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The End of GCC?

Before predicting the end of GCC, it’s important to understand the role it fills. One big reason for using GCC is that it’s portable. You can use the same compiler on a wide collection of operating systems and architectures. GCC isn’t bad at optimization, either, although less-portable compilers tend to do better on the specific platforms they target. Having to support only a single compiler can reduce development costs, however.

The main reason that GCC exists is to be Free Software. The GNU Project requires a compiler that’s capable of building the GNU system. Both of the compilers I’ve discussed in this article are Free Software, but they’re available under the permissive terms of BSD-style licenses. This fact makes them less attractive to the Free Software Foundation, because these licenses permit making proprietary forks.

While the Free Software Foundation is nominally in charge of GCC, a lot of development is funded by the likes of Apple and Red Hat. Making a closed-source fork of the compiler is not in the best interest of either of these companies, since they don’t sell compilers—they give them away, to encourage people to write software for their platforms. (Red Hat also gives the rest of the platform away, to encourage people to pay for Red Hat support.) Apple, on the other hand, would very much like to be able to use components of the compiler combined with other, proprietary components. This desire is what attracted Apple to LLVM as a compiler for OpenGL shaders (code which is now making its way into the open source OpenGL clone Mesa), and led do development of the clang front end for LLVM.

Another strength of GCC is the languages it supports. With GCC, you can compile C, C++, Objective-C, Fortran, Java, and Ada. It also has some support for Pascal, Mercury, COBOL, Modula-2, Modula-3 VHDL, PL/1, and UPC. In contrast, PCC supports only C, with experimental support for Fortran. LLVM supports C and C++, with experimental support for Objective-C and Stacker (a stack-based language).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting things about GCC at the moment is that it’s the only Objective-C compiler that works with either Apple’s Cocoa or GNUstep. This situation is likely to change soon, as the clang front end becomes more mature, which is likely to benefit all Objective-C developers as a result of competition between the projects.

Not having to rely on GCC is likely to benefit the BSD family quite a lot. GCC is designed fairly closely with GNU libc in mind, so the project is hesitant to accept improvements that don’t work with glibc (and, by extension, with most Linux systems).

Competition is usually a good thing; in open source projects, where ideas (and, ideally, code) can flow freely between the projects, everybody wins in the end. The more advanced architecture of LLVM makes it a good long-term bet for future systems, and the simple codebase of PCC makes it a good systems compiler. Both are likely to carve out a significant portion of market share in the next few years, giving developers more of choices for compiling their code.

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