Friday, July 13, 2007

Battle of the OCaml plugins for Eclipse

A new OCaml plugin for Eclipse, called OcaIDE, has just been announced. Apparently, it has been under development for a long time. It seems to be quite complete in features, although I didn't try it yet. The question is that this is the third OCaml plugin being developed currently; there's ODT, about which I talked in a earlier post, and another one being developed as one of the OCaml projects in the Google Summer of Code. The competition is good in some ways, but on the other hand the resulting fragmentation can be a problem to a small community like that of OCaml. It would be best if the teams managed to combine their efforts in some way. Let's see how this plays out.

Speaking of collaboration, there's mention on OcaIDE's site about a free-software license, but the source code doesn't seem to be available.

UPDATE: As someone pointed in the comments, the source is available together with the plugin. See here.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Review: Practical OCaml

Executive summary: this is not Practical Common Lisp for OCaml. It's ambitious but disappointing. However, it's not so bad as it seems at first sight.

OCaml is a sexy language that combines the expressiveness and terseness of scripting languages with the static type checking and performance of languages like C++ and Java. A book may be a good investment to learn a new language, and this is one of the few books available on the language. How does it fare?

This book has received very harsh criticism overall, and it mostly deserves it; it is somewhat of a mess. But it is not uniformly bad: some chapters are very bad, others are acceptable or interesting, depending on your background. The problem seems to be that the worst chapters come first; although it shows signs of bad editing throughout, the first few chapters are especially bad. And I mean really bad: bad text, bad editing, bad examples, lots of senseless repetition, conceptual errors, using language features not yet introduced (and that go unexplained), the list goes on. Later chapters are considerably less irritating.

Clearly inspired by Peter Seibel's terrific book Practical Common Lisp, the chapters on this one are divided in two types: the ones that explain the language, and the "Practical" ones, containing extended examples. This is a great idea, and even badly executed as it may be in Practical OCaml, it still results in interesting chapters. Actually, the Practical chapters are overall better than the language ones; from them, a reader can get a real sense of using OCaml in simple but realistic projects, integrating many different libraries and tools, some of them not contained in the standard OCaml distribution. Still, the code in these chapters can be criticized for their style. For one thing, I think the author uses classes and other OO features much more often than they appear on real OCaml programs. Nonetheless, an experienced programmer could get a lot of interesting pointers from these chapters, by knowing what to salvage and what not to replicate from the code.

But the rest of the book, the OCaml chapters, are in really bad shape. They don't explain things very well, and fails miserably at the more difficult aspects of the language. The chapter on modules and functors is so bad as to be almost useless; don't try to learn about functors from this book. Camlp4, the nifty tool for metaprogramming and extension, is other subject with a bad treatment. The chapter on Threads could be improved a lot, but it still gives a general idea of how multithreaded programming in OCaml is. Again, for experienced developers, it should provide pointers for further study.

If experienced developers can get something from this book, novice ones should stay away from it. Not only is the text confusing, but there are a lot of glaring conceptual errors. Maybe some errors are to be expected from a trade book, from an author that is not an academic, but there
are things that are completely confusing. For example, this is the definition of type (page 24): "A type is a thing (or a collection of things) or value." And there is a lot more like this, unfortunately.

Overall, it has interesting parts, but surely not enough to make worth the full cover price. For experienced programmers and people already familiar with other typed functional programming languages (Haskell, F#, SML, etc), the book could serve as an initial guide for OCaml programming, but there are better alternatives around.