The total world's population of Haskell programmers fits in a 747. And if that goes down, nobody would even notice.
-- Erik Meijer
I recently saw an interesting talk on functional programming by Erik Meijer (of Bananas, Lenses, Envelopes, and Barbed Wire fame). Among other things, he discussed why many superior technologies such as Haskell don't catch on.
Geek formula for successHe claims the "Geek formula" for success of a technology is that if a technology is 10 times better, it should catch on and become popular. Even if it is slower, Moore's law will soon make it 10 times faster.
So if Haskell is 10 times better than C and Haskell programs are 10 times shorter, everybody should be using Haskell.
Real-life formula for successHowever, as Erik points out, "That's not how it is in real life." In real life, success is based on the perceived crisis divided by the perceived pain of adoption. Users want something that will get the job done and solve their crisis, without a lot of pain to switch.
This argument applies to many languages that remain unpopular despite their technical merits, such as Lisp, Arc, and Erlang, as well as technologies such as the Semantic Web and LaTex.
The Change FunctionThe above argument is based on the book The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn by Pip Coburn. To summarize the book, new technologies aren't adopted because they are great, new, and disruptive; they are adopted only if the user's crisis solved by the technology is greater than the perceived pain of adoption. As a result, most new technologies fail.
The first half of the book is a bit fluffy, but gets more interesting when it discusses specific technologies that failed or succeeded. The book also goes out on a limb and predicts future winners (mobile enterprise Email, satellite radio, business intelligence software) and losers (RFID, entertainment PC, WiMax).
Languages and The Change FunctionThe Change Function argument has a lot of merit for explaining what languages become popular and what languages don't. If Lisp is so great, why are there 8 million Visual Basic programmers worldwide and few Lisp programmers? The answer isn't pointy-haired bosses (since Lisp isn't popular on SourceForge either). The crisis vs. pain of adoption model provides a powerful explanation:
Magnitude of crisis solved by Visual Basic: High (e.g. how to easily write Windows applications)
Total Perceived Pain of Adoption for Visual Basic: Very Low (hit Alt-F11 in Excel and you're done)
Magnitude of crisis solved by Lisp: Low (metaprogramming, powerful macros, and higher-order functions are solutions in search of problems)
Total Perceived Pain of Adoption for Lisp: High (this shouldn't require explanation)
The same model explains the success of, for instance, Java:
Magnitude of crisis solved by Java: High (originally how to run code in a browser and write portable code, now how to avoid crashes due to memory allocation errors and bad pointers)
Total Perceived Pain of Adoption: Low (syntax similar to C++, easy to deploy)
Applying this model to other languages is left as an exercise for the reader.
Erik points out that Erlang and Haskell are now being marketed according to the second formula: there is a multicore crisis and functional languages are the solution. It will be interesting to see how much additional traction these languages get without addressing the "pain of adoption" part.