Thursday, March 29, 2007

Java VM Puts Shackles On Development Tools

I love showing off Smalltalk. It never ceases to impress people with what you can do with it. One thing java developers find strange is no pauses in your work flow. What do I mean by that? Smalltalk compiles on the fly and immediately links in the new code. The time to compile one little piece is almost instantaneous to us. But, to developers not used to this environment, it feels weird. The Smalltalk IDE image comes up immediately (pick any Smalltalk and it's the same story). Strange, it takes a few minutes to even start up Eclipse. Smalltalk just feels like magic and we've been taught to mistrust magic.

But, this post is not about how foreign Smalltalk is to java developers, but how still in 2007 with dynamic languages finally getting recognition that few people are screaming for the capabilities of a Smalltalk VM. The productivity of Smalltalk owes not only to its dynamic nature, but to its always running and lively IDE. It's a living environment. Objects are alive and not dead. Why are there not other environments that do this? (OK, Lispers, I didn't forget about you...anyone else?) And why aren't these environments in the newer dynamic languages (Ruby, Python, Groovy, etc)? Have the shackles of the java runtime environment ruined us?

Or maybe the problem is just that we are always thinking of runtime and not development time. Java places a lot of barriers in the way of developers in the name of security. Why not have a specific VM purely for development? One that could dynamically load classes and code. One that could take snapshots of the running system and save the state for later. One that could compile incrementally and keep all of the bookeeping in order so that our tools stay snappy. One can dream.

Now, for Ruby and Python, there is no excuse. They have their own VM and why don't they support IDEs to implemented in themselves? Java, Groovy, and Scala have the excuse of the java VM. One of my hopes for Ruby was a Smalltalk-like IDE, but sadly, I don't think it will ever happen. The first step would be not to throw away the source code when they compile.

The thing that makes Smalltalk IDEs so cool is that they are alive. The VM supports object mutability and snapshotting state. The whole IDE is written in Smalltalk and is part of the live development system. You don't have to restart anything to try something out or shut down the everything to run a new tool. It morphs into what you want and let's you do what you want. No shackles.

This is what I want from the new generation of dynamic languages. I wonder how hard it would be to have a development java VM. Hmmm....

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