[erlang-questions] Erlang "object-oriented" after all?

Joe Armstrong <>
Tue Nov 24 10:06:28 CET 2009


It's difficult to  say if Erlang is OO - since there is no widely
accepted definition of what OO is or means.

When we wrote the first Erlang book we looked up many definitions of
OO but there was a wide
variation in what different languages regarded as comprising OO'ness.

I now believe the following to be central to the notion of OO.

      - Isolated concurrent things
      - Communication through message passing
      - Polymorphism

All the other stuff (inheritance, private/public methods, ....) has
nothing to do with OO.

isolation is essential - if my set of objects can be damaged by your
set of objects then we just can't build
reliable systems.

Isolation implies pure (copying) message passing and concurrency.
Things must be concurrent - otherwise
how could we make a "clock" object.

Polymorphism is essential in the messaging interface to abstracting
out the internal details of an object. Pid ! printYouself cold tell
any objects to print itself. All I/O objects should respond to
read/write/... messages

By these criteria there are actually no OO languages (nobody can do
*complete* isolation) though Erlang
is nearer to being OO than many other languages. And most so-called OO
languages are not OO.

One problem with saying "everything is an object" is that it doesn't
allow us to talk about things which are not
objects. So ask questions like "is time an object?" is "code
replacement an object?" is "is scalability an object?"
you won't get a sensible reply.

The erlang answers are easier:

"Q: What is code replacement?"
"A: A protocol - Pid ! {newCode, F} tells the process Pid to start
executing new code F"

and so on....

For convenience things like code replacement are built into the OTP
behaviours - which basically just enforce several low-level protocols.


On Tue, Nov 24, 2009 at 8:25 AM, Michael Turner <> wrote:
> I ran across a very interesting exchange with Alan Kay, who most likely
> coined the term "object-oriented programming."
>  http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~ram/pub/pub_jf47ht81Ht/doc_kay_oop_en
> If you'll excuse some (only slightly tendentious) editing of his remarks:
> ----
> "I thought of objects being like biological cells and/or individual
> computers on a network, only able to communicate with messages . . . . I
> wanted to get rid of data. . . ."
> "I realized that the cell/whole-computer metaphor would get rid of data,
> and that "<-" [assignment operator in smalltalk] would be just another
> message token . . . ."
> "I didn't like the way Simula I or Simula 67 did inheritance . . . . So
> I decided to leave out inheritance as a built-in feature until I
> understood it better . . . .
> "My original experiments with this architecture were done using a model
> I adapted from . . . rather LISP-like [languages] but with a more
> conventional readable syntax.  . . ."
> "Another big influence at this time was Carl Hewitt's PLANNER (which
> has never gotten the recognition it deserves, given how well and how
> earlier it was able to anticipate Prolog) . . . ."
> "I'm not against types, but I don't know of any type systems that
> aren't a complete pain, so I still like dynamic typing.) . . . ."
> "The people who liked objects as non-data were smaller in number, and .
>  . .  pretty much all of this group were . . . . were involved in one
> way or another with the design of ARPAnet->Internet in which the basic
> unit of computation was a whole computer. But just to show how
> stubbornly an idea can hang on, all through the seventies and eighties,
> there were many people who tried to get by with "Remote Procedure
> Call" instead of thinking about objects and messages. . . ."
> "OOP to me means only messaging, local retention and protection and
> hiding of state-process, and extreme late-binding of all things . . . ."
> ----
> So perhaps it would be forgiveable to describe Erlang as not just
> concurrent, functional, fault-tolerant, soft-real-time, and strongly
> influenced by both academic logic programming and real-world networking
> problems, but also as "object-oriented in the original (and perhaps
> best) sense of the term."  At least on the theory that any major
> buzzword pile-up should be salvaged with a rhetorically graceful
> crescendo.
> Besides, what's that old saying again?  "Those who don't learn from
> history are condemned to be repeatedly over-awed by those who can fake
> it"?
> ;-)
> -michael turner
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