A lack of productivity is killing Smalltalk.

I heard today that the development of Dolphin Smalltalk has been discontinued. Although it isn’t a product I used or was familiar with, I have been involved with a number of Smalltalk-based development efforts in the past. While it was somewhat popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the commercial usage of Smalltalk has declined significantly since then.

Slava Pestov suggests how poor implementations are leading to the downfall of Smalltalk. I would tend to agree, to some extent. Most Smalltalk implementations really don’t compare to a development platform like Java, or even what Microsoft has put together with C# and .NET.

However, I would tend to think that the main reason why Smalltalk has started to really fall out of favor is that it doesn’t bring the level of productivity that it used to, relative to other technologies. Back in the early 1990s, a lot of enterprise-grade software was written using C or C++. For developing complex business applications, Smalltalk often did offer a very significant productivity boost to developers, even if the runtime performance of the applications suffered somewhat. Being at a higher-level, it allowed business rules and concepts to be more easily and effectively represented in the software itself.

But that started to change by the mid-1990s. Java arose, and offered many of the benefits that Smalltalk had been offering. That’s not to say that Java, as a language, is comparable to Smalltalk. In many ways it’s quite inferior, even over a decade after its initial release. But it was more familiar to those developers who’d come from the world of C and C++, while also offering OO functionality and garbage collection similar enough to that of Smalltalk.

I’ve worked with several excellent Smalltalk developers in the past. A talented, experienced professional can do wonders with Smalltalk. Unfortunately for them, Java and its vast array of classes, class libraries and frameworks have brought a similar level of productivity to only average developers. So if these average developers can churn out an adequate software product at a lower cost than the Smalltalk expert, as has often become the case, then the business will flow towards the Java developers.

Unless the Smalltalk developers bring something to the party that drastically increases their productivity (or their software’s productivity) over that put out by Java developers, they won’t have a real chance at survival.

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