Why do C++ folks make things so complicated?

This morning Miroslav Bajtoš asked “Why do C++ folks make things so complicated?” in response to my article on regular expressions in C++. Other people asked similar questions yesterday.

My response has two parts:

  1. Why I believe C++ libraries are often complicated.
  2. Why I don’t think it has to be that way.

Why would someone be using C++ in the first place? Most likely because they need performance or fine-grained control that they cannot get somewhere else. A Ruby programmer, for example, can make a design decision that makes code 10% slower but much easier to use. “Hey, if you want the best performance possible, why are you using Ruby? Didn’t you come here because you wanted convenience?” But the C++ programmer can’t say that. It’s not turtles all the way down. Often C++ is the last human-generated language in a technology stack before you hit metal.

This weekend The Register quoted Herb Sutter saying “The world is built on C++.” The article goes on to mention some of the foundational software written in C++.

Apple’s Mac OS X, Adobe Illustrator, Facebook, Google’s Chrome browser, the Apache MapReduce clustered data-processing architecture, Microsoft Windows 7 and Internet Explorer, Firefox, and MySQL — to name just a handful — are written in part or in their entirety with C++.

Certainly there is a lot of software implemented in higher-level languages, but those high-level languages are almost always implemented in C or C++. When there’s no lower-level language to appeal to, you have to offer a lot of options, even if 90% of users won’t need those options.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all C++ libraries have to be complicated. The argument above says that the lowest layers have to be complicated and they’re written in C++.  But why couldn’t the next layer up also be written in C++?

Some time in the 90’s I ran across an article called “Top C++.” I’ve tried unsuccessfully since then to find a copy of  it. As I recall, the article proposed dividing C++ conceptually into two languages: Top C++ and Bottom C++. Explicit memory management, for example, would be in Bottom C++. Top C++ would be a higher-level language. You could, for example, tell a compiler that you intend to write Top C++ and it could warn you if you use features designated as Bottom C++.

Of course you could slip from Top C++ into Bottom C++ if you really needed to, and that’s the beauty of using one language for high-level and low-level code. Application code in C++ would use Top C++ features by default, but could deliberately drop down a level when necessary. A section of Bottom C++ could be marked with comments or compiler pragmas and justified in a code review. Instead of having to cross a language barrier, you simply cross a convention barrier.

I thought this was a great idea. I’ve followed this approach throughout my career, writing high-level C++ on top of low-level C++ libraries. To some extent I put on my Bottom C++ hat when I’m writing library code and my Top C++ hat when I’m writing applications.

But most of the world has decided that’s not the way to go. If you’re writing C++, it might as well be Bottom C++. Instead of Top C++, write VB or some other higher-level language. There’s very little interest in high-level C++.

I imagine this decision has more to do with management than technology. It’s easier to have people either write C++ or not. If you’re writing C++, then use any language feature any time. I suppose this is a stable equilibrium and that the Top/Bottom C++ partition is not.

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130 thoughts on “Why do C++ folks make things so complicated?

  1. Jordi Steffen “Also some OO but dont like this too much….”
    yes I avoid it and only use when necessary — on a usefulness basis rather than as an object ;) in its self .

    I appreciate that there are C++ people who find that their forte–the way they mentally operate and I respect that.

    What I think would be of greater help, would be for easier reuse of C++ libraries, some mechanism to make it easier for other languages to re-utilise the code developed there.

    Headers and .so and/or .dll are a real hassle. C can be brought into FreePascal more directly, but C++ is a dog, you have to write interfaces that inevitably means having to actually cope with all the things that stopped you wanting to have to deal with C or C++ any way!


  2. I agree that C++ is complicated and needs a bit more braincells than Java.
    I first was a Java-guy and then switched to C++ and Qt. I don’t regret it.
    I don’t use any of the more complicated C++ features though. Mostly not worth the hassle.

  3. Paul: I spent over ten years following Wirth down the rabbit hole, off and on, and the only Wirth-style language I’ve used that didn’t have the same compatibility problems was Modula 3… and that’s only because it only ever had one real implementation, and _that_ was only portable because it used C as a back-end.

  4. Peter, Yes I benefited by coming in on the dialect family, on a branch that had been much improved by Borland over a decade (by Anders Hejlsberg the man who later developed C# etc at Microsoft), then picked up by FreePascal and Lazarus teams and helped along further, so I might have missed aspects of the Rabbit Hole that you found yourself moving through.

    mgoetz : “I don’t use any of the more complicated C++ features though. Mostly not worth the hassle.” – problem is if you get involved in an team situations or OpenSource project eventually someone does!

  5. >>In my opinion C++ took the purists approach (instead of the pragmatic
    >>one)… So, std::list doesn’t have a .sort() method…

    Actually it does…

  6. @TedvG Have never tried smalltalk but certainly sounds interesting. I would like to hear more about how using smalltalk (a “pure” oop) instead of c++ will cut productivity time by 25%? Either I just need to learn smalltalk or you need to understand c++ better. I don’t think c++ was designed with the idea of reducing verbosity strait out of the box. But if you take the time to do proper c++ development then eventually you’ll be writing up routines quicker than Ruby or Python developers. d

  7. No, no, you misunderstood. Smalltalk reduces the time during which you are productive by 15%. When you are using smalltalk, you have to spend time figuring out the meaning of phrases like, “send the message ‘+’ to the ‘Integer’ object.” WTF? One thing pure about smalltalk is pure silliness. And if you’re an OOP-hater, chances are you will hate smalltalk more than any other OO language. I could send a long write message to the book object about all the stuff about smalltalk I didn’t care for, but I think I’ll just walk away.

  8. John Wellbelove 01.03.12 at 04:42

    >>In my opinion C++ took the purists approach (instead of the pragmatic
    >>one)… So, std::list doesn’t have a .sort() method…
    Dear John,

    Please let me correct you , in std , there is a member function named sort() in list class , detail as below:

    void sort()
    { // order sequence, using operator<
    if (2 _Mysize)
    { // worth sorting, do it
    const size_t _MAXBINS = 25;
    _Myt _Templist(this->_Alval), _Binlist[_MAXBINS + 1];
    size_t _Maxbin = 0;

    while (!empty())
    { // sort another element, using bins
    _Templist._Splice_same(_Templist.begin(), *this, begin(),
    ++begin(), 1);

    size_t _Bin;
    for (_Bin = 0; _Bin < _Maxbin && !_Binlist[_Bin].empty();
    { // merge into ever larger bins

    if (_Bin == _MAXBINS)
    _Binlist[_Bin – 1].merge(_Templist);
    { // spill to new bin, while they last
    if (_Bin == _Maxbin)

    for (size_t _Bin = 1; _Bin < _Maxbin; ++_Bin)
    _Binlist[_Bin].merge(_Binlist[_Bin – 1]); // merge up
    splice(begin(), _Binlist[_Maxbin – 1]); // result in last bin

  9. I can develop much faster by using Python with C extensions for performance critical parts. It doesn’t make sense to use C++ when I have best of two worlds – Simplicity and Easy-of-use of Python + Performance and Power of C.

    Python: wake-up C
    C: what can I do for you, master?!
    Python: calculate Inverse of Matrix 4×4 and set of quaternion rotations, I’m too slow.
    C: considered done.

  10. The title of this post is trivializing and tendentious and has nothing to do with C++.
    If someone thinks a piece of code is complicated the reason was that either the reader or the writer had a bad day or they don’t want to understand each other.

    There are people who restlessly invent or search for their optimal language. The reason is simple: They don’t want to understand C++.

    Why I ever will stick with C++: Open standard, durable, widespread, no limitations, performance, proven.

    Learn it – it’s worth the effort!

  11. You do realize top C++ has been around for a long time already dont you?
    its Called C#… “or middle C++ i would call Java”

    silly article.

  12. I’ve written Java and C#, but I wouldn’t call either of them “top C++.” The point of Top C++ is that it’s a higher level language, and it’s still C++, not just something with similar syntax C++ but something that is C++ so that there’s zero barrier to calling lower level C++.

  13. “top C++”, if anything, is all the high quality libraries yet to be written for it. This is even more true for C++11.

  14. I spent around 5 years on and off coding in C++ and then gave up on it due to the complexity of the language. I have now spent around 4 years coding in C on and off, as well as PHP. I’ve recently been set with a programming task for a job requiring me to implement code to read data from a file and provide sorted formatted output. The PHP code was easy, but just try getting something close to an associative array in C++ when you’ve not coded in it for 4 years! I could do it in C without any problems what so ever but I’ve been encouraged to use the STL. C++ may be a superset of C, but the programming paradigms and the anti-C propaganda that I’ve witnessed on many programming q&a sites really pushes one away from doing things “the C way”. So I would never lump C with C++ they are two very different languages despite some minimal common ground.

  15. C++ is not a complicated language … C++ folks are.

    Performance? Very few times (or never) performance parameters are specified … the reason? there is no theorical foundation fpr peformance people really follow.

    For instance, when people say: this is a real time system, they think in terms of seconds or milliseconds … and real time has nothing to do with clock cicles but with “business related actor response actions” which are the actions an actor can perform between 2 consecutive events in the target system … these actions could span millisecons, seconds, days, weeks, months and even years (if you are developing a monitoring system that spans decades).

    … and I think this missinterpretation of real time comes from the fact that we often think of actors as humans.

    So again … it is not the language … it is the people using it …

  16. My least favorite thing is confusing/super truncated variable names. Do c (and especially Verilog/VHDL) guys really type so slow that adding a few extra characters to some variable that’s used tens of times really adds up to any appreciable amount of time? I can imagine someone saying “But it makes the source code smaller!” HAHAH!

  17. Wow, I’d forgotten about this thread.

    John: “C++ isn’t the lowest possible level of abstraction, but it is the lowest level that many people consider.”

    That’s what I said, most people have no idea of what “low level” is.

  18. 01000101 01110111 01100001 01100011 01110100 01101100 01111001

    01010000 01100001 01110101 01101100

  19. So to all the people saying top C++ is C#, Java, or some other language, when call I compile C# to my Android and iOS phone without paying a 3rd party an expensive licensing fee and being restricted to their tools? When will I be able to run my Java code on iOS? Maybe your arguments work if you don’t care about portability and reuse of code.

    Let’s see:

    Write a well-tested C++ library ONCE, with minimal porting and testing effort per platform.


    Write Objective C for iOS, Java for Android, C# for Windows Phone, C++ for BB10, hmm… seems like a LOT more potential for bugs and a lot more time spent on dev here.

  20. OS X is NOT written in C++. It is a mixture of Objective-C and C. Another thing with no C++: Linux.

  21. John, it has been a while, but if you find a link to the Top C++ article, please share. Sounds intriguing.
    Shameless plug — although I have no vested interest, just a fanboy — D is a systems language, and has an opt-in subset called Safe-D that is intended for applications programming. Seems a bit like Bottom C++ and Top C++.
    I have a love-hate relationship with C++. Despite all the complaints against it (my own grousing included!), it’s still a widespread and popular language. If you know it you can get a job using it. That’s a pretty good metric for being considered a successful programming language.

  22. “C++ standard binds rivals”
    by Elizabeth Heichler, San Francisco
    Aug 28, 1995

    Well, okay then! Serendipity. There you go John. :-)

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