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1.1. Characteristics of C

C is a general-purpose, procedural programming language. Dennis Ritchie first devised C in the 1970s at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, for the purpose of implementing the Unix operating system and utilities with the greatest possible degree of independence from specific hardware platforms. The key characteristics of the C language are the qualities that made it suitable for that purpose:

  • Source code portability

  • The ability to operate "close to the machine"

  • Efficiency

As a result, the developers of Unix were able to write most of the operating system in C, leaving only a minimum of system-specific hardware manipulation to be coded in assembler.

C's ancestors are the typeless programming languages BCPL (the Basic Combined Programming Language), developed by Martin Richards; and B, a descendant of BCPL, developed by Ken Thompson. A new feature of C was its variety of data types : characters, numeric types, arrays, structures, and so on. Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie published an official description of the C programming language in 1978. As the first de facto standard, their description is commonly referred to simply as "K&R."[*] C owes its high degree of portability to a compact core language that contains few hardware-dependent elements. For example, the C language proper has no file access or dynamic memory management statements . In fact, there aren't even any statements for console input and output. Instead, the extensive standard C library provides the functions for all of these purposes.

[*] The second edition, revised to reflect the first ANSI C standard, is available as The C Programming Language, 2nd ed., by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988).

This language design makes the C compiler relatively compact and easy to port to new systems. Furthermore, once the compiler is running on a new system, you can compile most of the functions in the standard library with no further modification, because they are in turn written in portable C. As a result, C compilers are available for practically every computer system.

Because C was expressly designed for system programming, it is hardly surprising that one of its major uses today is in programming embedded systems. At the same time, however, many developers use C as a portable, structured high-level language to write programs such as powerful word processor, database, and graphics applications.

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