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21.2 Exodus

As I got feedback from users, I incorporated many improvements, using Emacs to search and replace, cut and paste, similar changes in each of the scripts. As I adapted more GNU utilities packages to use configure scripts, updating them all by hand became impractical. Rich Murphey, the maintainer of the GNU graphics utilities, sent me mail saying that the configure scripts were great, and asking if I had a tool for generating them that I could send him. No, I thought, but I should! So I started to work out how to generate them. And the journey from the slavery of hand-written configure scripts to the abundance and ease of Autoconf began.

Cygnus configure, which was being developed at around that time, is table driven; it is meant to deal mainly with a discrete number of system types with a small number of mainly unguessable features (such as details of the object file format). The automatic configuration system that Brian Fox had developed for Bash takes a similar approach. For general use, it seems to me a hopeless cause to try to maintain an up-to-date database of which features each variant of each operating system has. It's easier and more reliable to check for most features on the fly—especially on hybrid systems that people have hacked on locally or that have patches from vendors installed.

I considered using an architecture similar to that of Cygnus configure, where there is a single configure script that reads pieces of when run. But I didn't want to have to distribute all of the feature tests with every package, so I settled on having a different configure made from each by a preprocessor. That approach also offered more control and flexibility.

I looked briefly into using the Metaconfig package, by Larry Wall, Harlan Stenn, and Raphael Manfredi, but I decided not to for several reasons. The Configure scripts it produces are interactive, which I find quite inconvenient; I didn't like the ways it checked for some features (such as library functions); I didn't know that it was still being maintained, and the Configure scripts I had seen didn't work on many modern systems (such as System V R4 and NeXT); it wasn't flexible in what it could do in response to a feature's presence or absence; I found it confusing to learn; and it was too big and complex for my needs (I didn't realize then how much Autoconf would eventually have to grow).

I considered using Perl to generate my style of configure scripts, but decided that M4 was better suited to the job of simple textual substitutions: it gets in the way less, because output is implicit. Plus, everyone already has it. (Initially I didn't rely on the GNU extensions to M4.) Also, some of my friends at the University of Maryland had recently been putting M4 front ends on several programs, including tvtwm, and I was interested in trying out a new language.