Musings on C#’s Evolution

Since completing my series on likely C# 6.0 features and reviewing the draft spec for record classes and pattern matching in C#, I’ve had some time to reflect on how C# has evolved and think about where it’s going from a more holistic perspective.

I’ve been working with C# for approximately 12 years. It was the language of choice at the beginning of my career so, in a sense, C# and I have grown up together. During that time I’ve watched what was essentially a Java clone grow into the powerhouse it is today. It’s a bit cliché, but when I started working with C# it didn’t have many of the features I now take for granted. Things like generics, the null coalescing operator, lambda expressions, extension methods, anonymous types, dynamics, and async/await were in their infancy with some as much as a decade away. It seems that every major release has brought a slew of compelling new features that have dramatically improved the language.

As I look at the code I write today I often wonder how C# developers managed without generics. I remember the headaches of dealing with ArrayList and its early kin and having to trust that the objects in the collections were actually the types we thought they were. Today I often look at blocks of imperative code (typically loops) that see that they’re doing nothing more than explicitly filtering, mapping, and reducing sequences. I immediately think how much cleaner the code would be with LINQ. And in today’s world of connected mobile devices where application responsiveness is of primary importance, async/await make asynchronous development accessible to the masses. These are all incredible tools we have at our disposal and are all among the reasons I’ve stuck with .NET development for so long.

C# 6 is different. With C# 6, the language enhancement is the Roslyn compiler. Roslyn promises to bring modern compilation strategies to C#. This is a huge undertaking and heavily impacts how we’ll interact with code through Visual Studio and other tools. I haven’t looked at Roslyn nearly as much as I’d like but I do believe the new compiler is long overdue and will pay dividends in the long run for developers and Microsoft alike. That said, the actual changes to the C# language itself seem to range from lackluster to pointless.

I’m not saying that the language features are all bad; several of them will likely be welcome additions to the language. Enhancements such as primary constructors, auto-implemented property initializers, and using static are each things that can have an immediate impact on developer productivity and are by far my favorites of the lot. Other features, such as index initializers, params IEnumerable<T>, and expression-bodied members don’t really seem to add much to the language due to either existing syntactic constructs or other limitations of the language.

Is initializing dictionary elements with [7] = "seven" really any better than with { 7, "seven" }? All the index initializer achieves is trading a pair of curly braces and a comma for a pair of square brackets and an assignment operator, respectively. How is params IEnumerable<int> better than params int[] if the argument list is still converted to an array at the call site and no other usage requires defining the parameter with the params modifier? Finally, expression-bodied members could be a great feature if C# was an expression-based language but it’s not – it’s statement-based. The proposed semicolon operator could greatly increase the usefulness of expression-bodied members but at the time of this writing, it’s still listed as “Maybe” on the Language Feature Implementation Status page. Even then, the semicolon operator feels like an attempt to coerce C# into being expression-based when it was never intended to be treated as such. In the meantime, there’s already a perfectly viable alternative – write a function!

Looking further into the future brings us to the draft spec for record classes and pattern matching. (Please note that since this spec is a draft, everything here is subject to change; whatever does get implemented, if anything, may or may not look like this proposal.) If you haven’t read the draft (and I highly recommend that you do), it proposes a new record modifier for class definitions. This modifier would instruct the compiler to generate an immutable class with built-in structural equality and an is operator (if not provided). The is operator can then be used in if and switch statements for type checking and value extractions.

For example, we could define a class like this (example taken from the proposal):

public record class Cartesian(double x: X, double y: Y);

…then use pattern matching constructs like this (adapted from the proposal):

if (expr is Cartesian c)
  // code using c

My initial reaction when I heard about these features was excitement but the more I read and the more I think about it, the less I like them, pattern matching in particular. I’ll be the last person to argue against immutability and pattern matching, especially when looking at them from a functional programming mindset. I do like the simplicity of the immutable record classes and I don’t mind that pattern matching is essentially an extension of the is operator.

The reason I don’t like these features as proposed is that they don’t feel like they belong in C#. I feel like this for a few reasons. First, pattern matching can improve code’s expressiveness but merely adding it to a language that wasn’t constructed with pattern matching in mind severely limits its usefulness. Second, the overall expressiveness is again limited by the fact that C# isn’t an expression-based language; pattern matching might make if statements and switch statements more concise, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still statements!

Let’s contrast the proposal with an expression-based language where pattern matching is already a central concept: F#. As an expression-based language, virtually everything in F# is an expression. This includes familiar constructs like ifs and matches. By definition, as expressions these constructs return values – there’s no need to rely on mutability or wrap the behavior within a separate function, returning from each branch as we must in a statement-based language. For example, this is valid F#:

let x = if System.Random().Next(10) % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

You could correctly argue that C# provides the conditional operator for this scenario but that doesn’t change the fact that in C#, if is a statement whereas in F# it’s an expression. Furthermore, what’s probably not apparent here if you’re not familiar with F# is that binding x is a pattern match. You can see this in action by replacing x with an underscore (F#’s wildcard pattern matches everything and tosses out the result) as follows:

let _ = if System.Random().Next(10) % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

If you evaluate the expression in F# Interactive (FSI) you’ll see that it executes successfully but no value is bound as we’d expect due to the wildcard. For further proof, this is also how tuple binding works as evidenced here:

let value, category =
  let r = System.Random().Next(10)
  r, if r % 2 = 0 then "even" else "odd"

The expression following the assignment in the above snippet returns a tuple containing a random value and whether that value is even or odd. The tupled items are then bound to value and category respectively by using pattern matching.

Pattern matching completely permeates F#. It’s not restricted to match expressions or inline bindings; it even works in function signatures and as a filter in looping constructs! The C# proposal doesn’t talk about pattern matching outside the context of if statements and switches so discussing whether C# will embrace pattern matching as fully as F# is pure speculation but it certainly doesn’t sound particularly promising at this point. Even if pattern matching is supported outside of if and switch statements, it’s still the same underlying statement-based language.

My point in writing all of this is that for years C# has been becoming increasingly functional, with the strongest push coming in version 3 and subsequent releases building upon that foundation. Many of the features in C# 6.0 continue even further down that path by elevating expressions an even more important concept within the language. Finally, a future incarnation of the language will likely include some form of immutable class syntax and pattern matching. If this is the direction that C# is going, my question is this: Why wait for it? Why not learn a functional language to at least supplement the object-oriented language you already know?

The C# of the future is already here and it’s called F#. F# already has a modern compiler; it already supports many of the things slowly making their way into C# and much, much more. In other words, there’s no reason to wait for these things to make it into C# because F# already does them! Incorporating F# into your existing solutions isn’t a mutually exclusive proposition. As a CLR language, F# compiles to the same IL, targets the same runtimes (with few exceptions), and uses the same libraries with which you’re already familiar. In many cases it’s a perfect complement to or replacement for existing C# code.

I challenge you to try F#. Experiment with the features; see how many things you can spot that are “recent” additions to C#, making their way to C#, or not possible at all. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how adopting an expression-based, functional-first language can change the way you think, improve the quality of your code, and make you more productive. If you accept this challenge, I recommend checking out my book or any of the great resources listed on my Learning F# page to get you started.