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Smalltalk Gets Developers Talking

Interest in decades-old programming language grows as developers use it for Web applications

There's more talk about Smalltalk these days, as the object-oriented programming language gains something of a developer following for Web applications. The notion of Web services, where one discrete piece of software talks to another without knowing very much about the other system, was a concept that originated in Smalltalk, say implementers of these new apps.

Some experts point out that Java, C++, and Microsoft's C# are evolving in a direction set over 30 years ago by Smalltalk, yet rarely do proponents of these languages acknowledge their debt. Such oversight only reinforces the undying loyalty that some developers feel toward the language. "I will quit coding in Smalltalk when they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers," says Karen Hope, chief architect of an online Smalltalk insurance-quote application at the St. Paul Companies Inc.

The application, called Business Foundation System, maintains and makes changes to 500,000 policies covering many different kinds of property. The system's pattern of generating a service by sending a message to a software module fits with what needs to be done over the Web, Hope says.

Smalltalk is "by far the best programming language available for Web and enterprise development," says Allen Davis, the new executive director of the Smalltalk Industry Council and CEO of Smalltalk vendor Knowledge Systems Corp. When it was first conceived by Alan Kay and his team at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Smalltalk was regarded as a resource hog. But as systems grew in processing power, Smalltalk began to come into its own. As part of its effort to revitalize the language, the council is organizing its first Smalltalk Solutions Conference, July 14 to 16, in Toronto.

Some other developments are in Smalltalk's favor. IBM includes Smalltalk in its VisualAge integrated development environment. And Cincom Systems Inc., which acquired a Smalltalk toolset from ParcPlace, has lowered prices for getting started from $3,500 to a free download for developer try-out and $500 a year for one developer's deployment of Smalltalk applications to one or two users.

Hard figures are tough to come by, but Charles Monteiro, chairman of the Smalltalk User Group in New York, says he watched his group's membership decline as Java gained ground in the late 1990s.

Meeting attendance dropped from 50 to five or six devoted Smalltalk developers, Monteiro says. It has since grown back toward the 50-attendee level, and a newly started mailing list has about 100 people signed up, with more added weekly, he says.

Programmers recognize that the concepts they're struggling with in Java, C, or C++ are laid out simply and straightforwardly in Smalltalk.

Today, one of the most widely adopted approaches to building user interfaces for Java applications, Jakarta Struts, is based on the model-view-controller pattern of the Smalltalk user interface, says Chuck Cavaness, a Java programmer and author of Programming Jakarta Struts (O'Reilly & Associates, 2002). By breaking the user interface down into three distinct parts, Smalltalk made it possible to develop an application once, then gear it to different user devices by changing components of the user interface.

"Other technology gets a lot of hype," says Diana Merry-Shapiro, a member of the original Smalltalk development team at Xerox PARC, referring to Java and the latest Microsoft .Net-enabled languages. "But it's not as good as what was already there." Many members of the Smalltalk team have gone on to other things, but Merry-Shapiro still works with the language as a Smalltalk programmer at Suite LLC, a financial software consultancy to J.P. Morgan. Asked if she's been using Smalltalk as long as anyone else, she replies, "Longer."

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