- By Elizabeth U. Harding
- July 24, 2001
The java steamroller is quickly claiming the Smalltalk object-oriented development language as a victim. As observers note the rapid shift to the Java language of Sun Microsystems Inc., Mountain View, Calif., the oldest and largest vendor of Smalltalk tools, ParcPlace-Digitalk Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., is abandoning its desktop systems in favor of a Java toolset.
"We see a significant shift away from Smalltalk and C++ because of the availability of so many products and components written in Java," said David Norris, chief executive at ObjectSpace Inc., a consulting and training firm based in Dallas. ObjectSpace has taken advantage of the rapid evolution by developing tools and creating SWAT teams charged with assisting conversions from Smalltalk to Java.
"Java is simpler, it's easier to learn and it's faster for software development," Norris said. "With C++, software has to be compiled. With Java, there is no compile time. Programmer productivity is much higher with Java. Smalltalk has only two major suppliers, ParcPlace and IBM. Java has a whole industry supporting it."
Analysts note that the Smalltalk market never met the optimistic projections of its champions early in this decade. Experts size the market today at about $100 million a year in terms of combined license revenues. Nonetheless, Smalltalk has always enjoyed a dedicated following. In fact, Smalltalk was the darling of early adopters of client/server and object-oriented technology. Many large and mid-size companies developed cost-effective, mission-critical systems in the language. Long before Sun brought out Java, Smalltalk promised portability and the use of components for software development.
Though Smalltalk is said to possess a more mature virtual machine with better memory management, the Java virtual machine is expected to be embedded in most operating systems because of the language's support for the Internet.
Java is seen as the prime reason that ParcPlace-Digitalk and IBM are scrambling to alter Smalltalk strategies. Financially stressed ParcPlace-Digitalk, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., closed two development centers, reorganized its operations and eliminated a third of its workforce in January due to slowing sales. At the time, ParcPlace told customers of its plan to discontinue development of the VisualSmalltalk Enterprise (VSE) desktop Smalltalk product. In addition, ParcPlace officials said the so-called Jigsaw project, also known as VisualWorks 4.0, was terminated. The Jigsaw project aimed to join VSE and VisualWorks.
"We discontinued VSE because we think that client development will move to Java or (Microsoft's) Visual Basic," said Richard Dym, vice president of marketing at ParcPlace-Digitalk. "Java is good for the client. We're focusing our strength on server development. VisualWorks has server capability. VSE does not."
Though ParcPlace won't add new functionality, company officials maintain that it will continue supporting VSE with bug fixes and operating system updates. Moreover, ParcPlace is offering free copies of VisualWorks to the VSE customer base.
According to Dym, ParcPlace is developing a VisualWorks add-on tool for developing Java client applications for a VisualWorks back end system -- effectively eliminating the need for VSE. "We can't be blind and not realize that Java is important," said Dym. "With Frost (code name for the add-on product), the client is separated from the server, allowing Java to be used on the client." The add-on is slated to ship in September 1997.
"Java is simpler,
it's easier to learn and it's faster
Dym added that ParcPlace-Digitalk is developing component-based versions of
VisualWorks, VisualWave and Distributed Smalltalk. "VisualWorks will be the
core product," he said.
"Java has changed everything," said John Rymer, vice president at Giga Information
Group Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm. "Smalltalk is not dead.
People continue to use Smalltalk for serious applications, but fundamental market
trends have turned against Smalltalk and we stopped recommending it as a long-term
Smalltalk users, dedicated to the language, say they are evaluating options, conceding uncertainty over how to proceed. On one hand, many users like Smalltalk, saying that applications built in the language run well and are cost-effective. On the other hand, many users fear they are vulnerable because of the uncertain future.
"Everyone from high-level management on down loves the performance of the application," said Carl Parziale, consultant at the First Union National Bank, Charlotte, N.C., which runs a customer call center application written VSE. "One of the nice things about VSE is that it's slim and performs well. IBM's (competing) VisualAge has a lot of layers which makes it so flexible but also adds a big footprint."
Today, ParcPlace, wanting to keep its Smalltalk installed base, is offering VisualWorks to First Union without charge.
Chase Manhattan Bank, New York City, is also pondering the future of an application portfolio that contains a number of Smalltalk-based server and desktop systems. "I don't know at this point whether we'll migrate our Smalltalk applications," said Brian Slater, Chase managing director of Chase Manhattan's I/S unit. "Most of the applications written in Smalltalk are old. We're looking to standardizing in objects and most probably will be moving to C++." Moving to a multi-lingual environment that mixes, Smalltalk, C++ and Java, is not an option, Slater said. "The more diversity, the worse it gets. We'll choose something we have a great deal of confidence in, something that's available now."
Matt Rosen, director of Technical Services, San Joaquin Delta College, Stockton, Calif., a VisualWorks site, said Java currently lacks the mature class libraries and other tools available in Smalltalk. "Java has a way to go before we consider using it to write mission-critical systems. Even when Java reaches a new level of maturity, Smalltalk will still be better for building certain applications. For instance, when you need to take advantage of typing, in Smalltalk, you can create a class definition and don't need to specify what type it is. It can hold whatever you want. This would be difficult to do in Java," Rosen said.
Nevertheless, Rosen indicated that he is open to bringing Java into his organization. "If someone develops classes in Java, we would want to use them in our application," Rosen said. "Most Smalltalk developers welcome the interest in Java. To us, the most important thing is the spread of object technology. We'll be able to use objects that other companies create."
Texas Instruments Inc., Dallas, developed its next-generation semiconductor manufacturing system in Smalltalk. "VisualWorks is superior to anything else out there," said John McGehee, TI fellow. "We have several Smalltalk applications in full production. The whole manufacturing system is now over 1.5 million lines of code."
McGehee added: "Of course, we're looking at Java, but today we can't do what we need to do in Java. We'll use Java when and where it makes sense. We're counting on ParcPlace to ease the transition and provide Java facilities."
TI developers used VisualWorks to create five-tier, peer-to-peer applications, McGehee said. Instead of all client having to access a server for every request, TI clients communicate directly on a peer level, and then use database and application servers when necessary.
"We are heterogeneous," said McGehee. "That's one of the strengths you get from VisualWorks. We run on Sun, HP, and we're running embedded also. We view VisualWorks as a strategic technology."
According to Bill Lyons, CEO of ParcPlace, the company is moving to an environment where distributed computing, objects and components are emerging in a very broad manner.
"Languages will play less of a role since we are really moving above the language layer," said Lyons of ParcPlace-Digitalk.
ParcPlace-Digitalk licensed the Eagle methodology and component framework from Andersen Consulting Inc., Chicago, which was built in Smalltalk. Lyons said Eagle puts ParcPlace-Digitalk in a position to compete with IBM and the VisualAge family of application development tools spanning multiple languages. The Microsoft juggernaut promises to stir the market further with its newly released VisualStudio 97 suite of bundled languages and development infrastructure pieces.
"For a while, it looked like Microsoft owned the desktop," Lyons said. "Now Java has come along forcing Microsoft to respond. Microsoft and Netscape will be fighting for years on the front end where Netscape supports Corba (The Common Object Request Broker Architecture of the Object Management Group, Framingham, Mass.) and Microsoft supporting DCOM (Microsoft's object architecture)."
No matter, Java has become a force to be reckoned with. It's likely that desktop Smalltalk won't be its last victim.
-- Elizabeth U. Harding