A place to be (re)educated in Newspeak

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Everyone is talking about cloud computing these days; I should add some vapor to the mist.

I began thinking seriously about the topic a bit after April fools day 2004, when gmail was released. I started using gmail shortly therefater. After about 30 minutes, I was convinced that web clients had a long way to go.

It is true that gmail showed the world that you could do far more with javascript in a browser than I or most other people had realized.

Javascript and Ajax have come a long way since then. For an impressive demonstration of what’s possible, see the Lively Kernel, a realization of John Maloney’s Morphic GUI ideas of Self and Squeak, in Javascript. It only works in Safari 3.0 and some advanced Firefox builds, but that situation will improve in time.

Javascript’s performance remains an issue; this will also improve dramatically in the foreseeable future. However, with all the talk about computing in the cloud, I think some caveats are in order.

Many real applications will need to be used offline, and so will need to store state on the client. They are NOT going to be pure server side web applications. Google has finally acknowledged as much with the introduction of Google Gears. Microsoft’s LiveMesh naturally emphasizes this even more.

I say naturally, because Microsoft has an interest in the personal computer, while Google has an interest in taking us to an updated version of X terminals and 1960’s time sharing.
Of course, there are other technologies in this space, like Adobe Air. Macromedia (now part of Adobe) saw this coming earlier than most, going back to at least 2003 with its Central project.

With all these pieces in place, we may finally have the underlying elements necessary to build good applications delivered through the web browser.

Why has this taken so long? In theory, Java was supposed to deliver all this over ten years ago. Java started as a client technology, and applets were supposed to do exactly what advanced Ajax applications do today, only better.

Of course, the problem was that Java clients behaved very poorly; rather than fix the client technology, Sun captured the lucrative enterprise business. To understand why Sun behaved that way, why it had to behave that way, read The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Maybe I’ll expand on that theme in another post.

The result of Java’s failure on the client was that the entire vision of rich network-enabled client applications was put on hold for a decade. It is now once again coming to the fore, but there are other languages in that space now, Javascript chief among them.

I’m not advocating writing clients in Javascript directly. Javascript is the assembly language of the internet platform (and the browser is the OS). It’s flexible enough to support almost anything on top of it, and poorly structured enough that humans shouldn’t be writing sizable applications in it.

I am not in favor of the attempts to make Javascript 2 be another Java either. Javascript’s importance stems from the existing version’s position in the browser, and from its flexibility. It should be kept simple. Javascript's value increases the more uniformly it is implemented across browsers. A new, complex language will take a long time to reach that point.

People should program in a variety of languages that suit them, and have these compiled to Javascript and HTML (GWT is an example of that, though not one I really like). One shouldn't have to deal with the hodgepodge of Javascript and HTML (broadly defined to include XML, CSS etc.) that constitute web programming today.

I don’t expect native clients to go away any time soon though. They will provide a better experience than the browser in many ways for quite a long time. The advantage of writing in a clean, high level language and platform is that it can be compiled to run either on the “WebOS” or on a native OS.

What one wants to see in such a platform is the ability to take advantage of the network in a deep way - for software delivery and update and for data synchronization. Which brings me back to my theme of objects as software services (see the video), which I’ve been preaching publicly since 2005 ( see my OOPSLA 2005 presentation).

One should be able to write an application once, and deploy it both to the web browser and natively to any major platform. In all those scenarios, one should be able to update the software and data on the fly, run it on- and offl-ine and and monitor it over the network continuously. And all this needs to be done in a way that preserves user’s security. This last bit is still a big challenge.

The technology to do this is becoming available, even though everything takes much longer than one expects. The vision has its root in research in the 1980s, continued in the 1990s with Java (and others, now largely forgotten, like General Magic's Telescript) and will be probably be realized in the 2010s, per Alan Kay’s 30 year rule.