Why use Ruby instead of Smalltalk? [closed]

I’m more of a Pythonista than a Ruby user, however the same things hold for Ruby for much the same reasons.

  • The architecture of Smalltalk is somewhat insular whereas Python and Ruby were built from the ground up to facilitate integration. Smalltalk never really gained a body of hybrid application support in the way that Python and Ruby have, so the concept of ‘smalltalk as embedded scripting language’ never caught on.

    As an aside, Java was not the easiest thing to interface with other code bases (JNI is fairly clumsy), but that did not stop it from gaining mindshare. IMO the interfacing argument is significant – ease of embedding hasn’t hurt Python – but this argument only holds moderate weight as not all applications require this capability. Also, later versions of Smalltalk did substantially address the insularity.

  • The class library of most of the main smalltalk implementations (VisualWorks, VisualAge etc.) was large and had reputation for a fairly steep learning curve. Most key functionality in Smalltalk is hidden away somewhere in the class library, even basic stuff like streams and collections. The language paradigm is also something of a culture shock for someone not familiar with it, and the piecemeal view of the program presented by the browser is quite different to what most people were used to.

    The overall effect is that Smalltalk got a (somewhat deserved) reputation for being difficult to learn; it takes quite a bit of time and effort to become a really proficient Smalltalk programmer. Ruby and Python are much easier to learn and to bring new programmers up to speed with.

  • Historically, mainstream Smalltalk implementations were quite expensive and needed exotic hardware to run, as can be seen this net.lang.st80 posting from 1983. Windows 3.1, NT and ’95 and OS/2 were the first mass market operating systems on mainstream hardware capable of supporting a Smalltalk implementation with decent native system integration. Previously, Mac or workstation hardware were the cheapest platforms capable of running Smalltalk effectively. Some implementations (particularly Digitalk) supported PC operating systems quite well and did succeed in gaining some traction.

    However, OS/2 was never that successful and Windows did not achieve mainstream acceptance until the mid 1990s. Unfortunately this coincided with the rise of the Web as a platform and a large marketing push behind Java. Java grabbed most of the mindshare in the latter part of the 1990s, rendering Smalltalk a bit of an also-ran.

  • Ruby and Python work in a more conventional toolchain and are not tightly coupled to a specific development environment. While the Smalltalk IDEs I have used are nice enough I use PythonWin for Python development largely because it has a nice editor with syntax highlighting and doesn’t get underfoot.

    However, Smalltalk is was designed to be used with an IDE (in fact, Smalltalk was the original graphical IDE) and still has some nice features not replicated by other systems. Testing code with highlight and ‘Show it’ is still a very nice feature that I have never seen in a Python IDE, although I can’t speak for Ruby.

  • Smalltalk was somewhat late coming to the web application party. Early efforts such as VisualWave were never terribly successful and it was not until Seaside came out that a decent web framework got acceptance in Smalltalk circles. In the meantime Java EE has had a complete acceptance lifecycle starting with raving fanboys promoting it and finally getting bored and moving onto Ruby ;-}

    Ironically, Seaside is starting to get a bit of mindshare among the cognoscenti so we may find that Smalltalk rides that cycle back into popularity.

Having said that, Smalltalk is a very nice system once you’ve worked out how to drive it.

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