Why Smalltalk instead of Ruby

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Why Smalltalk instead of Ruby

Hello, it’s Andrzej Krzywda from Arkency here. Today we have a special guest post from Richard Eng, the man who is behind the Smalltalk Renaissance.

I’ve been fascinated with Smalltalk since my University. In a way, my Ruby code is Smalltalk-infected all the time. Many of the great things in programming come from Smalltalk, like MVC, IDE, refactoring.

Smalltalk has its history, but it’s also still in use in huge, production systems. As Ruby developers we often look at the new, shiny languages. Maybe we can also look at something less new? Maybe we can get inspired with Smalltalk?

I’ll leave you with Richard and his strong arguments for Smalltalk, enjoy! :)

Ruby is a popular language, largely because of Rails. Ruby borrows OOP from Smalltalk, but otherwise is a very much different language. I’m going to argue that Smalltalk is still technically a better choice than Ruby.

Ruby appeals to programmers because of its clean, simpler syntax. However, Smalltalk is the ultimate in clean, simple, and minimalist. Its syntax can be summarized on a postcard! It has three principal features: objects, lambdas (closures), and reflection. The language is exceptionally easy to understand. Ruby, not so much.

That’s why I always recommend Smalltalk to beginners. It was designed for teaching programming to children. Alan Kay et al. had the right idea.

Despite its simplicity, Smalltalk loses nothing in terms of programming power. It was used by the U.S. joint military to write a million-line battle simulation program called JWARS (which incidentally outperformed a similar simulation called STORM written in C++ by the U.S. Air Force). Smalltalk is powerful enough that it has served the commercial industry for over three decades!

Powerful languages do not need all kinds of special features, which is the kind of thinking that went into C++, Scala, Rust, Swift, and yes, Python and Ruby, too. This is why I’m also a fan of Scheme, Forth, and Go…small, simple, minimalist.

Smalltalk is synonymous with its “live coding and debugging” IDE, which is the main reason for its incredible productivity. Twice as productive as Ruby. More than three times as productive as JavaScript!

Smalltalk’s “image” persistence is also a huge timesaver: you can save the entire execution state of an application and resume execution at a later time. This is awfully convenient for maintaining the continuity of your workflow.

Smalltalk has a fabulous facility for Domain-Specific Languages. It’s easier and more pleasant than Lisp macros or Ruby’s approach.

Compared to Smalltalk, Ruby’s handling of blocks is also a bit wonky. Citing Lambda the Ultimate:

In Smalltalk, there is easy syntax for constructing a closure and passing it as an ordinary argument and picking up that argument with an ordinary parameter and then for invoking the closure and/or passing it on. Ruby, semantically, has the same capabilities for constructing, passing, and using closures. However, Ruby uses oddball syntax for these things, for no benefit that I can discern. There is a specially distinguished argument position available in a call, specifically for passing a closure. If you are going to construct a closure in that position, the syntax is simple. But the closure in its simplest syntax is not an expression. It only goes in that special position in the syntax, or has to have a word put in front of it, “lambda”, to be turned into an expression that could be put in an ordinary argument position or any other expression context (e. g., right side of assignment). If a method is expecting to receive a block as an argument, the designer has to choose between having it take the block as an ordinary argument or as the special block argument (either can be chosen, in the monomorphic case). And if the method needs to take two blocks, at least one of them has to be passed as an ordinary argument, so the decision has to be made whether to pass one as the special argument and if so, which one. Conversion in both directions is available in all contexts where it makes sense, between the special argument or parameter and an ordinary expression. I think this exceptionalism in Ruby’s syntax imposes significant extra conceptual load to understanding the syntax. Smalltalk’s treatment of blocks is plenty economical, whether they are being passed as arguments right at the point of construction or not.

I guess I can see why this exceptionalism arose; it avoids having the closing parenthesis of the argument list coming right after the end of a block, which I can see would look ugly. But, so much twisting and turning and squirming for a tiny increment of beauty.

No programming language is perfect, of course. Of all the complaints I’ve ever heard about Smalltalk, only a small handful are even remotely valid, in my opinion. Most are based on ignorance.

Ruby is mostly famous for its Rails framework. Smalltalk has its own “Rails,” too. It’s called Seaside (aka the “Heretic Web Framework”). Seaside is based on reusable, stateful components. The key feature that supports this is called a continuation. A continuation is a snapshot of a program’s current control state. It allows you to “jump” to another execution and when you return, the current state is restored. This provides a conventional “call/return” mechanism for your web application. It can help resolve issues such as the double request and back button problems.

If you’ve never used Seaside, I urge you to try it. You just might find a real gem of a web framework (ahem).

Ruby and Python are often hailed as great solutions for startups. I argue that Smalltalk is just as good if not better. For rapid prototyping, Smalltalk is unmatched; using Smalltalk is a Zen-like experience. I hear that a lot from Smalltalkers.

All of the above wouldn’t be possible if Smalltalk wasn’t a nice, simple language, IDE, and runtime all rolled into one and tightly coupled.

Bret Victor in his wonderful talk, “The Future of Programming,” points to Smalltalk as a harbinger of how software creation will evolve four decades in the future (from 1973):

Why are we still using file-based tools??? Are we Neanderthals?

To be sure, Smalltalk isn’t as popular as Ruby. This is the reason for my Smalltalk evangelism. However, popularity should not blind you to other possibilities, to other better ways to write software.

Read my seminal article on Smalltalk (which has been viewed by over 25,000 people around the world!): How learning Smalltalk can make you a better developer.

You can make software creation easier, more productive, less stressful. You can remake the future of software engineering. The remedy to the malaise of today’s antediluvian style of programming using loosely-integrated, file-based tools is very, very simple: give Smalltalk a chance.

Richard Eng

Mr. Smalltalk: https://medium.com/p/domo-arigato-mr-smalltalk-aa84e245beb9

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