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JavaScript Turns 25: Pluralsight Gurus Weigh In

On Friday, December 4, JavaScript turns 25. The venerable client-side scripting language had a wobbly start when Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich unveiled it in 1995, but today it runs on every Web browser, cell phone, Internet-enabled TV, and smart dishwasher.

When Java turned 25 in May of this year, online course provider Pluralsight shared the insights of its Java course authors on the impact of that juggernaut of a programming language and platform with ADTmag readers. The technology workforce development company turned to its popular JavaScript course authors on the occasion of the senior scripter's silver anniversary "to reflect on its impact and continued influence on the world, as well as their own personal journey with the programming language."

In addition to the wisdom of its teachers, Pluralsight is offering free access to 25 of its most popular JavaScript courses throughout December (five free courses a week). Also, check out the relaunched JavaScript.com, which includes new resources "designed to help JavaScript developers of all abilities."

How important is JavaScript today compared to when it first launched?

Cory House, @housecor: When JavaScript first launched, it was unclear if it would take off. It was written in a few days, and initially only offered in a single browser. Microsoft's first browser shipped with their own flavor of JavaScript, called JScript. Today, JavaScript makes the world go 'round. It runs on every computer. Every phone. TVs. Even some appliances. A huge portion of humanity relies on JavaScript every day without realizing it.

Jonathan Mills, @jonathanfmills: When JavaScript first launched, it was just there to help a webpage be interactive. JS is no longer contained to the browser. Now JavaScript has grown into a massive ecosystem that has impact in every area of software development. As a JS developer, I can write applications on the backend, frontend, mobile device, and IoT devices.

Nate Taylor, @taylonr: The easy answer is to talk about how JavaScript is used today across the entire spectrum of software development. From web applications, mobile applications, servers and even as stored functions in databases. And while that's true, I think it neglects the importance of JavaScript when it first launched. Prior to JavaScript's introduction, the web was not much more than static hypertext delivered in a browser. Without JavaScript, we likely don't have the web that we do today, but we didn't necessarily understand that when it was first released.

What makes JavaScript such a timeless programming language?

House: JavaScript is timeless because it's approachable, multiparadigm, and ubiquitous. There are multiple ways to accomplish a given task. You can code in an object-oriented or functional style. And since JavaScript has a C-like syntax, it feels familiar to people who have worked in other C-like languages. JavaScript remains "timeless" by continually embracing good ideas from other languages.

Mills: Honestly, I think it's a combination of simplicity and flexibility. The learning curve of JavaScript is much lower than the typical enterprise languages of C# and Java, so it is easy to pick up. But its flexibility in running everywhere and its very lightweight nature make it easy to get things done everywhere. The combination of those two things make JavaScript an easy tool to reach for given any job.

Taylor: I think the number one thing is the community. It's driven by countless engineers who are constantly exploring and trying out new things. Because of the community, we now have NodeJS, so that we can run JavaScript on the server. We have libraries like RamdaJS, which brings in concepts from functional programming languages and makes them accessible to JavaScript developers. We even have TypeScript as a super-set of JavaScript. And through all of that, the language has grown and adapted. In some ways, the fluidity of the language that causes so many of us problems when we first learn it, is part of what keeps it going even today.

What would the web or e-commerce look like if we didn't have JavaScript?

House: Without JavaScript, the web would be similar to the late 90's. Simpler and lighter-weight, but also less feature-rich. We'd have to post back to the server on every request, leading to a clunkier user experience.

Mills: While it's almost impossible to say what it would look like without JavaScript, I will say it would be fundamentally different.

Taylor: It would be slower and more frustrating. Imagine signing up for a service. The only way to know if your username was available would be to submit the entire form to the server and have it tell you if that was available. If the name was taken, you'd have to fill out the entire form again and resubmit. Eventually you would either find a unique name, or you'd give up. But with JavaScript, we're able to do this behind the scenes. While you're filling out the form--sometimes while you're typing the username--you can receive instant feedback if that name is available.

Additional problems would exist for e-commerce, as well. A common situation today is to see something in your cart and decide to change the quantity, or possibly even save it for later in a wish list. Those are relatively straightforward JavaScript calls. Without that, you would again be forced to resubmit the entire form until you were ready to proceed.

When did you first learn JavaScript? What impact has it had on you personally?

House: I learned JavaScript in the late 90s. It was awful. The debugging experience was horrendous. I often couldn't tell clearly what had failed. It ran significantly differently on Internet Explorer than Netscape. It was so painful early on that I embraced Flash and expected it to overtake HTML and JavaScript in popularity. Clearly, I was wrong! As JavaScript matured, so did related libraries and browsers. Today, coding in JavaScript is a wonderful, rapid feedback experience.

Mills: For the vast majority of my career I have been a backend developer in the .NET and Java space. But as the ecosystems grew and the sheer weight of projects increased, I found myself looking for alternatives that would let me solve business problems faster. I made the transition to node and AngularJS a while ago and have never looked back. The speed and reliability of the tooling is something I really enjoy.

Taylor: Sometime around 2009 was when I first started learning JavaScript. I didn't care for it, because I liked working on thick client applications in C#. That said, I did see its usefulness, particularly on one-side project[s], where I was able to use jQuery for a grid that was displaying data. Experimenting with that bit of JavaScript helped open several doors for me. It allowed me to interview for a web developer position that ended up changing the course of my career.

In addition to helping me land jobs for my 9-to-5 work, JavaScript also indirectly led me to more teaching as I advanced in my career. I found that JavaScript offered different ways of solving problems than I was used to. And in explaining those ideas to other developers I realized that I enjoyed helping others learn and grow. It was exciting to see developers grasp new ideas.

What does the future look like for JavaScript? What's coming next year, 2-3 years from now, etc.?

House: For around 10 years, JavaScript didn't change at all. Thankfully, today new JavaScript releases occur every June. In the short term, I expect to continue to see mostly minor enhancements that implement good ideas from competing languages. Longer-term, I expect to see JavaScript decreasingly used as a compile target. People will increasingly use languages that compile to JavaScript. Today, TypeScript is popular example, but we may see other more popular, higher-level alternatives in the future. And while Web Assembly is likely to grow increasingly popular in the coming years, it will continue to interface with JavaScript to get things done.

Mills: One of the primary complaints I have heard about JavaScript is that the massive open-source ecosystem is so hard to navigate and new frameworks pop up every day. I find that is less the case now than it was a year ago, and that trend will continue. I find most developers are using one of frameworks on the frontend (React and Vue), and almost everyone I know is using Express on the backend, and I see that trend continuing. Improvements will be made and features added, but for the most part, I think the ecosystem has solidified to a point that you can reliably pick up a tool and know that it will be around for a while.

Taylor: I think we've finally moved past the phase of JavaScript where everyone was making jokes about how fast a new library came out, and now we're to the point where we're trying to use it to provide real value to our users and clients. As a result, I think we'll continue to see JavaScript maturing. It will continue to get new features that help ease development in JavaScript. We'll continue to see more and more uses in areas that we don't immediately expect. It wasn't that long ago that it was not possible to write a mobile app in either Java or Swift, but now with frameworks like ReactNative, it's possible to use the same JavaScript skills that developers already have to create mobile apps.

Posted by John K. Waters on December 1, 2020