Python is one of those rare languages which can claim to be both simple and powerful. You will find yourself pleasantly surprised to see how easy it is to concentrate on the solution to the problem rather than the syntax and structure of the language you are programming in.
The official introduction to Python is:
Python is an easy to learn, powerful programming language. It has efficient high-level data structures and a simple but effective approach to object-oriented programming. Python's elegant syntax and dynamic typing, together with its interpreted nature, make it an ideal language for scripting and rapid application development in many areas on most platforms.
I will discuss most of these features in more detail in the next section.
Story behind the name
Guido van Rossum, the creator of the Python language, named the language after the BBC show "Monty Python's Flying Circus". He doesn't particularly like snakes that kill animals for food by winding their long bodies around them and crushing them.
Features of Python
Python is a simple and minimalistic language. Reading a good Python program feels almost like reading English, although very strict English! This pseudo-code nature of Python is one of its greatest strengths. It allows you to concentrate on the solution to the problem rather than the language itself.
Easy to Learn
As you will see, Python is extremely easy to get started with. Python has an extraordinarily simple syntax, as already mentioned.
Free and Open Source
Python is an example of a FLOSS (Free/Libré and Open Source Software). In simple terms, you can freely distribute copies of this software, read its source code, make changes to it, and use pieces of it in new free programs. FLOSS is based on the concept of a community which shares knowledge. This is one of the reasons why Python is so good - it has been created and is constantly improved by a community who just want to see a better Python.
When you write programs in Python, you never need to bother about the low-level details such as managing the memory used by your program, etc.
Due to its open-source nature, Python has been ported to (i.e. changed to make it work on) many platforms. All your Python programs can work on any of these platforms without requiring any changes at all if you are careful enough to avoid any system-dependent features.
You can use Python on GNU/Linux, Windows, FreeBSD, Macintosh, Solaris, OS/2, Amiga, AROS, AS/400, BeOS, OS/390, z/OS, Palm OS, QNX, VMS, Psion, Acorn RISC OS, VxWorks, PlayStation, Sharp Zaurus, Windows CE and PocketPC!
You can even use a platform like Kivy to create games for your computer and for iPhone, iPad, and Android.
This requires a bit of explanation.
A program written in a compiled language like C or C++ is converted from the source language i.e. C or C++ into a language that is spoken by your computer (binary code i.e. 0s and 1s) using a compiler with various flags and options. When you run the program, the linker/loader software copies the program from hard disk to memory and starts running it.
Python, on the other hand, does not need compilation to binary. You just run the program directly from the source code. Internally, Python converts the source code into an intermediate form called bytecodes and then translates this into the native language of your computer and then runs it. All this, actually, makes using Python much easier since you don't have to worry about compiling the program, making sure that the proper libraries are linked and loaded, etc. This also makes your Python programs much more portable, since you can just copy your Python program onto another computer and it just works!
Python supports procedure-oriented programming as well as object-oriented programming. In procedure-oriented languages, the program is built around procedures or functions which are nothing but reusable pieces of programs. In object-oriented languages, the program is built around objects which combine data and functionality. Python has a very powerful but simplistic way of doing OOP, especially when compared to big languages like C++ or Java.
If you need a critical piece of code to run very fast or want to have some piece of algorithm not to be open, you can code that part of your program in C or C++ and then use it from your Python program.
You can embed Python within your C/C++ programs to give scripting capabilities for your program's users.
The Python Standard Library is huge indeed. It can help you do various things involving regular expressions,documentation generation, unit testing, threading, databases, web browsers, CGI, FTP, email, XML, XML-RPC, HTML, WAV files, cryptography, GUI (graphical user interfaces), and other system-dependent stuff. Remember, all this is always available wherever Python is installed. This is called the Batteries Included philosophy of Python.
Besides the standard library, there are various other high-quality libraries which you can find at the Python Package Index.
Python is indeed an exciting and powerful language. It has the right combination of performance and features that make writing programs in Python both fun and easy.
Python 3 versus 2
You can ignore this section if you're not interested in the difference between "Python version 2" and "Python version 3". But please do be aware of which version you are using. This book is written for Python version 3.
Remember that once you have properly understood and learn to use one version, you can easily learn the differences and use the other one. The hard part is learning programming and understanding the basics of Python language itself. That is our goal in this book, and once you have achieved that goal, you can easily use Python 2 or Python 3 depending on your situation.
For details on differences between Python 2 and Python 3, see:
What Programmers Say
You may find it interesting to read what great hackers like ESR have to say about Python:
Eric S. Raymond is the author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and is also the person who coined the term Open Source. He says that Python has become his favorite programming language. This article was the real inspiration for my first brush with Python.
Bruce Eckel is the author of the famous 'Thinking in Java' and 'Thinking in C++' books. He says that no language has made him more productive than Python. He says that Python is perhaps the only language that focuses on making things easier for the programmer. Read the complete interview for more details.
Peter Norvig is a well-known Lisp author and Director of Search Quality at Google (thanks to Guido van Rossum for pointing that out). He says that writing Python is like writing in pseudocode. He says that Python has always been an integral part of Google. You can actually verify this statement by looking at the Google Jobs page which lists Python knowledge as a requirement for software engineers.