Wednesday, 29 September 2010

We Need More Language Choice in the Browser

If you're a server-side developer, you have an enormous amount of freedom. You can write your code in Java, C++ JavaScript, Groovy, Scala, Ruby, Python, php, C# and probably a thousand other languages; fundamentally a web server will run as a stand-alone programme on hardware, and so as long as there's a compiler (or a virtual machine in the case of managed code) for your hardware you are good to go. You may get more or less help from libraries and frameworks, but in the end you are reading a stream of data from a socket and writing a stream of data back, and it's an odd language that can't do that.

But the server side is dead. OK, that's a ridiculously massive exaggeration - being sensible, clients are getting thicker and consequently servers are getting thinner. And clients are getting thicker because of the increasing power of browsers and the understanding that it's a lot simpler to handle client state in the client than to manage it by passing it back and forth to the server in multiple requests. Ajax, Web 2.0, Web Sockets, HTML5 - increasingly the web is about delivering a thick client to the browser that then only does server-side communication when it actually needs to get data or persist data in a form that is non-local.

All of which is lovely, but it's moved us from a world of massive choice when creating business logic to a world of very little choice. Because browsers don't run machine code, they run JavaScript, JavaScript and only JavaScript (unless you want to lock yourself into Microsoft's cosy little ecosystem).

Now I'm not saying JavaScript/ECMAScript is a bad thing. I suspect some notable people think it is the Next Big Language. I'm sure you can write powerful, elegant and beautifully factored code in it.

However, the joy of languages that run outside the browser is that if you disagree with the way a language does things you can use a different one you prefer. You don't need to have religious wars about it, there doesn't need to be a One True Language To Rule Them All - you want to hack in Delphi, off you go and hack in Delphi. That was why Apple's decision to limit the languages in which you can develop for the iPhone was so wrong. (You want to be employed by someone else to write their code for them and you'll have to do it their way, but that's life as an employee.)

We don't have that freedom on the browser. The browser doesn't even read compiled code, it only reads source files. There are work-arounds, of course; you can use GWT or XMLVM or something similar to compile Java (or Groovy or Scala...) to JavaScript. But this is not first class support for another language; it's highly dependent on third party tools that may or may not see much support (the XMLVM JavaScript output is no longer under development).

What I would like is if browsers could interpret JVM bytecode, not in an obscure Japanese framework that seems to have died, but natively in the browser with the browser having the common runtime classes so they don't have to be provided in every case. Then we could at least use Java, Groovy, Scala, Jython, JRugby, Clojure and others to write our client side code. Of course that's still a very JVM centric view of the world; I'm not really sure how you could do this with languages like C and C++ that compile directly to machine code and expect to manage memory themselves, but you could certainly imagine doing it for the CLR byte code and so make all .net languages available (IE probably does this, for all I know).

There are challenges, of course; JavaScript as run in the browser is a single event listening thread which cannot do I/O, so the available libraries would be pretty limited and there would be a lot of standard runtime classes and packages unavailable, just as they are in GWT. But it would be good to be freed up again to allow developers to choose the language they prefer.

(Am I revealing my lack of knowledge of Applets here? I think of them as virtually stand-alone applications, rather than natively working with the browser events, XMLHttpResponses and the structure of the DOM, but I've never really used them in anger - I sort of assume that since GWT isn't applet based they don't give you what I'm talking about, but I guess it's possible that Google decided to go the GWT path to avoid needing the Java plugin on the browser...)

2 comments:

  1. Hiya!

    You can place your bet on Flash or silverlight perhaps?

    They seem to be pushing forward too. :)

    Regards,
    Droope

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  2. There are lot of languages but still of no use when it comes to browser. Hope that someone makes it possible to do this.

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