Thin Air

STS 2004: Getting Away With Smalltalk

Well, Smalltalk Solutions is over, and after several days on the road, I'm finally home. Blogging from the conference turned out to be a non-starter, as I ended up using my spare moments to redo my presentation slides. So I've got a backlog of posts to catch up on. Up-to-the-minute reporting wasn't my intent anyway - James Robertson and Michael Lucas-Smith did a fine job of that. Instead, I want to share what I learned at StS.

Avi's keynote introduced what turned out to be a key theme of the conference: there are certain areas of the software industry where you can get away with using non-mainstream languages, and these are opportunities to use the productivity we gain from Smalltalk to competitive advantage. Avi's focus is web applications, and his talk walked through their evolution from CGI to the use of sessions, components and ultimately, continuations. With each step, the application design becomes more sophisticated, with more powerful object-oriented abstractions. In the end, we have Seaside - Avi's Smalltalk framework for web apps.

At one point, Avi quoted Cees de Groot:

Seaside is to most other Smalltalk web toolkits as Smalltalk is to most
other OO languages; it's as simple as that.

That quote captures the gut-feeling reaction I have to Seaside. It's good in the same way that Smalltalk is good. It's the way things should be, but rarely are.

And Seaside is an especially attractive application of that Smalltalk goodness, because it's one of those where you can get away with using it. Nobody cares what's running on your server, and most of the time they can't even tell. What they do care about is the usability and functionality of your application, and your ability to tune it in response to their needs. And that's were Smalltalk is a competitive advantage.

That theme was picked up by Lars Bak in his keynote on Resilient, and in fact just about all of the talks about Smalltalk for embedded and mobile systems. The Resilient VM fits into 32K of memory, and can run an application in 128K. It can be remotely debugged or dynamically updated without interrupting the functioning of the system. Try doing that in Java or C, which are the mainstream languages for these tiny systems.

Web applications and embedded systems are quite different beasts, but they do have two things in common: First, they both execute in a controlled environment, communicating with the world through standard protocols. Second, the business environment in which they are deployed is extremely competitive. The business value they provide and the ability to adapt to changing business conditions is more important than conforming to industry norms. I wonder where else we might find these conditions...

Posted in community