Tech Giants Woo Developers Seeking JavaScript Turf

It's been a pretty busy fall and winter in software tools.

In early December, Google hosted its Google Web Toolkit conference. Probably not coincidentally that same week, Microsoft took the wraps off its nascent Volta toolset.

Both products allow developers to use their existing expertise in Java (GWT) or in .NET-supported languages (Volta) to write applications that will run on any device supporting JavaScript.

And thus the battle for developers' hearts and minds continues along the Java vs. .Net front.

"Microsoft has saturated the enterprise market with Visual Studio and the other part of that market is owned by Eclipse," says Dave Thomas, founder and chairman of Bedarra Research Labs, a long-time programming expert. He is taking a look at Volta, which will probably end up as a Visual Studio add-on.

So now Microsoft is striking out beyond the enterprise into the more consumer-oriented Web application development now dominated by Adobe/Macromedia toolsets.

The common denominator here for both the Microsoft and Google tools is down-and-dirty JavaScript, he adds. The appeal will be for the very many developers who "really hate JavaScript," Thomas says. "They're very agitated but they have to use it," Thomas says. This is "historically problematic" because the JavaScript-supportive browsers have been incompatible and lack "fancy development tools," he says.

The problem with JavaScript, is that most developers have to "program by experimentation," he adds. JavaScript is simply not considered a serious language by mainstream development types. That's a problem because, quite simply, JavaScript is everywhere.

Google acknowledged this with the first release of GWT in May 2006. The stated goal was to make development of AJAX apps easier. Google Maps and GMail, unsurprisingly, were cited as examples of good AJAX implementations.

"Writing dynamic Web applications today is a tedious and error-prone process; you spend 90 percent of your time working around subtle incompatibilities between web browsers and platforms, and JavaScript's lack of modularity makes sharing, testing, and reusing AJAX components difficult and fragile," according to the GWT blog the day of launch. "GWT lets you avoid many of these headaches while offering your users the same dynamic, standards-compliant experience. You write your front end in the Java programming language, and the GWT compiler converts your Java classes to browser-compliant JavaScript and HTML."

Contrast that to the Volta message which was that .NET developers can use their language of choice (provided it's a .Net-supported language) and once it's compiled to Microsoft Intermediate Language (MSIL) Volta will parse that out to JavaScript.

"The idea with Volta is you have C Sharp developers who are used to doing their own thing with Windows and as long as they compile to the Microsoft runtime, Volta can spit it out for JavaScript," says Sean Christman, Experience Architect for Effective UI, a Denver-based expert in multimedia Web app development.

The interesting thing about Volta and Silverlight is they are implicit acknowledgement by Microsoft that it does not control each and every client device out there.

"Microsoft has had this environment which is where they've kept developers for a long time. They had their IDE and now it's moved onto C Sharp. Microsoft wants all of its developers to stay with its toolset and output to other things -- so you export to Silverlight or a mobile device but your core development remains in the Windows world," Christman said.

Still that Visual Basic/Windows dominance is being challenged. A survey this summer by Evans Data Group found that developers are moving away from Windows. Of the 400 developers surveyed, 64.8 percent were targeting Windows this year down from 74 percent last year. And, Evans expects that percentage to drop another couple of points this year.

Evans CEO John Andrews says the reason goes back to scripting languages yet again, with JavaScript easily the most widely used. It has three times more developers than PHP, Ruby or Python, according to th Evans report on North American Developers. "JavaScript is just huge and one reason is its maturity," Andrews says.

Evans Data does point out that it expects the use of Ruby to soar by 50 percent this year.

The other interesting fault line in app development is that between Adobe and Microsoft. Adobe, which now includes the Macromedia Flash and Flex franchises, is the darling of Web developers. Microsoft's desire to win over companies like EffectiveUI helped spawn Silverlight, its plug in for creating a cross-browser, cross-platform .NET applications.

Silverlight unlike Volta, however, requires a download of Microsoft's common language runtime and thus has a substantial footprint, whereas Volta only depends on a JavaScript virtual machine.

The $3.4 billion "Macrodobe" merger was announced April 2005 and completed the following August.

Christman, a big Macromedia fan, admits to early qualms but is now reassured. "Adobe is traditionally designer focused and Macromedia developer focused. Adobe didn't do big Adobe conferences where Macromedia did. I was concerned that Adobe would win out in that sense and we'd lose support but to be honest, they have been even more open. It's like the merged, they looked out to the community and followed our suggestions. I've been more involved with decisions with Flex and Flash than I was before."

Adobe this fall also took a tiny open-source step, offering up its ActionScript Virtual Machine to The resulting Tamarin Project hopes to bring ActionScript's flashiness into the Firefox realm. ActionScript is the scripting language embedded in Adobe's ubiquitous Flash player.

Adobe, with its Macromedia muscle, is still pretty much in the proprietary software camp but some viewed this as a step forward. Bedarra's Thomas, on the other hand, cries too little too late. He characterized this as a "last ditch" effort. "If you open source early you can win mindshare but if you keep it all proprietary and at the last moment open source it, you're just one of the open-source losers' group."

Barbara Darrow, industry editor of Redmond Magazine, Redmond Developer News and Redmond Channel Partner, can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Barbara Darrow is Industry Editor for Redmond Developer News, Redmond magazine and Redmond Channel Partner. She has covered technology and business issues for 20 years.