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The Oberon Language (1990)

Dick Pountain/BYTE/Monday Dec 3, 1990

                              THE OBERON LANGUAGE

As the triumphal march of C proceeds and language 'inertia' becomes heavier by
the month, the prospects for introducing a new general purpose programming
language like Oberon must seem pretty slim. However Oberon deserves to be
taken very seriously for it is Niklaus Wirth's successor to Modula-2.
Professor Wirth of ETH (Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule) in Zurich,
Switzerland, created both Pascal and Modula-2 and must therefore be considered
one of the most influential language designers in the short history of the
art. What also makes Oberon noteworthy is that, at a time when most software
systems seem to be bloating inexorably into middle-aged spread, Oberon is
actually much smaller and simpler than its predecessor.

The name Oberon did not come directly from Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's
Dream' but rather from the eponymous moon of Neptune whose fly-past by Voyager
was in the news in 1988 when Oberon was born. The superb precision of
Voyager's navigation inspired Wirth to make this linguistic tribute.

Strictly speaking Oberon is more than a language, it's a complete operating
system and environment for a networked 32-bit workstation called Ceres, just
as Modula-2 was the operating environment for the Lilith workstation. Ceres
was entirely designed at ETH and is extensively used by the students in
Wirth's department. However it's likely that in the next few years we shall
see implementations of the Oberon language under other operating systems such
as MS-DOS.


Oberon developed out of Modula-2 as a system programming language to implement
the software for the Ceres workstation network. Wirth's intention with Ceres
was to create a simple, reliable and low-cost workstation, and achieving this
meant determining just what was essential and what was expendable in the
hardware realm. This simplifying philosophy soon spilled over into the
software too.

Wirth believes strongly that an operating system should be designed as a
number of separately compiled modules with well-defined interfaces, and that
writing applications is equivalent to extending the operating system by adding
new modules. So Modula-2 was the first choice for the Ceres project because it
has excellent support for such modularity. In the event however Wirth decided
that Modula-2 does not have powerful enough facilities for user extension. In
particular it does not permit the programmer to define new data types as
extensions of older types. So Oberon was born from the decision to add type
extensions to Modula. I shall explain how type extensions work later on.

Another firm requirement of the Ceres project was that the operating system
should have a dynamic central memory allocation scheme, complete with garbage
collection. It would have been possible to add a garbage collector to Modula-
2, and indeed this has been done in the Modula-3 language developed by DEC and
Olivetti [described in Byte Nov 1990, page 385]. However Wirth felt that the
variant record feature, which Modula-2 inherited from Pascal, would have been
an obstacle to secure and efficient garbage collection. This is because both
Pascal and Modula-2 permit the insecure practice of modifying the tag of a
variant record independently of the variant field values (or omitting the tag
field altogether). Since almost all implementations actually overlay the
different variants of a record on the same area of memory, programmers can
defeat the strict typing mechanism in this way, making it impossible for the
language efficiently to discover the actual size of a variant record at
runtime. An automatic garbage collector must be able unambiguously to decide
the size of objects it wishes to discard.

Fortunately the type extension mechanism chosen for Oberon makes variant
records completely redundant, as it can achieve the same flexibility in a
type-safe way. So variant records were dropped. Once the pruning knife was
unsheathed other features of Modula started to look vulnerable and were
dropped, either because they were redundant or not worth the complication they
introduced into compilers. As a result an Oberon compiler can be much smaller
than a Modula-2 compiler; the Oberon implementation of July 1988 involved just
130K of source code, yielding 39K of compiled code and taking 41 seconds to
compile itself.


Type extension is the facility to construct a new record type on the basis of
an existing type. For example if you have defined a type Circle like this :-

TYPE   Circle = RECORD
                  x,y,radius: REAL

then an extension of the type Circle might be :-

      FilledCircle(Circle) = RECORD
                               fillcolor: INTEGER

A record of the new type inherits the fields x, y, and radius from its 'base
type' Circle and then adds its own field called fillColor. This mechanism
should be familiar enough to Turbo Pascal 5.5 and C++ users because the syntax
employed is very like that used for defining object hierarchies in these
languages. Indeed you might think of type extension as being a 'half-way
house' to full object orientation, as it provides extensibility for data types
but not for procedures (ie. methods). In Oberon the mechanism for
encapsulating procedures remains the module, just as in Modula-2, and modules
are not extensible.

To clear up some terminology; type FilledCircle is called a 'direct extension'
of type Circle, and Circle is its 'direct base type'. A new type called
BorderedFilledCircle, which extends FilledCircle, would also be an extension
of Circle, but not now a direct extension because FilledCircle intervenes in
the hierarchy. A type is also counted as an extension if it equals the base
type, or more formally: T' extends T if T' = T or T' is a direct extension of
an extension of T.

In Oberon, values of an extended type can be assigned to a variable of any of
their base types. So we could assign records of type FilledCircle to a
variable of type Circle; only the X,Y and Radius values would be assigned.
This is called a 'projection' of the extended type onto the space of the base
type. If we were to define a type 2Point with fields X and Y, then extend it
to type 3Point with fields X,Y and Z, then you can see that projecting a
3Point to a 2Point means just what it means in ordinary speech; the 3-
dimensional point X,Y,Z is projected as if onto a 2-dimensional screen X,Y.

Type extension in Oberon extends across module boundaries, so that you can
import a type from another module and then define extensions to it in the
current one. This is the backbone of Oberon programming technique.

Extension applies also to pointer types, which in Oberon can only be pointers
to record or array types. The type of a pointer to a FilledCircle is an
extension of the type POINTER TO Circle, and so can be assigned to variables
of that type. This has important consequences when building complex dynamic
data structures such as lists and trees. You can write a module which defines
an abstract list structure, a base node type and the procedures to access it.
Then client modules can import and extend the base node type as required, and
add new procedures to access nodes of the extended type. This is very like
object oriented programming in, say C++, except that you must explicitly
import the manipulating procedures rather than having them implicitly

I'll take an example taken from Wirth's 1988 paper 'From Modula to Oberon'.
Here's part of a module called M which defines a tree structure (which grows
from a variable called 'root' of type Node) and its search procedure :-

TYPE Node =    POINTER TO Object;
     Object =  RECORD
                 key, x, y: INTEGER;
                 left, right: Node

PROCEDURE Element(k: INTEGER): Node;
VAR p:Node;
  p := root;
  WHILE (p # NIL) & (p.key # k) DO
    IF p.key < k
    THEN p := p.left
    ELSE p := p.right
END Element

This module manipulates trees in the abstract. Now we can define a client
module that extends the type Object into some more directly useful types :-

TYPE Rectangle =    POINTER TO RectObject;
     RectObject =   RECORD(Object)
                      width, height: REAL
     Circle =       POINTER TO CircleObject;
     CircleObject = RECORD(Object)
                      radius: REAL

Because of the the type compatibility rules of Oberon, we can assign pointers
of type Rectangle or Circle to variables of type Node and so build trees whose
nodes point to objects of mixed types. However there is still a problem; we
cannot yet retrieve RectObjects or CircleObjects from such nodes. All we can
retrieve are Objects, which are mere projections with none of the interesting
properties we desire. What we need is a way to perform the reverse of
projection and go back to the 'wider' view. ~Oberon offers a type-safe way to
do this via 'type guards'.


When manipulating structures containing mixed types like the tree we just
considered, we need to be able to discover the actual type a node has become
bound to at ~runtime in order to know what fields it has. If for example a Node
points to a Rectangle we can retrieve its width, but if it points to a Circle
then we want its radius instead. However the assignment compatibility rule of
~Oberon, stated above, allows us to assign a Rectangle to a Node (or a
~RectObject to an Object) but not vice versa. The answer to this problem lies
in 'type tests' and 'type guards'.

The type test 'p IS Rectangle' is a Boolean expression which is true only if p
currently contains a pointer of type Rectangle. In general t IS T' is true if
t (of type T) currently contains a value of type T', and T' is an extension of

Reverse assignments of base types to extended types can be made by applying a
type guard. The assignment t' := t(T'), where t' is of type T' and t is of
type T (a base type of T'), is legal and can succeed if t currently holds a
value of type T'. The (T') is called the type guard of t. If the value of t is
not of type T' (nor an extension of it) then the guard fails and the program
aborts; a failing guard is fatal, like an array bound violation or a failing
CASE selector. Type guards look ~syntactically rather like C typecasts, but
they could hardly be more different in intention; where ~Oberon demands that
this must be the right sort of thing, and stops if it is not, C says 'bend the
thing to make it fit'. The world may well end with a misplaced typecast.

Guards can be applied to assignments of record fields as well as whole
records. All this may be easier to follow with a more concrete example. If W
is a REAL variable then the assignment

W := p(Rectangle).width;

is legal, and succeeds if p does indeed contain a Rectangle pointer. It would
fail and abort the program if p contained a Circle. If we had defined an
extension of Rectangle called ~FilledRectangle, then the assignment would also
succeed when p contained a ~FilledRectangle (which is quite safe because
~FilledRectangles also have a width). Since aborting a program is to be avoided
at all costs, type tests are used to make sure this never occurs. So in the
tree example above, we might write an access procedure that contains lines
like this :-

p := M.Element(K);
  IF p IS Rectangle
  THEN Area := p(Rectangle).width * p(Rectangle).height;
  ELSIF p IS Circle
     THEN Area := pi * p(Circle).radius * p(Circle).radius;
  ELSIF ...........

To avoid having to write too many type guards, which is both verbose and
inefficient for the compiler, Oberon employs the WITH statement (which loses
the meaning it had in Modula-2) to assert that a variable has a particular
type throughout a whole sequence of statements; this is called a 'regional
type guard' :-

WITH p: Rectangle DO
  Area := p.width * p.height;
  Perim := 2 * (p.width + p.height);

This should be enough of a taste of Oberon to show you that variant records
are now completely redundant and that type extensions with guards offer a
safer but also more powerful alternative.

Oberon also displaces the Modula-2 concept of 'opaque types' used for
information hiding, by a more general concept. In a Modula opaque type you
export only the name of a type so that its representation remains hidden from
the users of the type. In Oberon you can hide part or all of a type by only
exporting a partial definition or 'public projection'. For example a type

  Box = RECORD x,y,width,height: REAL END;

might be exported as

  Box = RECORD x,y: REAL END;

so that client programs can only change the position but not the dimensions of
a Box. Of course a client can still define extensions to Box. The type of a
non-exported record field can be hidden too, so you can completely hide a
sensitive data structure while still allowing components of an exported type
to refer to it.

Apart from type extensions, test and guards, the only other additions to
Oberon compared to Modula-2 are multi-dimensional open arrays and 'type
inclusion'. The latter is a hierarchical relaxation of the type compatibility
rules so that if type T includes T', values of type T' are also values of type
T and can be assigned to variables of type T. Oberon supports five numeric
types such that LONGREAL includes REAL, which includes LONGINT, which includes
INTEGER, which includes SHORTINT. Hence you can always assign an INTEGER to a
REAL variable, or a SHORTINT to an INTEGER. This scheme almost removes the
need for type conversions and dispels some of the more irritating aspects of
Modula-2 (for example the incompatibility of INTEGERs, CARDINALs and REALs).


We can now examine what features of Modula-2 are omitted from Oberon, and
understand why it was possible to exclude them. As you will see, far more has
been removed than has been added.

Variant records and opaque types are dropped, since the type extension scheme
is safer, more elegant and more powerful.

Enumeration types, eg. Colors = (red,blue,green), are not supported in Oberon.
They were originally introduced in Pascal to improve program clarity, but it
is now Wirth's opinion that their indiscriminate use leads to an explosion of
type declarations and to verbose programs. The values of an enumeration type
have an uncomfortable, exceptional status; they are neither proper
identifiers, nor are they string constants available at runtime. This causes
an inconsistency in the rules of Modula-2, because unlike other types you
cannot export an enumeration type's identifier without automatically exporting
all its constant identifiers. Enumeration types also posed tricky problems
in type extending them across Oberon's module boundaries.

Subrange types, eg. XCoord = 0..639, have been dropped too; originally
introduced to allow a compiler to generate guards for assignments and to
economize on storage, Wirth now feels their benefits are not worth the
complexity they add to a compiler. Having lost these two types it was natural
to exclude user-defined set types and replace them with a single type SET
whose values are sets of the integers.

Pointer types are confined to record and array types in Oberon. Array index
types are no longer definable and all indices are integers. The lower bound of
all arrays is fixed to 0, so you declare for example ARRAY 10 OF INTEGER. This
simplifies bound checking, especially for dynamic arrays, and removes a rich
source of programmer errors.

The FOR loop has been dropped completely and you must use either REPEAT or
WHILE with an explicit counter variable. We have already seen that the WITH
statement used for record fields in Modula is used in Oberon for type guards.
When accessing record fields you must always fully qualify the field name with
its record name. This principle of full qualification extends to imports too;
the Modula construct FROM M IMPORT x has been abandoned and you must specify
M.x for every occurence of x in your program. Modula-2 experience has shown
that this is preferable when many modules are imported.

The low-level features supported through the SYSTEM module in Modula have been
eliminated along with the type-conversion functions, absolute addressing for
variables and the ADDRESS and WORD types. Oberon implementations are free to
provide system-dependent modules but these do not belong to the language
definition, so no-one can fool themselves that such features are anything but
implementation-specific and non-portable. Concurrency, supported in Modula
through coroutines, has been removed. Wirth stresses that this is not a
rejection of the need for concurrency in general programming, but reflects the
fact that the Oberon-Ceres project was deliberately designed not to employ

The structure of programs has been rationalized in Oberon. Modula's special
main module, which has no definition part, has gone. It was an anomaly because
although actually a package of data and procedures, it had to act as a single
executable procedure to the operating system. All modules in Oberon are equal
and can be compiled and executed. Under the Oberon operating environment any
parameterless procedure within any module can be executed as a 'command' by
typing its qualified name (eg. MyModule.Start); this is how you invoke
programs. If MS-DOS compilers for Oberon appear this feature will present a
problem as DOS has no mechanism for executing parts of an .EXE file in this

The reserved words DEFINITION and IMPLEMENTATION have gone and all modules
begin in the same way with the word MODULE. Every module has an interface or
definition text which is just an excerpt from the text of the module,
containing copies of just those constant, type and variable declarations and
procedure headings that are to be exported. Local modules are dropped as
Modula programmers seldom used them and they complicated the scope rules

The total effect of these changes is to make Oberon's rules for handling
modules simpler and more orthogonal than those in Modula-2, as every module is
a complete compilable unit.


Earlier on I said that Oberon was a 'halfway house' to object orientation. You
may well be wondering why Niklaus Wirth did not go the whole way, to a fully
object-oriented system. It is certainly not for any want of experience of OOPS
for as well as sanctioning the development of Modula-3, Wirth and his co-
workers have themselves experimented with object-oriented extensions to both
Modula-2 and Oberon by making modules into first-class objects that can have
methods and instances.

However Wirth remains unconvinced that encapsulated methods offer the best
paradigm for programming large systems. He considers the OOP insistence that
all access procedures must be defined in the same place as the data structures
they work on to be an unwieldy dogma. When developing large systems he
believes it is important to be able to add new procedures in later modules
without being forced to define a whole new sub-class, especially if this would
involve recompiling the original class definition and all its clients.
(To be fair, virtual method systems as used in C++ and Turbo Pascal 5.5 make
such recompilation unnecessary).

In Oberon it is procedure types rather than the procedures themselves that are
contained in data structures (or objects) in the program text, and binding
occurs at runtime by assigning a procedure called a 'handler' to a procedure
type field in a record. Type tests enable a handler to discriminate between
the various extensions of a base type while still maintaining strict data
typing. (Listing 1 shows an example of a handler called EdT.Handle which gets
assigned in the last line of EdT.Open).

Purely object-oriented languages like Smalltalk tend to be typeless. Variables
can hold objects of any class (ie. type) and so the compiler cannot tell you
if the wrong object has been put into a variable. The program may still do
something sensible thanks to polymorphism, which ensures that different
objects can do their 'own thing' in response to the same message. For example
sending a Print message to a Rectangle object prints a rectangle but if a
Circle has got in there by mistake the message will at least print a Circle.
This is close to the way the real world behaves; elephants do elephant things
and oranges do orange things. But if an elephant finds its way into your
orange squeezer it will surely ruin your breakfast, and the fact that it does
elephant things may prove to be a voluminous embarrassment rather than a

Until some Oberon compilers become widely available for popular operating
systems like MS-DOS, Mac and Unix we can't sample the Oberon programming style
for ourselves, but I for one am impatient to try it. Above all, I just love
the idea of a compiler that actually got smaller.


N. Wirth   "From Modula to Oberon",
            Software Practice and Experience vol.18(7), Wiley. July 1988.
           "The Programming Language Oberon" ibid.

J. Gutknecht "The Oberon Guide",
              Bericht 108, Dept fur Informatik, ETH Zurich. June 1989.

Martin Odersky  "Extending Modula-2 for Object-Oriented Programming.
                First International Modula-2 Conference 1989.


Listing 1. Extracts from a module by Robert Griesemer and Michael Franz which
adds new functions (auto-indentation and cursor controlled indentation) to the
Oberon editor Edit.


  Display, Viewers, Texts, TextFrames, MenuViewers, Oberon;

  HT = 9X; LF = 0AX; CR = 0DX; Left = 01CX; Right = 01DX;
  Menu = "System.Close System.Copy System.Grow Edit.Store";

  EdTMsg = RECORD(Display.FrameMsg)  (* a type extension *)
              text: Texts.Text;
              beg, end: LONGINT;
              time: LONGINT
  W: Texts.Writer;

(* Procedures BegOfLine, Select, Move, Newline defined here... *)

PROCEDURE Handle(F: Display.Frame; VAR msg: Display.FrameMsg);
  WITH F: TextFrames.Frame DO
    IF msg IS Oberon.InputMsg THEN         (* a type test *)
      WITH msg: Oberon.InputMsg DO         (* a regional type guard *)
        IF msg.id = Oberon.consume THEN
          IF    msg.ch = Left  THEN Move(F,-1)
          ELSIF msg.ch = Right THEN Move(F, 1)
          ELSIF F.car > 0 THEN             (* caret set *)
            IF  msg.ch = LF THEN
                msg.ch = CR;
            ELSIF msg.ch = CR THEN Newline(F)
            ELSE  TextFrames.Handle(F,msg)
        ELSE TextFrames.Handle(F,msg)
    ELSIF msg IS EdTMsg THEN
      WITH msg: EdTMsg DO
        IF (F.text = msg.text) & (F.sel = 0) THEN
           TextFrames.SetSelection(F, msg.beg, msg.end);
           F.Time := msg.time
    ELSE TextFrames.Handle(F,msg)
END Handle;

VAR S: Texts.Scanner;
    T: Texts.Text;
    V: MenuViewers.Viewer;
    x,y: INTEGER;
    beg, end, time: LONGINT;
  Texts.OpenScanner(S, Oberon.Par.text, Oberon.Par.pos);
  IF (S.class = Texts.Char) & ( S.c = "^") OR (S.line # 0) THEN
    Oberon.GetSelection(T, beg, end, time);
    IF time > 0 THEN Texts.OpenScanner(S, T, beg);
                     Texts.Scan (S)
  IF S.class = Texts.Name THEN
    Oberon.AllocateUserViewer(Oberon.Mouse.X, x, y);
    V := MenuViewers.New(TextFrames.NewMenu(S.s, Menu),
                         TextFrames.NewText(TextFrames.Text(S.s), 0),
                         TextFrames.menuH, x, y);
    V.dsc.next.handle := Handle    (* assignment of a handler *)
END Open;

BEGIN  Texts.OpenWriter(W)         (* initialisation *)