About Python 3

Python community, friends, fellow developers, we need to talk. On December 3rd, 2008 Python 3.0 was first released. At the time it was widely said that Python 3 adoption was going to be a long process, it was referred to as a five year process. We’ve just passed the five year mark.

At the time of Python 3’s release, and for years afterwards I was very excited about it, evangelizing it, porting my projects to it, for the past year or two every new projects I’ve started has had Python 3 support from the get go.

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been reconsidering this position, and excitement has given way to despair.

For the first few years of the Python 3 migration, the common wisdom was that a few open source projects would need to migrate, and then the flood gates would open. In the Django world, that meant we needed a WSGI specification, we needed database drivers to migrate, and then we could migrate, and then our users could migrate.

By now, all that has happened, Django (and much of the app ecosystem) now supports Python 3, NumPy and the scientific ecosystem supports Python 3, several new releases of Python itself have been released, and users still aren’t using it.

Looking at download statistics for the Python Package Index, we can see that Python 3 represents under 2% of package downloads. Worse still, almost no code is written for Python 3. As I said all of my new code supports Python 3, but I run it locally with Python 2, I test it locally with Python 2; Travis CI runs it under Python 3 for me; certainly none of my code is Python 3 only. At companies with large Python code bases I talk to no one is writing Python 3 code, and basically none of them are thinking about migrating their codebases to Python 3.

Since the time of the Python 3.1 it’s been regularly said that the new features and additions the standard library would act as carrots to motivate people to upgrade. Don’t get me wrong, Python 3.3 has some really cool stuff in it. But 99% of everybody can’t actually use it, so when we tell them “that’s better in Python 3”, we’re really telling them “Fuck You”, because nothing is getting fixed for them.

Beyond all of this, it has a nasty pernicious effect on the development of Python itself: it means there’s no feedback cycle. The fact that Python 3 is being used exclusively by very early adopters means that what little feedback happens on new features comes from users who may not be totally representative of the broader community. And as we get farther and farther in the 3.X series it gets worse and worse. Now we’re building features on top of other features and at no level have they been subjected to actual wide usage.

Why aren’t people using Python 3?

First, I think it’s because of a lack of urgency. Many years ago, before I knew how to program, the decision to have Python 3 releases live in parallel to Python 2 releases was made. In retrospect this was a mistake, it resulted in a complete lack of urgency for the community to move, and the lack of urgency has given way to lethargy.

Second, I think there’s been little uptake because Python 3 is fundamentally unexciting. It doesn’t have the super big ticket items people want, such as removal of the GIL or better performance (for which many are using PyPy). Instead it has many new libraries (whose need is largely filled by pip install), and small cleanups which many experienced Python developers just avoid by habit at this point. Certainly nothing that would make one stop their development for any length of time to upgrade, not when Python 2 seems like it’s going to be here for a while.

So where does this leave us?

Not a happy place. First and foremost I think a lot of us need to be more realistic about the state of Python 3. Particularly the fact that for the last few years, for the average developer Python, the language, has not gotten better.

The divergent paths of Python 2 and Python 3 have been bad for our community. We need to bring them back together.

Here’s an idea: let’s release a Python 2.8 which backports every new feature from Python 3. It will also deprecate anything which can’t be changed in a backwards compatible fashion, for example str + unicode will emit a warning, as will any file which doesn’t have from __future__ import unicode_literals. Users need to be able to follow a continuous process for their upgrades, Python 3 broke it, let’s fix it.

That’s my only idea. We need more ideas. We need to bridge this gap, because with every Python 3 release, it grows wider.

Thanks to Maciej Fijalkowski and several others for their reviews, it goes without saying that all remaining errors are my own.