PLT Scheme is now 13 years old. The initial version was little more than glue code between a few open-source libraries, which seemed to offer the quickest solution to our modest goals. Modest success leads to bigger goals, however, and then continued success leads to ever more ambitious goals. Before you know it, a mass of users, co-developers, libraries, and documentation rely on design decisions that were made for a much smaller project years before.
Naturally, many of those early design decisions turn out to be a poor fit for the project’s eventual role. Starting from scratch isn’t usually practical, so you gradually adjust the infrastructure to meet new needs. That was precisely the story for the version 300 series of releases for PLT Scheme. The biggest gap between our original and current goals was in run-time performance, so we replaced bytecode interpretation with a just-in-time native-code compiler, and we replaced a memory manager based on “conservative” estimates of pointer usage with one that uses precise information.
Performance improves a bit more with version 4.0, but mostly we’ve moved on to a bigger mismatch between the original and current goals: the way that PLT Scheme presents itself to users. PLT Scheme was originally conceived as R5RS Scheme with some extensions to make it practical, and with useful tools (notably an IDE) and libraries (notably a GUI library) built on that core. Our documentation and web pages reflected that architecture – which now seems completely upside-down.
Version 4.0 is a fresh start in the way that we present PLT Scheme. It’s a new language. PLT Scheme is a dialect of Scheme, certainly, but it’s not merely a superset of R5RS, R6RS, or other standards, and those standards are not really the best place to start understanding PLT Scheme. At the same time, the unique extensibility features of the PLT Scheme language and tools allow them to support other languages easily, including R5RS (though a new plt-r5rs executable), R6RS, and more.
Improvements to the PLT Scheme language include better syntax for modules, better support for optional and keyword function arguments, more expressive syntax for structure types, streamlined hash-table operations, new syntax for list comprehensions and iterations, a more complete and consistent set of list and string operations, and reduced dependence on mutable pairs. To current users of PLT Scheme, these changes will seem like the big ones behind version 4.0, but they’re small compared to the overall re-organization and the accompanying documentation effort.
We wrote hundreds of pages of new documentation, including much more tutorial and overview information. We ported hundreds of pages of existing documents to new a system that produces cleaner, better organized, more consistent output. We will replace the old tangle of web pages (that try to explain a confusing federation of tools) with a simple page about “PLT Scheme.” We have even streamlined the command-line flags for the main virtual machine.
The development of PLT Scheme version 4.0 took about one year of hard work. In retrospect, that doesn’t sound too bad, considering the scale of the existing code base, the number of things that we improved, and the total size of the documentation (about 2000 pages in PDF form). Still, you can imagine how happy we are to arrive at a stable release, and we hope that the improvements in PLT Scheme version 4.0 work as well for everyone else as they do for us.
For a preview, see http://pre.plt-scheme.org/. The final version 4.0 release is just days away.