Just as for any other computer language, in order to properly program configure.ac in Autoconf you must understand what problem the language tries to address and how it does so.
The problem Autoconf addresses is that the world is a mess. After all, you are using Autoconf in order to have your package compile easily on all sorts of different systems, some of them being extremely hostile. Autoconf itself bears the price for these differences: configure must run on all those systems, and thus configure must limit itself to their lowest common denominator of features.
Naturally, you might then think of shell scripts; who needs autoconf? A set of properly written shell functions is enough to make it easy to write configure scripts by hand. Sigh! Unfortunately, even in 2008, where shells without any function support are far and few between, there are pitfalls to avoid when making use of them. Also, finding a Bourne shell that accepts shell functions is not trivial, even though there is almost always one on interesting porting targets.
So, what is really needed is some kind of compiler, autoconf, that takes an Autoconf program, configure.ac, and transforms it into a portable shell script, configure.
How does autoconf perform this task?
There are two obvious possibilities: creating a brand new language or
extending an existing one. The former option is attractive: all
sorts of optimizations could easily be implemented in the compiler and
many rigorous checks could be performed on the Autoconf program
(e.g., rejecting any non-portable construct). Alternatively, you can
extend an existing language, such as the
sh (Bourne shell)
Autoconf does the latter: it is a layer on top of
sh. It was
therefore most convenient to implement autoconf as a macro
expander: a program that repeatedly performs macro expansions on
text input, replacing macro calls with macro bodies and producing a pure
sh script in the end. Instead of implementing a dedicated
Autoconf macro expander, it is natural to use an existing
general-purpose macro language, such as M4, and implement the extensions
as a set of M4 macros.