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Java vs Dynamic Languages: Sun's James Gosling "Didn't Get The Memo," Says Blogger Ryan Tomayko

"I completely forgot about James Gosling..."

I’ve been blissfully neglecting to blog for months with the assumption that a large part of our goal was completed. After watching good people like Martin LaMonica and Jon Udell balance out the mainstream tech press with coverage of lessish tools and languages, and having seen forward looking companies like RedMonk inject themselves into the traditional analyst racket with smart, honest, and unignorable critique, and having seen herds of Java luminaries migrate to simpler, more agile tools and languages, and after hearing Bill Gates say that less code was the only metric, and having watched David, Bill, Ian, Adrian, Phillip, Aristotle, Harry, Mark, Mark, Chad, Curt, James and many other extremely talented programmers dismantle all the common hollow arguments for superfluous complexity and replace them with simple methodologies and working code, after all that I just figured there wasn’t much to do around here.

But I completely forgot about James Gosling:

"There have been a number of language[s] coming up lately," noted James Gosling today at Sun’s World Wide Education & Research Conference in New York City when asked if Java was in any kind of danger from the newcomers. "PHP and Ruby are perfectly fine systems," he continued, "but they are scripting languages and get their power through specialization: they just generate web pages. But none of them attempt any serious breadth in the application domain and they both have really serious scaling and performance problems."

We’ll get back to that in a second.

I believe that a majority of people in IT now consider dynamic languages like Perl, Ruby, Python, and PHP to be very much capable of sitting at the table with Java and .NET for a wide range of common technical problems. Similarly, straight-forward systems like REST, Microformats, and Atom are generally considered legitimate alternatives to the vendor/analyst/press peddled technologies like WS-* for a wide range of integration issues. In other words, I could walk into most shops during a technology evaluation and put these technologies on the table as legitimate considerations without being too worried about being laughed out of the room. This is not to claim superiority for a given task, just that the competitive playing field is beginning to level off.

This was not the case last year at this time, so what happened? Something must have changed. None of these technologies underwent huge feature or stability increases in the past year. I’m unaware of any breakthrough in scaling these systems past what they’re already capable of. There have been some improvements in running dynamic languages on the mainstream VMs, which many predicted would lead to quick acceptance, but that’s not it either. So what changed?

Minds changed. Respectful debate, honesty, passion, and working systems created an environment that not even the most die-hard enterprise architect could ignore, no matter how buried in Java design patterns. Those who placed technical excellence and pragmaticism above religious attachment and vendor cronyism were easily convinced of the benefits that broadening their definition of acceptable technologies could bring.

The people who are still unconvinced are those that just don’t care or are too lazy to spend a small amount of time researching and validating the arguments, which brings us back nicely to James Gosling’s recent statements.

On The Current Quantity of Language

“There have been a number of language[s]

This part is notable because it’s actually true. There have, in fact, been some number of languages. While I stand steadfastly by James’ analysis of the current quantity of language, we will quickly diverge in opinion from here.

A quick note to aspiring Java pundits: play close attention to the next few statements. While none of them have any basis in reality, they have proven sufficient in creating fear and uncertainty in the minds of those who are evaluating these technologies.

On “Scripting Languages”

“PHP and Ruby are perfectly fine systems,” he continued, “but they are scripting languages

James pulled this directly out of “Effective Java Advocacy Beans”, section 6.8.3 “Dealing with questions on dynamic languages”:

First, call anything not statically compiled a “scripting language”. Attempt to insinuate that all languages without an explicit compilation step are not to be taken seriously and that they are all equivalently shitty. Best results are achieved when you provide no further explanation of the pros and cons of static and dynamic compilation and/or typing and instead allow the reader to simply assume that there are a wealth of benefits and very few, if any, disadvantages to static compilation. While the benefits of dynamic languages–first realized millions of years ago in LISP and Smalltalk–are well understood in academia, IT managers and Sun certified developers are perfectly accepting of our static = professional / dynamic = amateurish labeling scheme.

This technique is also known to result in dynamic language advocates going absolute bat-shit crazy and making complete fools of themselves. There have been no fewer than three head explosions recorded as a result of this technique.

Also, avoid the term “dynamic language” at all cost. It’s important that the reader not be exposed to the concepts separating scripting languages like bash, MS-DOS batch, and perl-in-the-eighties from general purpose dynamic languages like Ruby, Python, Smalltalk, and Perl present day.

We’ve tried our best to clear up any ambiguity related to the term “scripting language” in the past:

On “They Just Generate Web Pages”

and get their power through specialization: they just generate web pages.

Gosling shows his ignorance regarding the current feature set provided by dynamic languages and what people are using them for. A cursory glance over rubyforge.org’s project tree reveals that the number of projects that “just generate web pages” are really quite small: 151 of 1,342 total projects are registered under Internet::WWW/HTTP::Dynamic Content and many of those projects are related to using the web (HTTP/URIs) as a platform for integration more than they are for “generating web pages”. I expect Perl and Python break down even wider.

Update: Seo Sanghyeon provides a list of popular Python related applications that have nothing to do with generating web content.

I’d also like to note that exposing resource representations via HTTP/URLs has been moving into areas other than “generating web pages”. This was the plan when HTTP was originally designed but has only recently begun to really catch on. Specialization and enhanced capabilities related to generating and serving hyper-media over HTTP are and will continue to increase in value. The web server is becoming a key piece of integration infrastructure. What James refers to as “generating web pages” is now a general purpose technique for exposing resources to anything outside of the application process.

On “breadth of application domain”

But none of them attempt any serious breadth in the application domain

It’s hard to determine what kind of breadth is missing when you consider the capabilities provided by modern dynamic language environments, the platforms they run on, and the extensions and bridges that allow them to use damn near any other program or library available. James uses the example of “interplanetary navigation”, which is a really good example except that it isn’t; most of us aren’t working at NASA and those of us who are working at NASA are doing things like trying to get the payroll and accounting systems working together or building simple productivity applications. Gosling seems bent on meeting the needs of the 20% while leaving the 80% with a platform that’s losing bids to dynamic/agile shops.

“That’s the kind of power I do not envy”.

Lastly, Peter Yared (former Sun hacker) and the rest of the folks over at ActiveGrid should also be interested to learn that no one is attempting to widen the viability of dynamic languages in the “application domain”.

On Scaling and Performance

and they both have really serious scaling and performance problems.

It is simply not possible for me to add anything to the massive set of material addressing this topic.

Scalability:

Performance:

Why people are upset

There have been multiple responses to Gosling’s statements ranging in sentiment from outrage to amusement:

All we’re asking is that you stop spreading misinformation about the current state of dynamic languages to the press, analysts, and your customers. This does not require you to champion or otherwise support these technologies - just stop lying about them. One year ago, this type of behavior could be attributed to a lack of documentation and discussion on these issues, today it’s impossible to attribute to anything but malice.

More Stories By Ryan Tomayko

Ryan Tomayko is a programmer specializing in web architecture, dynamic
languages, and F/OSS. Former enterprise architect and Java consultant,
he is currently dedicated to applying the advantages of LAMP
infrastructure and web architecture to problems facing US
healthcare. Ryan is Co-Founder, Proserve Health Informatics, a provider
of on-demand healthcare applications for self-funded organizations. He's
also the creator of lesscode.org, a group weblog crusading for the
simplification of tools and processes in IT.
You can find him at http://del.icio.us/rss/rtomayko and http://lesscode.org/.

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Most Recent Comments
Marcus 01/08/08 12:53:11 PM EST

After all, we all know PHP can be used to write any kind of full featured servers, including a web server.

OPS, Php is not multithread.

Suck =/

m 04/03/06 05:13:23 PM EDT

The distinction of "java vs 'dynamic' languages' is misleading. Java is also 'dynamic' because it uses dynamic, late binding (between invocation and implementation) at run-time. The more important differences here are whether a language is strongly typed and whether a language is a 'scripting' language or not. Strongly typed languages validate invocation parameters against declared parametric signatures - a general purpose feature that is known to help catch errors earlier in development. A weakly typed language can be easier to get up & running without having to fully flesh out one's object/type models, but can be vulnerable to unexpected runtime results that are hard to debug. A 'scripting' language is a language whose compilation unit consists of a discrete segment of source code (i.e. a statement) that is relatively small compared to a complete logical or source module. A 'compiled' language is one whose compilation unit corresponds to or exceeds the scope of complete logical or source modules. Although most scripting languages evaluate just prior to execution, that is not necessarily always the case. However, the scope of the compilation unit has many effects on the capabilities and behavior of the language. A scripting language can literally have subsequent lines of source in a given source stream changed 'on the fly'. On the other hand, a compiled language can be analyzed and optimized with regard to a larger scope of the source, resulting in large performance gains. Both models have their place in the world.

Tuomas 03/20/06 10:46:10 AM EST

Do you have seen JASCO language (see: http://ssel.vub.ac.be/jasco/ )? It is like a dynamic aspect *java* language, which has many good sides of ascpetj, but has many more, dynamic properties. Does somebody done something commersiell with JASCO?

Matt L. 03/19/06 03:39:49 PM EST

Here is how I would define a scripting/dynamic language: a language that allows developers to quickly write code by deferring bug discovery until runtime instead of compile time. If your goal is to get software up and running quickly, then perhaps a scripting/dynamic language is the right answer. However, software costs are primarily driving by quality and maintenance. It is well established that the cost of fixing bugs increases dramatically the later they are found. Compiled languages allow an upfront investment to be made in terms of quality and maintainability. In my view, this is the primary benefit of using a compiled language.

David J. 03/18/06 05:17:20 PM EST

I recently learned that the second "round" of a "debate" is for each person to criticize his/her own arguments.

Also, being an experienced software engineer with a B.S. degree in Computer Science, and being having practical programming experience using C, C++, Java, SmallTalk, UNIX, Objective-C, AppleScript, Perl, and PHP, I find myself to be an exception to Ryan Tomayko's "mild accusation" (I mean that seriously) that those who like Java were somehow "lured" into it and never explored other technologies. (I believe that's what he said.)

Concerning the term: "Dynamic Languages": I have never described certain "languages" that instruct a "Turing Machine" as "dynamic". I was taught that that certain "computer languages", for lack of a better term (i.e.: English, French, Japanese, etc.), ran on a "runtime model".

Exception - (First: Pre-qualifying my possible ignorance here.) If a program is written, then compiled, and then statically linked, I do not believe it requires a "runtime model". C and C++ would such examples- thus the C++ "fragile base class problem".

However, I always include the term "runtime model", when describing the 'dynamic languages': "dynamic computer languages with a runtime model". The "runtime model" provides 'linking' during "runtime" instead of "compile"/"build" time. There are pros and cons to each.

One last thing: I do agree that there is a difference between "Programming Languages" and "Scripting Languages".

Sincerely,
David

Jasen Halmes 03/17/06 03:16:31 PM EST

I just sat through a presentation that included a description of Sun's new scientific programming language Fortress. It is described as a compile on demand language, no byte code. So basically the future of programming languages according to sun is a scripting languge.

Gary Renner 03/17/06 01:16:50 PM EST

I agree with Gosling almost 100%. We have a glut of scripting languages and they "do" get their simplicity at the expense of general purpose features like strong type checking and strong exception handling. Web oriented scripting languages "can" be used for other purposes in the same way that SQL can be used to write non-database applications. But why go there? The problem with the proliferation of languages is that it divides the workforce and wastes their time re-writing applications in new languages. If we want special purpose simplicity - we should use graphical application generators.

Paul 03/17/06 12:26:23 PM EST

Insightful, funny, relevant. IMHO, Mr Gosling is a living legend, but he's also got something to sell and it skews his message sometimes. I WISH I could get my employer to take Dynamic Languages seriously, but the corporate world is a little backwards, and managers typically out-of-the-technology-loop, so static is often the order of the day. For now.

Mike Mosiewicz 03/17/06 04:41:45 AM EST

Just one note on scallability. Most php-scales-well rants based on share-nothing horizontal scallability are fine unless you hit a problem that is related to modifying/storing information not only reading. In such case the story is totally different. And it's the fuel that drives development of so called enterprise architectures.

alderete 03/17/06 01:49:14 AM EST

I don't understand what all the fuss is. Who cares what James Gosling thinks? He's an obviously interested party, with a party line to spew.

There are lots of industry luminaries, all spewing their corporate lines.

The thing is, as you point out in your article, the knowledge that this is spew is well-documented. Either now or in months or in years, everyone who can have their mind opened will have their mind opened, just by the current motion and inertia that platforms like Rails and PHP possess today.

By arguing with Gosling, it's making his words more legitimate. Like there's a debate here. There's no need for debate. We don't need to prove him wrong with articles and blog posts. We just need to keep successfully building real, working systems using the tools that we feel are appropriate.

As the current Nike commercial (running during college basketball) says, "Let your game do the talking."

Mike 03/16/06 11:03:45 PM EST

Ok since your beating gosling up, you really should know the facts as well, for instance Ruby really doesn't scale well and it doesn't support unicode so most web dev is out. Its a nice tool language but not for real apps, sure the mom and pop usa based shops it will work for a bit but get real. I think all of the languages out there are useful, they are all being used...none of them do it all nor should the always be used. So please stop the childish rants about Java and use what you want, if you don't like something leave it alone

Anjan Bacchu 03/15/06 05:20:37 PM EST

hi there,

James Gosling did a lot of work on LISP to build Emacs.

I guess there's a perspective of someone who's done a whole breadth of applications using Java. We all know that Ruby/Python can be used for 80% of the applications that Java can be used. But we know (from the 80/20 rule) that the only 20% of the journey is done when you say that 80% work is done. The last 20% takes 80% of the effort. If you're happy with the 80% work, fine.

When he specifically says that breadth is NOT there in the other languages, you should NOT jump to conclusions about his motives. If you ask Bjarne Stroustrup about C++, he is known to defend C++'s successes in a wide area of applications (which is wider than Java's). Gosling has higher motivation than Bjarne ever did to keep his created language going but at the same time we should not put ignorance and ill-motives.

Even though one tends to accept/recognize when the trade press like to sensationalize such things, I feel terrible when a PhD/M.S talks like a Slashdotter/high schooler/"Digg"er. You expect more from people who have an M.S - after all they don't go to such schools just to learn Compilers.

BR,
~A

Harry Fuecks 03/15/06 03:10:47 PM EST

Perhaps it's time to nail down the term scripting language - my vote goes for "Anything with a virtual machine is scripting language" - then James might not feel so left out.

George 03/15/06 02:36:09 PM EST

What is a scripting language? I mean, what's the bare bones of it, technically speaking? It is a language executed as script. That means it is called (from somewhere), then loaded, executed and ends, that's all, and what concerns me, I'm perfectly fine with that. It's the same for me if it is interpreted, pre-compiled into P-code (or similar) or executable, CGI or Fast-CGI, module or stand-alone, as long as it behaves like intended I'll be fine.

So why all the fuss about it? Why does Gosling mention it anyway, why are so many users/programmers upset with the term "only scripting"?

I think the main reason is that there are different programming philosophies behind the kind PHP (Ruby, Perl etc.) on the one side is used in programming and Java is on the other side. That's all, simple as that. Whereas a "scripting" language is executed and dies afterwards (which has its advantages like rapid development, ease of deployment etc.), a "compiled" language does not (need to have, so it may use caching/pooling/memory objects much more efficient and has not to rely on backend systems and their performance that much).

In my opinion that was what Gosling meant saying that scripting languages "[...] have really serious scaling and performance problems." Okay, distilling all these into such a little sentence like Gosling did has a taste of FUD, but nevertheless Gosling may have relied on the fact that people who read his interview are a little bit technically educated (and even I did not point out anything that new until now either).

So shame on Gosling, he could have made his point more clear on that. But on the other hand I do not have to read "Effective Java Advocacy Beans" section 6.8.3 to see another kind of FUD raising on.

And of course I could do application programming using scripting languages.

I can do something very similiar to scripting in compiled languages too, using JSP or ASP or whatever...I do not see the point.

Just my $0,02

George 03/15/06 02:36:08 PM EST

What is a scripting language? I mean, what's the bare bones of it, technically speaking? It is a language executed as script. That means it is called (from somewhere), then loaded, executed and ends, that's all, and what concerns me, I'm perfectly fine with that. It's the same for me if it is interpreted, pre-compiled into P-code (or similar) or executable, CGI or Fast-CGI, module or stand-alone, as long as it behaves like intended I'll be fine.

So why all the fuss about it? Why does Gosling mention it anyway, why are so many users/programmers upset with the term "only scripting"?

I think the main reason is that there are different programming philosophies behind the kind PHP (Ruby, Perl etc.) on the one side is used in programming and Java is on the other side. That's all, simple as that. Whereas a "scripting" language is executed and dies afterwards (which has its advantages like rapid development, ease of deployment etc.), a "compiled" language does not (need to have, so it may use caching/pooling/memory objects much more efficient and has not to rely on backend systems and their performance that much).

In my opinion that was what Gosling meant saying that scripting languages "[...] have really serious scaling and performance problems." Okay, distilling all these into such a little sentence like Gosling did has a taste of FUD, but nevertheless Gosling may have relied on the fact that people who read his interview are a little bit technically educated (and even I did not point out anything that new until now either).

So shame on Gosling, he could have made his point more clear on that. But on the other hand I do not have to read "Effective Java Advocacy Beans" section 6.8.3 to see another kind of FUD raising on.

And of course I could do application programming using scripting languages.

I can do something very similiar to scripting in compiled languages too, using JSP or ASP or whatever...I do not see the point.

Just my $0,02

petrIlli 03/15/06 01:48:55 PM EST

The reality is that large chunks of Mission Control @ NASA as well as the Space Telescope Sciences Institute (the people who run the Hubble) use Python to manage their missions to interplanetary destinations. This was true a few years ago, anyway.

The idea that Java is somehow capable of a larger breadth of problems is absurd. It may have a better fit to some problems - though I've yet to figure out what those are, other than increasing my use of mediocre developers - the Turing completeness proves this false.

As for scalability. It might affect you, it probably doesn't. Worry about it if it does. The number of customers I run into who think they have "scalability" issues is mindbogglingly huge. The number who actually have it? Almost zero. I've had 1 customer in 10 years who had a real challenge. The rest are just fooling themselves into buying into a more complex solution because it makes them feel good.

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