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Perl 6 Essentials by Leopold Tötsch, Dan Sugalski, Allison Randal

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In the Beginning . . .

Let’s pause and consider Perl development up to that fateful meeting. Perl 6 is just another link in the chain. The motivations behind it and the directions it will take are partially guided by history.

Perl was first developed in 1987 by Larry Wall while he was working as a programmer for Unisys. After creating a configuration and monitoring system for a network that spanned the two American coasts, he was faced with the task of assembling usable reports from log files scattered across the network. The available tools simply weren’t up to the job. A linguist at heart, Larry set out to create his own programming language, which he called perl. He released the first version of Perl on December 18, 1987. He made it freely available on Usenet (this was before the Internet took over the world, remember), and quickly a community of Perl programmers grew.

The early adopters of Perl were system administrators who had hit the wall with shell scripting, awk, and sed. However, in the mid-1990s Perl’s audience exploded with the advent of the Web, as Perl was tailor-made for CGI scripting and other web-related programming.

Meantime, the Perl language itself kept growing, as Larry and others kept adding new features. Probably the most revolutionary change in Perl (until Perl 6, of course) was the addition of packages, modules, and object-oriented programming with Perl 5. While this made the transition period from Perl 4 to Perl 5 unusually long, it breathed new life into the language by providing a modern, modular interface. Before Perl 5, Perl was considered simply a scripting language; after Perl 5, it was considered a full-fledged programming language.

Larry, meanwhile, started taking a back seat to Perl development and allowed others to take responsibility for adding new features and fixing bugs in Perl. The Perl 5 Porters (p5p) mailing list became the central clearinghouse for bug reports or proposed changes to the Perl language, with the “pumpkin holder” (also known as the “pumpking”) being the programmer responsible for implementing the patches and distributing them to the rest of the list for review. Larry continued to follow Perl development, but like a parent determined not to smother his children, he stayed out of the day-to-day development, limiting his involvement to situations in which he was truly needed.

Although you might think that the birth of the Perl 6 project would be the first nail in the coffin for Perl 5, that’s far from the case. If anything, Perl 5 has had a huge resurgence of development, with Perl 5.7.0 released only two weeks after the initial decision to go ahead with Perl 6. Perl 5.8, spearheaded by Jarkko Hietaniemi and released in July 2002, includes usable Unicode support, a working threads interface, safe signals, and a significant improvement of the internals with code cleanup, bug fixes, better documentation, and more than quadrupled test coverage. Hugo van der Sanden is the pumpking for 5.9-5.10. Plans for those releases include enhancements to the regular expression engine, further internals cleanup and a “use perl6ish” pragma that will integrate many of the features of Perl 6. Perl 5 is active and thriving, and will continue to be so even after the release of Perl 6.0.

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