Tutorial :Should C++ eliminate header files?


Many languages, such as Java, C#, do not separate declaration from implementation. C# has a concept of partial class, but implementation and declaration still remain in the same file.

Why doesn't C++ have the same model? Is it more practical to have header files?

I am referring to current and upcoming versions of C++ standard.


I routinely flip between C# and C++, and the lack of header files in C# is one of my biggest pet peeves. I can look at a header file and learn all I need to know about a class - what it's member functions are called, their calling syntax, etc - without having to wade through pages of the code that implements the class.

And yes, I know about partial classes and #regions, but it's not the same. Partial classes actually make the problem worse, because a class definition is spread across several files. As far as #regions go, they never seem to be expanded in the manner I'd like for what I'm doing at the moment, so I have to spend time expanding those little plus's until I get the view right.

Perhaps if Visual Studio's intellisense worked better for C++, I wouldn't have a compelling reason to have to refer to .h files so often, but even in VS2008, C++'s intellisense can't touch C#'s


Backwards Compatibility - Header files are not eliminated because it would break Backwards Compatibility.


Header files allow for independent compilation. You don't need to access or even have the implementation files to compile a file. This can make for easier distributed builds.

This also allows SDKs to be done a little easier. You can provide just the headers and some libraries. There are, of course, ways around this which other languages use.


Even Bjarne Stroustrup has called header files a kludge.

But without a standard binary format which includes the necessary metadata (like Java class files, or .Net PE files) I don't see any way to implement the feature. A stripped ELF or a.out binary doesn't have much of the information you would need to extract. And I don't think that the information is ever stored in Windows XCOFF files.


In The Design and Evolution of C++, Stroustrup gives out one more reason...

The same header file can have two or more implementation files which can be simultaneously worked-upon by more than one programmer without the need of a source-control system.

This might seem odd these days, but I guess it was an important issue when C++ was invented.


C was made to make writing a compiler easily. It does a LOT of stuff based on that one principle. Pointers only exist to make writing a compiler easier, as do header files. Many of the things carried over to C++ are based on compatibility with these features implemented to make compiler writing easier.

It's a good idea actually. When C was created, C and Unix were kind of a pair. C ported Unix, Unix ran C. In this way, C and Unix could quickly spread from platform to platform whereas an OS based on assembly had to be completely re-written to be ported.

The concept of specifying an interface in one file and the implementation in another isn't a bad idea at all, but that's not what C header files are. They are simply a way to limit the number of passes a compiler has to make through your source code and allow some limited abstraction of the contract between files so they can communicate.

These items, pointers, header files, etc... don't really offer any advantage over another system. By putting more effort into the compiler, you can compile a reference object as easily as a pointer to the exact same object code. This is what C++ does now.

C is a great, simple language. It had a very limited feature set, and you could write a compiler without much effort. Porting it is generally trivial! I'm not trying to say it's a bad language or anything, it's just that C's primary goals when it was created may leave remnants in the language that are more or less unnecessary now, but are going to be kept around for compatibility.

It seems like some people don't really believe that C was written to port Unix, so here: (from)

The first version of UNIX was written in assembler language, but Thompson's intention was that it would be written in a high-level language.

Thompson first tried in 1971 to use Fortran on the PDP-7, but gave up after the first day. Then he wrote a very simple language he called B, which he got going on the PDP-7. It worked, but there were problems. First, because the implementation was interpreted, it was always going to be slow. Second, the basic notions of B, which was based on the word-oriented BCPL, just were not right for a byte-oriented machine like the new PDP-11.

Ritchie used the PDP-11 to add types to B, which for a while was called NB for "New B," and then he started to write a compiler for it. "So that the first phase of C was really these two phases in short succession of, first, some language changes from B, really, adding the type structure without too much change in the syntax; and doing the compiler," Ritchie said.

"The second phase was slower," he said of rewriting UNIX in C. Thompson started in the summer of 1972 but had two problems: figuring out how to run the basic co-routines, that is, how to switch control from one process to another; and the difficulty in getting the proper data structure, since the original version of C did not have structures.

"The combination of the things caused Ken to give up over the summer," Ritchie said. "Over the year, I added structures and probably made the compiler code somewhat better -- better code -- and so over the next summer, that was when we made the concerted effort and actually did redo the whole operating system in C."

Here is a perfect example of what I mean. From the comments:

Pointers only exist to make writing a compiler easier? No. Pointers exist because they're the simplest possible abstraction over the idea of indirection. â€" Adam Rosenfield (an hour ago)

You are right. In order to implement indirection, pointers are the simplest possible abstraction to implement. In no way are they the simplest possible to comprehend or use. Arrays are much easier.

The problem? To implement arrays as efficiently as pointers you have to pretty much add a HUGE pile of code to your compiler.

There is no reason they couldn't have designed C without pointers, but with code like this:

int i=0;  while(src[++i])      dest[i]=src[i];  

it will take a lot of effort (on the compilers part) to factor out the explicit i+src and i+dest additions and make it create the same code that this would make:

while(*(dest++) = *(src++))      ;  

Factoring out that variable "i" after the fact is HARD. New compilers can do it, but back then it just wasn't possible, and the OS running on that crappy hardware needed little optimizations like that.

Now few systems need that kind of optimization (I work on one of the slowest platforms around--cable set-top boxes, and most of our stuff is in Java) and in the rare case where you might need it, the new C compilers should be smart enough to make that kind of conversion on its own.


If you want C++ without header files then I have good news for you.

It already exists and is called D (http://www.digitalmars.com/d/index.html)

Technically D seems to be a lot nicer than C++ but it is just not mainstream enough for use in many applications at the moment.


One of C++'s goals is to be a superset of C, and it's difficult for it to do so if it cannot support header files. And, by extension, if you wish to excise header files you may as well consider excising CPP (the pre-processor, not plus-plus) altogether; both C# and Java do not specify macro pre-processors with their standards (but it should be noted in some cases they can be and even are used even with these languages).

As C++ is designed right now, you need prototypes -- just as in C -- to statically check any compiled code that references external functions and classes. Without header files, you would have to type out these class definitions and function declarations prior to using them. For C++ not to use header files, you'd have to add a feature in the language that would support something like Java's import keyword. That'd be a major addition, and change; to answer your question of if it'd be practical: I don't think so--not at all.


Many people are aware of shortcomings of header files and there are ideas to introduce more powerful module system to C++. You might want to take a look at Modules in C++ (Revision 5) by Daveed Vandevoorde.


Well, C++ per se shouldn't eliminate header files because of backwards compatibility. However, I do think they're a silly idea in general. If you want to distribute a closed-source lib, this information can be extracted automatically. If you want to understand how to use a class w/o looking at the implementation, that's what documentation generators are for, and they do a heck of a lot better a job.


There is value in defining the class interface in a separate component to the implementation file.

It can be done with interfaces, but if you go down that road, then you are implicitly saying that classes are deficient in terms of separating implementation from contract.

Modula 2 had the right idea, definition modules and implementation modules. http://www.modula2.org/reference/modules.php

Java/C#'s answer is an implicit implementation of the same (albeit object-oriented.)

Header files are a kludge, because header files express implementation detail (such as private variables.)

In moving over to Java and C#, I find that if a language requires IDE support for development (such that public class interfaces are navigable in class browsers), then this is maybe a statement that the code doesn't stand on its own merits as being particularly readable.

I find the mix of interface with implementation detail quite horrendous.

Crucially, the lack of ability to document the public class signature in a concise well-commented file independent of implementation indicates to me that the language design is written for convenience of authorship, rather convenience of maintenance. Well I'm rambling about Java and C# now.


One advantage of this separation is that it is easy to view only the interface, without requiring an advanced editor.


If you want the reason why this will never happen: it would break pretty much all existing C++ software. If you look at some of the C++ committee design documentation, they looked at various alternatives to see how much code it would break.

It would be far easier to change the switch statement into something halfway intelligent. That would break only a little code. It's still not going to happen.


The difference between C++ and Java that makes C++ header files necessary is that C++ objects are not necessarily pointers. In Java, all class instances are referred to by pointer, although it doesn't look that way. C++ has objects allocated on the heap and the stack. This means C++ needs a way of knowing how big an object will be, and where the data members are in memory.


No language exists without header files. It's a myth.

Look at any proprietary library distribution for Java (I have no C# experience to speak of, but I'd expect it's the same). They don't give you the complete source file; they just give you a file with every method's implementation blanked ({} or {return null;} or the like) and everything they can get away with hiding hidden. You can't call that anything but a header.

There is no technical reason, however, why a C or C++ compiler could count everything in an appropriately-marked file as extern unless that file is being compiled directly. However, the costs for compilation would be immense because neither C nor C++ is fast to parse, and that's a very important consideration. Any more complex method of melding headers and source would quickly encounter technical issues like the need for the compiler to know an object's layout.


Header files are an integral part of the language. Without header files, all static libraries, dynamic libraries, pretty much any pre-compiled library becomes useless. Header files also make it easier to document everything, and make it possible to look over a library/file's API without going over every single bit of code.

They also make it easier to organize your program. Yes, you have to be constantly switching from source to header, but they also allow you define internal and private APIs inside the implementations. For example:


extern int my_library_entry_point(int api_to_use, ...);  


int private_function_that_CANNOT_be_public();    int my_library_entry_point(int api_to_use, ...){    // [...] Do stuff  }    int private_function_that_CANNOT_be_public() {    }  

If you #include <MySource.h>, then you get my_library_entry_point.

If you #include <MySource.c>, then you also get private_function_that_CANNOT_be_public.

You see how that could be a very bad thing if you had a function to get a list of passwords, or a function which implemented your encryption algorithm, or a function that would expose the internals of an OS, or a function that overrode privileges, etc.


Oh Yes!

After coding in Java and C# it's really annoying to have 2 files for every classes. So I was thinking how can I merge them without breaking existing code.

In fact, it's really easy. Just put the definition (implementation) inside an #ifdef section and add a define on the compiler command line to compile that file. That's it.

Here is an example:

/* File ClassA.cpp */    #ifndef _ClassA_  #define _ClassA_    #include "ClassB.cpp"  #include "InterfaceC.cpp"    class ClassA : public InterfaceC  {  public:      ClassA(void);      virtual ~ClassA(void);        virtual void methodC();    private:      ClassB b;  };    

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