I’d Like to Be Dead Like Perl

The “Perl is Dead” meme has been going around for some time. It seems like one of those self-reinforcing things that people keep repeating, but where’s the evidence? The other half of the meme is that other dynamic languages, specifically Ruby, Python, and PHP are gaining market/mind share.

That is true. I hear a lot more about Python, Ruby, and even PHP these days than I did five or ten years ago. Does that mean Perl is dead? No, it just means Python, Ruby, and PHP are doing better now than in the past. That’s not bad for Perl. On the contrary, my theory is that a rising “dynamic languages” tide will lift all boats.

Tim Bunce wrote about job posting trends in February of 2008, and it’s interesting reading. Unsurprisingly (to me), all of Perl, PHP, Ruby, and Python jobs are growing, and while Ruby and Python are growing faster than Perl, Perl is still way ahead of them. My guess is that eventually they’ll level out around Perl’s percentage and start growing slower.

Today I was thinking about Perl’s reported morbidity (in the context of a relatively stupid “Perl 6 is Vaporware” article (that I don’t care to link to because it was lame)).

Perl could have a lot of jobs and still be dead. After all, COBOL has a lot of jobs, but no one thinks of COBOL as a “living” language, it’s just undead.

I decided to take a quick look at books instead. My theory is that if people are buying books on a topic, it must have some life, because that means someone wants to learn about said topic.

The flagship Perl book is O’Reilly’s Learning Perl. The fifth edition was just released in June of this year.

It’s currently #3,984 amongst all books, which isn’t bad. Even more impressive, it’s #1 in the Amazon category of “Books > Computers & Internet > Programming > Introductory & Beginning”. This would be more impressive if this category included Learning Python, but I don’t think it does.

O’Reilly’s Learning Python is also doing well, at #3,357 among all books. In fact, this is the highest rank book of those I looked at.

O’Reilly’s Learning Ruby is at #194,677, which I can only assume reflects the book, not Ruby itself. The best-selling intro-level Ruby book is (I think) Beginning Ruby: From Novice to Professional, at #23,024.

So Perl seems to be holding its own, and for some reason the intro Ruby books aren’t selling well.

On to O’Reilly’s Programming Perl, which is the Perl reference, despite being rather old (8 years). It’s at #12,428.

O’Reilly’s Programming Python is at #32,658. I would’ve expected Dive Into Python to do much better than #177,394. It has very high ratings, much better than Programming Python, and I’ve heard good things about it on the net. Go figure.

O’Reilly’s The Ruby Programming Language is at #5,048 and Programming Ruby is at #13,125. My guess is that many people skip the intro level Ruby books in favor of these two.

So what’s the summary? Each of these three languages has at least one book in the top 10,000, and the best selling books for each language are all relatively close. Certainly, Perl is looking pretty good in this light.

Another interesting thing about the Perl book market is the sheer number of niche Perl books out there, one of which I co-wrote. Compare O’Reilly’s Python book page to their Perl page. Of course, the Python page has more recent books, but maybe they’re just catching up on topics Perl had covered years ago.

This is all quite unscientific, but I think there’s some value here. My conclusion is that Perl is not quite dead yet, and is in fact doing reasonably well. While it may not have the same buzz that the new kids have, people still want to learn it.