Fahrenheit 450 (William D. Neumann) writes "Developing Applications With Objective Caml was originally published in French by O'Reilly, and later translated into English by a group of volunteers (note that the reviewer was a volunteer proofreader during the translation effort), and graciously made available online as HTML or PDF at the Caml website. For those not familiar with Objective Caml (or OCaml, as it is commonly called), it is a strongly, statically typed (but don't be thinking about Pascal-style typing), eagerly evaluated language with a functional core that also offers many imperative programming features. OCaml also has full support for object-oriented programming that fits in completely with OCaml's strong type system. On top of that, OCaml code can be interpreted for simple scripting, compiled to bytecode for portability, or compiled to native code for speed and resource utilization that rival even that of Intel's C++ compiler. Intrigued?" If so, read on for the rest of Neumann's review.
The BookThe book itself is quite comprehensive, clocking in at over 700 pages and covering material ranging from an introduction to the language to concurrent and distributed programming. To organize all of this material, the book is broken into four main sections that build upon each other. Each section has a set of chapters that present some related concepts, followed by an "Applications" chapter that uses those concepts to create a few small applications such as a minesweeper game, a graphical interface library, a couple of different two-player games, a distributed robot simulation, and a basic HTTP servlet. These four sections are as follows:
I. Language Core
This section serves primarily as an introduction to the OCaml language, with chapters on the functional core and imperative aspects of the language, a chapter on the differences between the two styles that shows how the two can be melded, and a chapter on the OCaml Graphics module. The introduction to OCaml is complete enough that anyone with a background in programming should be able to achieve a good understanding of the basics of the language. Especially when combined with other freely available resources, like Jason Hickey's Introduction to Objective Caml , and Richard Jones' Learning OCaml for C, C++, Perl and Java programmers, one should be able to obtain a strong OCaml foundation to use while reading the rest of this book.
II. Development Tools
The second section covers, as the title states, the OCaml development tools. The chapters in this section provide information on the OCaml compilers, interpreter, and interactive toplevel environment; some of the libraries included with the standard distribution; OCaml's garbage collection mechanism; Ocaml's debugging and profiling tools; OCaml's versions of lex and yacc; and interfacing OCaml with C. This is perhaps the most valuable section of the book, as it provides good coverage of some important topics that are covered a bit too briefly in the OCaml manual.
III. Application Structure
This section covers the OCaml Module system, and its interface and functor (parameterized module) facilities. Also included in this section is a well written chapter on object oriented programming in OCaml, and a chapter comparing the two models of program organization, offering a brief look at how the two systems can be combined to reap the benefits of both.
IV. Concurrency and Distribution
The final section covers the topics that many folks might consider to be the "real world" programming topics: File I/O, process management and communication, concurrent programming using threads, and distributed programming. The coverage in this section is, again, well done, but perhaps a bit light, and it would have been nice to see more time spent on this subject matter. However, the book is already quite hefty, and the services provided by OCaml's Unix module should look familiar enough to most programmers that the material that is presented should be sufficient to get a competent programmer up and running.
The UpshotFor the most part, Developing Applications With Objective Caml does a very good job at presenting the OCaml language in more of a "practical" light than other books on languages in the ML family (and functional languages in general). And while the applications that are constructed throughout this book aren't anything particularly great or interesting in and of themselves (a simple BASIC interpreter, a rudimentary database, a client-server toolbox, etc.), they aren't the primary purpose of the book. What the applications are used for is to illustrate how the concepts presented earlier in the book are used in within the framework of an application, and not just as isolated examples. This is especially important, as most people who might read the book will be unfamiliar not just with Objective Caml, but with the entire functional programming paradigm. Repeated exposure to working OCaml code helps to familiarize the reader with functional programming and OCaml idioms while reinforcing the book's material.
There are, of course, some problems with the book. For one thing, Developing Applications is nearly five years old, half a lifetime when dealing with most computer related topics. This issue is first brought to light in the introduction where it's mentioned that chapter one tells how to install version 2.04 (OCaml is currently at version 3.08), and then in chapter one, when the reader is warned that, "Objective Caml only works under recent versions of Windows : Windows 95, 98 and NT." Fortunately, the information presented about the language remains valid (and Appendix B presents some of the features added to the language by version 3.04, the release that was current at the time of the translation). There are also a few spots where the code in the book contains minor errors, but both of these issues can easily be overcome with the help of the resources listed earlier in this review, or with the help of the OCaml community. Other minor issues crop up as a result of the translation, with the occasional odd sounding phrase popping up in the text and examples. These problems are, however, few and far between and do little to detract from the material or the presentation. And so this book still remains one of the best resources for learning Objective Caml. I used it when I was learning the language, and I still turn to it from time to time as a useful resource.
Will the book turn you into an OCaml guru, or teach you all sorts of advanced type system trickery? No, of course not. But it can teach you enough about the language to start you writing real apps in it. And it will allow you to add a fast, flexible, and powerful language to your toolbox.
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