What Made Golang Become Popular? Its Creators Look Back

Created at Google in late 2007, the Go programming language was open sourced in late 2009, remember its creators, and “since then, it has operated as a public project, with contributions from thousands of individuals and dozens of companies.”

In a joint essay in Communications of the ACM, five of the language’s five original creators explore what brought growing popularity to this “garbage-collected, statically compiled language for building systems” (with its self-contained binaries and easy cross-compilation). “The most important decisions made in the language’s design…were the ones that made Go better for large-scale software engineering and helped us attract like-minded developers….”

Although the design of most languages concentrates on innovations in syntax, semantics, or typing, Go is focused on the software development process itself. Go is efficient, easy to learn, and freely available, but we believe that what made it successful was the approach it took toward writing programs, particularly with multiple programmers working on a shared codebase. The principal unusual property of the language itself — concurrency — addressed problems that arose with the proliferation of multicore CPUs in the 2010s. But more significant was the early work that established fundamentals for packaging, dependencies, build, test, deployment, and other workaday tasks of the software development world, aspects that are not usually foremost in language design.

These ideas attracted like-minded developers who valued the result: easy concurrency, clear dependencies, scalable development and production, secure programs, simple deployment, automatic code formatting, tool-aided development, and more. Those early developers helped popularize Go and seeded the initial Go package ecosystem. They also drove the early growth of the language by, for example, porting the compiler and libraries to Windows and other operating systems (the original release supported only Linux and MacOS X). Not everyone was a fan — for instance, some people objected to the way the language omitted common features such as inheritance and generic types. But Go’s development-focused philosophy was intriguing and effective enough that the community thrived while maintaining the core principles that drove Go’s existence in the first place. Thanks in large part to that community and the technology it has built, Go is now a significant component of the modern cloud computing environment.

Since Go version 1 was released, the language has been all but frozen. The tooling, however, has expanded dramatically, with better compilers, more powerful build and testing tools, and improved dependency management, not to mention a huge collection of open source tools that support Go. Still, change is coming: Go 1.18, released in March 2022, includes the first version of a true change to the language, one that has been widely requested — the first cut at parametric polymorphism…. We considered a handful of designs during Go’s first decade but only recently found one that we feel fits Go well. Making such a large language change while staying true to the principles of consistency, completeness, and community will be a severe test of the approach.

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