Pro 1.0 ships in September, it will cost $1,000 per developer seat.

That's when Ousterhout expects the Tcl community to give him a real idea of how successful he has been at separating the commercial and the free aspects of Tcl/Tk. "A lot of it is trying to keep a balance," he says. "We need to have enough attractive stuff in our products, so people buy them, but at the same time we want to keep the free versions healthy."

--SunWorld's Stephanie Steenbergen contributed to this story


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