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Smalltalk: Requiem or Resurgence?

Another major reason is surely that Smalltalk has never had a large industry backer to provide the marketing might required to bring the language to the mainstream. Sun sure knew how to reach out: by engaging big-name vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Netscape, and BEA to implement their specifications; by giving developers access to a general-purpose language for executing programs in a web page; by providing a familiar syntax for C++ developers to get their feet wet with easy call-by-reference, garbage collection, platform independence, socket programming; and by marketing, marketing, marketing. Java has enjoyed a gargantuan marketing effort headed up by Sun, who positioned itself as a leader in open-source development (or if not open source, at least "free"). They were the mighty mouse in opposition to evil Redmond empire, and they were fairly successful at it. A huge number of third-party libraries, middleware products, and frameworks sprung up from the mainstream as a result. Ironically, it's precisely this mainstream bloat that makes Java development today so cumbersome.

Smalltalk has never had such a partner. It looked like IBM might provide the required muscle when they purchased Object Technologies Incorporated, a company who had developed the industry-leading Envy Smalltalk suite of tools. IBM still supports Visual Age today, but they haven't exactly been the rabid envangelists that Sun is for Java. Perhaps they realize that they can make just as much money implementing Java middleware on AIX or Linux as they can with Smalltalk middleware.

At the Heeg talk, a rep from Cincom systems (purveyors of the VisualWorks Smalltalk suite of tools) pointed out that the community will see a much bigger marketing push from Cincom for the Smalltalk Solutions conference next year. I think the conference organizers have made a great move by aligning themselves with Linux World conference. The Smalltalk community needs to attract outsiders and start talking about how they can work together. The Open Source/Community Development/Linux communities worldwide are teeming with energy; becoming a part of one or more standard Linux distributions (I hear Ubuntu is already participating) will definitely increase penetration.

Other bandwagons that might provide some sheen — "Simplifed Web Development"? AJAX? RIA? All are hot today. At the conference, I learned of a community who is building a Web application framework called "Seaside" for Squeak (an open source implementation of Smalltalk) at the conference. As we speak, they are feverishly implementing support for Scriptaculous — an open-source library which promises to help developers implement dynamic user interfaces using AJAX and DHTML. This is the kind of outreach the community needs to overcome their own "craggy aloofness". The major Smalltalk vendors might do well to host a Smalltalk development competition. Add a few iPods and Playstations to the mix and I might even enter. Perhaps they might throw their hats into the "Pet Store" wars and show just how consistent, elegant, and nimble they can be in comparison to their competition. I'll know they've succeeded when my clients start asking "So I've been hearing that Smalltalk might be an option as a development language for us. Do you know anything about it?" I'll have a lot to say to them at that point.

Jeremy Chan is a Principal Consultant at the Jonah Group and a Technical Architect with over 10 years of experience in object-oriented software engineering.

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