Perl Module Neglect

Noah Petherbridge
kirsle
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Sunday, March 20 2011 @ 02:54:29 AM
This is just a sort of review, or an organizing of thoughts, about the general state of the Perl modules available on CPAN.

I love Perl as a programming language. It's easy, fast enough for almost any application, and is often called the "swiss army chainsaw" of programming languages because it makes easy tasks easy and hard tasks possible. But, it doesn't excel very well in a couple of areas which I'll outline below, due to the state of neglect of some of its modules and ports.

Tk GUI Toolkit

The de facto module for the Tk framework for Perl is aptly named "Tk," as in:

use Tk;
This module is probably one of the most neglected modules on CPAN. It was a direct port from the Tcl/Tk that was current at the time that Perl/Tk was written. The result is that, when you run a Perl/Tk program on any platform other than Windows, it resembles an excruciatingly ugly Motif style application (see my screenshots of my Perl CyanChat Client for examples). Under Windows, though, a Perl/Tk app more or less fits in.

Because Perl/Tk was a direct port of a very old version of Tk, updating it to keep it modern has been a difficult task and so naturally nobody has done it. The only love Perl/Tk gets these days is maintenance work just to be sure it can still be compiled for modern versions of Perl.

So what can we do about this?

There are a couple other Tk implementations for Perl: Tkx by ActiveState and Tcl::Tk. These two modules are modern Tk implementations for Perl, and so they look very nice on every platform. But how usable are they?

Tkx is ActiveState's creation, and I've only been able to get it to work when using ActivePerl. This is fine for Windows, where ActivePerl is arguably the most popular Perl interpreter for Windows. But when I tried compiling Tkx for a stock Perl that ships with Fedora Linux, it gives segmentation faults and crashes. It's not usable under Linux with a stock version of Perl.

There's an ActivePerl for Linux, though, but the problem is that this Perl installation would be independent from the stock Perl that comes with your operating system. So if I needed to install another third party module to use with a ActivePerl/Tkx application, I wouldn't be able to run a simple "yum install perl-{module}" command to get it. I'd have to use ActivePerl's ppm tool, if it even had the module I want. Otherwise I need to compile the module myself for ActivePerl. Yuck. This isn't "the Linux way" of doing things. The package manager should be aware of everything that you install on your system.

ActivePerl/Tkx is out of the question for Linux then. What about Tcl::Tk? I've attempted to compile and use Tcl::Tk on a few different versions of Fedora Linux and every time they give me segmentation faults just like Tkx did. No good.

So Tk is one thing that Perl can't do very well due to lots of neglect. In contrast, the Tk ports for Python, Ruby and Tcl (of course) are much better maintained.

I know there are ports to GTK+, Wx and Qt for Perl as well, if you want to create a GUI. In my experience: Wx has a completely broken HTML widget in Perl and parts of the demo crash, GTK+ is neglected too, and I never got Qt to compile.

SDL

The Simple DirectMedia Library for Perl. This module is horribly neglected as well. Ideally, it could be used to be able to create 2D videogames using pure Perl, just like you would be able to make games in Python using the pygame library (which is the SDL port for Python).

The Perl SDL module is very "feature incomplete." The only notable thing anybody has made with Perl SDL was Frozen Bubble, and the developers of that had to hack up their code a lot to get around the limitations of the SDL module.

Perl for games? Sure, if you want to blow the dust off the SDL module and are ready to do a ton more hacking than you wanted to just to get it to work.

Most other languages have modern SDL ports. Pygame comes to mind as I mentioned before, which has a fairly active community of users actually creating games in Python.

GD Graphics Library

Ah, GD, the popular graphics library used by many PHP script kiddies the world over, for doing all sorts of image generation and modification tasks. A user uploaded their picture to your site, how do you scale it down to make thumbnails? GD. How do you stamp your own branding on the corner of their image? GD. How do you generate dynamic statistic images for users to embed in forum signatures? GD.

Perl's GD module though is in a pretty bad state of neglect. All it's good for in Perl is scaling images down (and even then it doesn't do very well; look at my photo album on kirsle.net; it can't seem to save a jpeg image with any good amount of quality. Every time it saves an image it comes out extremely grainy and it completely ignores any settings to make it not do this).

Generating an image from scratch? Maybe you can get it to work with enough effort, but good luck getting text to show up in any color besides black. Using a "template image" to generate a dynamic image off of? Good luck coming up with new colors to use that aren't in the template image. It's just a giant mess.

Image::Magick or Imager are better alternatives, at least. I started using Image::Magick on all my new web development projects, and the next iteration of kirsle.net's code will be using that to handle images instead of GD.

What is Perl good for?

Perl does well as a shell scripting language for system administrators, and it does well for web development. GD sucks for it, but it does have Image::Magick and Imager for dealing with photo manipulation for a web application.

It's also good, of course, for regular expressions and number crunching, which is what it was targeted towards in the first place.

It's not particularly strong at anything else though. Creating a graphical application? Good luck. Creating a game? Don't think about it. Use Python instead.

There are a ton of other modules on CPAN collecting dust that don't work anymore, or don't work particularly well. Net::YMSG for interacting with Yahoo Messenger? Completely broken. Net::AIM for AOL Instant Messenger? Not working (but Net::OSCAR still works as far as I last checked). Audio::Audiere? I don't know anybody who's managed to compile it.

Part of me hopes Perl 6 will be usable soon and I can start learning that (contrary to popular belief, Perl 6 is not the successor to Perl 5 but is a completely separate language), and that any new modules for Perl 6 will be modern (using modern Tk and SDL for example) and will be maintained well in the future, as the ports for Python and other languages are. But part of me just thinks I should put a lot more effort into making Python my new favorite language and using Perl only for the few tasks that Perl does well (like for shell scripting).

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