How is Smalltalk’s revival like the e-car’s revival?

It’s not a riddle. I’ll give you the answer.

There are several interesting parallels between the evolution of the electric car and the evolution of Smalltalk. Let’s look at e-cars first.

E-cars were pioneered in the 1830s. By 1900, they had reached their peak of popularity with a third of all cars manufactured in the United States being electric.

By 1920, the maturity and popularity of the internal combustion engine had made e-cars no longer viable. So e-cars faded away.

By the 1960s, however, rising gas prices and concerns over pollution caused people to re-examine the electric car. But it would be another three decades before the Toyota Prius made electric viable again, if only in the form of hybrids.

The big breakthrough for true e-cars came in 2006 with Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster. Everybody wanted one.

And today, Tesla remains the e-car that everybody wants.

Now, let’s look at Smalltalk. Smalltalk was pioneered in the 1970s. (The first official language release was Smalltalk-80 in 1980.)

Smalltalk had reached its peak of popularity in the early 1990s when it became the second most popular object-oriented language in the world (C++ was #1). Even IBM chose it as the centrepiece of their VisualAge enterprise initiative.

By 1995, that began to change. Sun Microsystems’ Java language burst onto the scene and sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Smalltalk was among the casualties.

By 2007, however, a modern variant of Smalltalk known as Pharo was birthed. It arrived at the right time because the world was suffering from low programmer productivity and a backlog of software applications begging to be written. The world was also suffering from a plethora of overly complex programming languages like C++, Java, C#, D, Groovy, and Scala. This group would be later joined by JavaScript, Kotlin, Rust, Swift, and TypeScript.

People are clamouring for fresh air. They want simpler languages. That’s one reason for the resurgence of Python (though calling Python a “simple” language is rather dubious).

It’s also why Golang took off, and why Dart, Elixir, Lua, and Nim are beloved.

Today, Pharo is a very exciting language. It has been innovating by leaps and bounds over the past decade. One of the most notable developments is the Glamorous Toolkit.

But Smalltalk is a family of languages, so we should also give a shout out to other great Smalltalk flavours such as GemStone/S from GemTalk Systems, VA Smalltalk from Instantiations, and VisualWorks from Cincom. Not to be overlooked are Amber (transpiles to JS), Cuis Smalltalk, Dolphin Smalltalk (optimized for Windows), GNU Smalltalk (for command line lovers), Hoot Smalltalk (JVM support), and Squeak.

Pharo is also extremely versatile which is well-explained in this article, “Smalltalk: It’s Not Your Grandparent’s Programming Language.”

Let me close by pointing out another interesting parallel. In the early years of the e-car, there were technical obstacles that limited its popularity. E-cars had a very limited range. They couldn’t compete with low-cost gas. They had limited horsepower.

In the early years of Smalltalk, it required expensive hardware to run on (processor and memory). It needed high-resolution graphical displays. It couldn’t compete with C/C++ and FORTRAN and BASIC and Pascal.

Today, both are experiencing a revival. E-cars are more economical than ever. Smalltalk can run on devices as small as the Raspberry Pi, and run well!

The epitome of the e-car is Tesla. It is the most aspirational electric car in the world.

The epitome of programming languages for productivity and ease of use is Pharo/Smalltalk. It, too, is aspirational. Is there a programmer alive who doesn’t want to write their applications quickly and easily, like in half the time? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to work harder than I have to.

(Previously published at gitconnected.)

Published by smalltalkrenaissance

A non-profit advocacy organization whose mission is to promote and popularize Smalltalk.

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