10 things Idris improved over Haskell

The 1.0.0 of Idris has been released just a few months back, just enough to start trying out the language and some of the possibilities dependent typing offers.

But this post is not about dependent typing. There is already a really good book that came out this year, named Type Driven Development with Idris, exploring the benefits (and trade-offs) of dependent typing. I highly recommend you to read it.

Instead, this post describes some of the pleasant surprises you get trying out Idris, coming from the Haskell world. These pleasant surprises have nothing to do with the dependent typing features. They are simple yet impacting modifications, which improve the developer experience substantially.

I listed my top 10 in the hope they will convince you to give a try at Idris.

 

1) Idris Strings are not lists


It does not seem like much, but Haskell Strings are such a pain to deal with, that this improvement got the first place.

Haskell String are lists of characters. This big mistake in terms of efficiency is corrected by two very good packages: Data.Text and Data.ByteString. Nevertheless, this is still a source of pain and accidental complexity:

  • Newcomers to Haskell almost always face the inefficiency of Strings
  • Strings are not first class, and forces use the Overloaded Strings extension
  • The code gets obscured by successive by pack and unpack calls

Idris learned from the mistakes of Haskell and made Strings first class. You can call pack and unpack strings to go back an forth to a List Char representation. This is illustrated by this simplistic implementation of the caesar cipher algorithm:

We can test this function in the REPL:

 

2) Overloading without Type Classes


Overloading of function has also been a subject of numerous complains in the Haskell community. Of course, we can workaround the issue by using Type Classes, but this has some drawbacks as well.

Idris learned from these complains as well, and offers a kind of overloading. You can import the same name from different modules and Idris will not care, as long as it can deduce which one to use.

Even better, Idris introduce the notion of namespace, that we can use inside a module to introduce overloads. For instance, we can create a plus operator that works for both scalars and lists in the same module.

As long as Idris can deduce which overload to use, the developer does not have to prefix the symbol with the namespace:

This is a very nice improvement over Haskell rules that forbid any kind of overloading, and has nice benefits on the code:

  • It improves composability of software (by limiting conflicts of names)
  • It avoids using awkward operators to avoid ones used by other libraries
  • It remains safe and clear, by supporting explicit namespace prefix

 

3) Records fields are namespaced


The notion of namespace of Idris really shines when it comes to records. The fields of a record live in the namespace of their respective record. The net effect is that they do not collide with the names of the other records as they do in Haskell.

So we can have several records with the same field name. For instance, we define below an Account and Customer record, each having an address field:

As for the overloading rules and namespace, Idris will try to infer which function is being referred to when using the name address. Most often, the developer does not have to provide any hint.

Here is an example of function that uses both the customer address and account address to check if they both match:

This type-checks correctly. In case of ambiguous calls, you can always add the namespace as prefix to help Idris figuring your intent:

 

4) Records update and access syntax


Updating values in nested record does come at the cost of verbosity in Haskell. There are packages that help navigating data structure, such as lenses, but a lot of Haskell users recognise it as a pretty big dependency.

Idris offers a lighter update syntax for the fields of nested records. We can update the address of the account of a customer that way:

Idris also offers the possibility to apply a function over a field in a nested records. For instance, we can complete (by concatenation) the address of the account of the customer with $=:

We can try both our previous function in the REPL to convince ourselves that they work properly (and they do):

This does not replace the need for lenses (which are much more general). But it is nice to count of some basic support in core Idris when we do not need that much power.

 

5) Monad and Functor got fixed


The Haskell Monad return is absent of Idris, and so is the fail method, which most Haskell developers recognise as being a design mistake.

In Idris, Monad extends the Applicative (as it does now in Haskell, but did not for quite a long time) and so pure makes sure that return is not needed. Since the return naming is conflicting with the return statement of many programming languages, this is one less distinction to explain to newcomers to Idris when compared to Haskell.

You can also notice the presence of join in the interface of the Monad, allowing to define whichever of bind or join is more intuitive depending on the Monad instance:

Looking at the Functor type class, fmap is renamed map in Idris. This also improves over Haskell, by avoiding the awkward explanation to newcomers to Haskell of why map is in fact named fmap for legacy reasons:

 

6) Laziness is opt-in, not opt-out


There are plenty of good reasons for laziness, there is no denying it. Reading the amazing Why Functional Programming matters shows how much it helps modularising and decoupling our software, by allowing the separation of processes producing data from the one consuming it.

But there are plenty of drawbacks to laziness as well. Some are technical (space leaks) and some are psychological (non strict evaluation is not intuitive when coming from other languages).

A bit like Clojure (and other FP languages) did before, Idris embraces opt-in laziness, with a strict evaluation by default. Streams are the lazy equivalent of Lists and the language features both. You can notice the different pretty easily, when playing with infinite and finite ranges:

 

7) A smaller Num class


For all of those who likes to play with DSL in Haskell, the fact that the Haskell Num class is split into smaller bits in Idris is a small but nevertheless enjoyable improvement:

The Haskell version often leads to dummy implementations of the negate, abs or signum methods. This should not occur anymore in the Idris version of the Num class.

 

8) The Cast type class


Idris removed the Read type class and replaces it with the more general Cast type class. The Read type class allowed to parse a String into a type a, effectively a transformation from a String to any other type. The Cast class is parameterized on the input type as well, allowing to transform between any two types implementing the type class.

We can read a string into an integer like follows (you can note that reading an invalid string returns a default value instead of throwing an exception):

The generalisation allows to avoid the multiplication of functions to convert between the numeric types. For instance, we can use it to convert (with losses) a double into an integer value:

 

9) Clear separation of evaluation and execution


Let us write a simple function that reads the input from the command line, interprets it as a number, double this number, before printing it on the screen:

If you evaluate a call to this function in the Idris REPL, you will get the following big pile of Abstract Syntax Tree, which correspond to the recipe to execute the IO expression described by double_it:

To execute the function and not just evaluate it, you need to say so explicitly, by using :exec as prefix to the expression to execute:

Why considering this an improvement over Haskell. If you are a Lisp adept, you can but appreciate the reification of the IO actions into a proper AST. It may just be personal taste, but I just love it.

 

10) The Do notation without monads


I kept the best part of Idris for the last. Before of its support for overloading, Idris allows the developer to define a bind operator out of the Monad class, and the do notation is based on the sole presence of this operator.

This is truly an awesome idea. It allows the developer to profit from the nice syntax of the do notation, without having to comply to the interface of the Monad bind operator.

  • It avoids forcing awkward design just to fit the Monad type class requirements
  • It opens up the notation for numerous types that could not be made proper instance of Functor, Applicative or Monad, because they are not parameterised
  • It allows to keep the do notation for dependent types, which much rarely conform to the interface of Monad

 
It also allows us to abuse even more the do notation. More power means more changes to do horrors as well. Here is an example of abuse that shows that we do not even need a parameterized type for the do notation anymore:

  • It describes a not very useful StringBuilder DSL
  • Evaluating an expression of this DSL with eval_string yields a String
  • Defining the bind operator allows us to describe our DSL expression with do

Here is an example of usage of this DSL, in which we create an StringBuilder expression named john, using our beloved and dreaded do notation:

Evaluating our StringBuilder expression shows us the AST, and calling eval_string on it interprets it as a String:

 

Conclusion


Idris offers some pleasant surprises for the Haskell programmers, even without considering the dependent typing support. There are many other pleasant surprises I got, such as the distinction between print and printLn, which is now aligned with putStr and putStrLn, and many others.

These changes mostly show how helpful it is to be able to start all over again from scratch and fixing these pesky mistakes we did at the beginning.


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