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Smalltalk Challenge: Post 10 - Conclusions

So here I am, more than 20 hours with Smalltalk and 10 blog posts about my experiences as required by the terms of my challenge. Josh said he chose Smalltalk for me because of the language's history of helping giving rise to object-oriented programming, which he thinks I hate. (For the record I don't hate OO; I hate the awkwardness and complexity its over-zealous application inflicts.) But I think secretly he was hoping it would endear me to Java in the same way as I was hoping OCaml would help him see past Java. Smalltalk gave me a newfound respect, not for OO, but for the language's innovations and lasting influence. If anything in relation to current-day OO practices, my experience confirmed how botched OO adoption has been given what it was intended to be. Regardless, while I don't think I'll be using Smalltalk in the foreseeable future, it was definitely fun to explore and gave me a lot of things to think about.

Smalltalk isn't a popular "mainstream" language like Java or PHP, but it was highly influential on many of them. It's a language that hasn't been afraid to try bold, new ideas. Other languages adopted its innovations; some did so successfully, others not so much. Will new innovations from Smalltalk and its community be just as influential in the future? I can't help but think that if Squeak has successfully abandoned the MVC architecture in favor of Morphic, maybe the days of MVC web frameworks such as Struts, Zend Framework, and Rails are numbered.

Message passing is a key concept in Smalltalk and provides the flexibility of duck typing. But late/dynamic binding prohibits many compiler-time optimizations that could otherwise be performed on statically-compiled code. Is there continued benefit to such an approach now that we're inundated with so many dynamic languages that have (or at least seem to emulate reasonably well) direct invocation, and thus better performance, such as Lua and JavaScript? Perhaps a greater benefit could be realized if message passing was handled asynchronously.

In Smalltalk, everything is an object. Even basic language constructs such as if-statements and while loops have been distilled down to objects and message passing. I respect Kay for intentionally taking an extreme position to force new ways of looking at things, though I believe the "everything is a" mindset can lead to awkward perceptions. The human mind is adept at categorizing things into different classifications exactly because not everything is the same. Ruby claims everything is an object too, which is misleading because it still has basic language constructs. I wonder where the sweet spot between abstraction and reality is, and in what ways can programming languages more accurately reflect how we view the world so we don't end up with with shimmed, over-architectured, spaghetti code.

Overall I found the core concepts of Smalltalk pretty easy to learn (since there are so few), and it was fun to write Smalltalk code and explore objects and Morphs in Squeak's environment. I encourage others who may not be familiar with Smalltalk to spend a little time with it as I did. I can't say it made me a better programmer, but in some sense it made me a better person because I now have a better understanding of history and a lot of things to think about.


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