2011-10-11

the battle to control JavaScript

CoffeeScript is a relative new programming language.

I was skeptical about exploring yet one more programming language and in this case one that compiles to another language, JavaScript.

JavaScript is probably the most used programming language; it is the software technology used by every web browser to render interactive information and applications.

The number of devices depending on JavaScript include desktops, laptops and a great percentage of mobile devices and smartphones. The total number easily adds up to more than a billion devices and likely up to 2-billion have a JavaScript engine installed; so, why CoffeeScript?

Each browser has a different interpreter software of JavaScript code, code that is not guaranteed to execute properly on all the tens if not hundreds of JavaScript implementations available today. This is a big problem given the vast dependency on JavaScript as the language of the web; at least for the presentation and interactiveness of web-based applications running on billions of devices.

CoffeeScript makes it easier to write and produce correct JavaScript; by correct it is meant code that follows identified best practices and that has greater probability of correct execution across different JavaScript implementations.

The subject goes beyond producing good JavaScrit; it involves the need to simplify the programming labour, increase productivity and quality of the resultant code and streamlining the process by using the same language on the client device and on the server.

JavaScript is now the de-facto standard to present information and applications on billions of devices.

JavaScript is also being used outside client devices; it is now used on the server. See node.js as an example of a JavaScript server based technology. This direction to use JavaScript on the server adds to the need for increased productivity and improved quality of generated JavaScript. No longer used as a client component only but used to write much larger and complex computing tasks on the server.

Enter Google. Google recently introduced a new programming language, Dart. Dart compiles also to JavaScript in addition to offering its own processing environment available now on the Dart site and soon to be available on Google's browser, Chrome.

Google's blog introducing Dart outlines three main goals for the language:
  • Create a structured yet flexible language for web programming.
  • Make Dart feel familiar and natural to programmers and thus easy to learn.
  • Ensure that Dart delivers high performance on all modern web browsers and environments ranging from small handheld devices to server-side execution.
Note the reference to 'server-side execution' meaning a language targeted to address the server side as well as the client side.

Reading about Google's Dart, one may also conclude that Google may be seeking distance from Java and from Oracle's control over Java and accompanying lawsuits; Google has Go and now Dart as recently introduced programming languages.

Back to CoffeeScript. It is easy to like CoffeeScript; it is simple, easy to learn and it has a functional flavour to its syntax. It is an alternate and a better way to produce consistent and correct JavaScript, at least better than the one I can write for use on web-based applications, CouchDB, node.js and the ever growing list of JavaScript based tools.

There are several articles and blogs detailing the strengths and weaknesses of CoffeeScript; this blog offers an outline of the good parts, namely:
  • it is easy to learn
  • it is easier to type than JavaScript
  • it helps you better understand JavaScript
  • it produces better JavaScript than you could by coding JavaScript directly
I found this screen-cast and accompanying text samples very useful for understanding and learning CoffeeScript.

Update
  • Dart. I had a quick look at Google's Dart. There are many things to like about Dart including the Erlang-like message driven concurrency implementation. However, the syntax is, should I say it, conventional; looks like an updated Java or C-like syntax. 
  • CoffeeScript. CoffeeScript has a functional syntax, simple and arguably easier to learn for someone unfamiliar with C-like languages.
  • Uninspiring isn’t always a bad thing. This blog offers a balanced assessment of Dart and its potential acceptance as a programming language.
  • Book. The Little Book on CoffeeScript offers a good introduction to the language.

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