What’s new in GNU make 4.2?

In May 2016 the GNU make team released GNU make 4.2. I’m pleased to see another release, though I find myself underwhelmed by both the timeline and the content of this release. When 4.1 came out just one year after 4.0 I hoped it was a sign that the GNU make project was switching to a more frequent and regular release cycle, as many software projects have done in the last several years. Although it can be a difficult adjustment this release cadence can have significant benefits like improving user engagement and reducing risk. But with the 4.2 release arriving nineteen long months after 4.1 it seems that GNU make has failed to make the transition.

Of course infrequent releases are not necessarily a problem, as long as the releases contain compelling new functionality. Unfortunately the new features in GNU make 4.2 are charitably described as “uninspiring” — though I’m sure each enhancement will be handy for the corner case it was designed to address. Of course GNU make is a mature project by any definition, and frankly it does what it does pretty well and has for a very long time — maybe it’s just “done”. But consider this: the past few years has seen something of an explosion in the build tool space, with several new build tools cropping up. Each of the following alternative build tools has had multiple releases in the last year, and each has innovative features that could be adopted by GNU make:

  • gradle, the default build tool for Android apps. Monthly releases. Reports and notifications.
  • bazel, the open-source version of Google’s internal build system. Ten releases already in 2016. Checksum-based up-to-date checks and minimization of test suite executions.
  • ninja, a make-like build tool. Two releases in the last twelve months. Resource pools and unbelievably fast parsing / low overhead.

So, what does GNU make 4.2 have to offer? Read on to see, and let me know in the comments if you disagree with my analysis.


GNU make has had the $(shell) function for many years. This provides a mechanism by which you can get the result (stdout) of an arbitrary command into a make variable, where you can do whatever you like with it. One curious thing about $(shell) is that it doesn’t care at all whether the command you execute succeeds or not, so if you try to read a non-existent file, for example, with $(shell cat missing.txt), GNU make will simply return an empty string as the result of the shell invocation. In some cases you may want to actually check the exit status of that command, and in GNU make 4.2 you now can, by checking the value of .SHELLSTATUS, a new built-in variable that is automatically set to the exit code of the most recent $(shell) (or != assignment). Here’s a contrived example:

FOO := $(shell exit 1)
ifneq ($(.SHELLSTATUS),0)
$(error shell command failed!)
all: ; @echo done

As you can see, it’s now possible to make your makefile react in whatever manner you deem appropriate when a shell invocation fails. Be advised, however: if you find yourself doing this, it may be an indication that your makefile is poorly written — almost every use of $(shell) is better handled by creating an actual rule to do whatever you were going to do with $(shell).

Read files with $(file)

The $(file) function was added to GNU make in the 4.0 release, in order to enable the creation of files directly from make — quite handy for those cases in which the content you want to write is so long it exceeds command-line length limits on your system. In 4.2 the $(file) function was extended so that you can use it to read files in addition to writing files. For example, SRCS := $(file <sourcelist.txt) would capture the content of the file sourcelist.txt in the variable SRCS, less the final newline in the file, if any (that last bit is for consistency with the $(shell) function).

Improved error reporting

GNU make 4.2 includes a small but very useful improvement in error reporting: previously when make encountered an error while executing a recipe, it would report only the name of the target being built, such as make: *** [all] Error 1. Starting with 4.2, this error message includes the makefile and line number of the specific command that produced the error: make: *** [Makefile:6: all] Error 1. This should make it much easier to debug large, complex builds — especially anything that uses double-colon rules to composite functionality from many fragments in distinct makefiles.

Bug fixes

In addition to the modest enhancements described above, the 4.2 release includes about three dozen other bug fixes. A glance at the resolution dates on those reveals that sometimes months passed with no updates. This makes me wonder why they didn’t cut a release at those points, even if it were just for bug fixes. My guess is that the project is trapped, in a sense: because the interval between releases is so long there’s a sense that each release has to be “perfect”, and because there’s an attempt to ensure each release is “perfect”, the interval between releases must be very long. Contrast this with a more agile approach, which can tolerate imperfect releases because the next release is just around the corner anyway. Combined with an ever expanding automated regression test suite it’s possible to gradually increase the bar for release quality, such that in fact the likelihood of a bad release goes down when compared with a project that has a long release cycle and is dependent on mostly manual testing.

GNU make isn’t going to go away any time soon, but I think the writing is on the wall: if it doesn’t start innovating again, developers will inevitably migrate to other build tools that do.

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