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Father of Java Seeks to Extinguish "Scripting Flamewar"

James Gosling's "Scripting Language" Remarks on SYS-CON.TV Now Clarified

'Yes, I did say those things,' wrote James Gosling (pictured talking to SYS-CON.TV), as he blogged a detailed follow-up to the 'flamewar' that broke out after JDJ reported his answer to a question asked at a New York conference by our Enterprise Editor, Yakov Fain. According to Gosling, the problem arose only because 'there's a lot of context missing' from our account of his reply, which he called "the flippant soundbite version of what should have been a long and careful explanation that could easily mushroom into a series of PhD theses."

Gosling distances himself from the "flamage" in two ways. First, he emphasizes that he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to scripting:

"Over the years I've built quite a lot of scripting systems. I've also built a number of compilers for non-scripting languages. Given enough beer I'll even admit to having implemented a Cobol compiler for money in the deep dark past. But I've done more scripting systems than non-scripting systems."

Next, he takes issue with those who would narrow down the debate about what language is appropriate to what task to just two types.

"[T]here are all kinds of generalizations about 'scripting languages' versus 'compiled languages.' My big problem with a lot of it is simply that these two polarizing categories are a pretty poor way of capturing the distinctions between language designs. The terms are almost as goofy as 'Republican' versus 'Democrat.' Taking huge multi-dimensional spaces of choices on different issues, then combining and simplifying them all down to a brutally simple binary choice is goofy."

Leaving aside that the brief JDJ account in fact stressed how any discussion about Java "versus" PHP or Ruby or any other language is moot, according to Gosling, whom we prominently reported as saying...

"We also tried to work with all these languages, so that Java works with PHP and works with Python, so you can do the web presentation layer in PHP and the analytics in Java. Lots of people do that."

...leaving that aside, the main development since we published the report is that, even though Gosling himself said categorically that in the JDJ report "The quote is accurate," a fuller transcript has become available.

Basically what happened is that JDJ's Yakov Fain asked Gosling: "There are many different languages in the world. Some people are saying there are some other new languages coming up and Java is endangered. Do you feel this way?"

Gosling replied (in full):

"No I don't, really. Most languages that have been coming up lately have been scripting languages - things like PHP and Ruby. And these are all perfectly fine systems.

A lot of the power that they get is through specialization. So it seems to me that all the languages people are talking about as being exciting today are all ones that just generate web pages. So if all you want to do is generate web pages, they work pretty well. But none of them attempt any real serious breadth in the application domain, and they all have really serious scaling and performance problems.

In all of these dynamic languages, if you try to write something in them that has serious performance requirements, they all fall over horribly. If you write a statement a = b + c, Java versus PHP its close to a factor of 100 in performance difference. What's really nice about them is that because they're focused in that one domain, they can make a lot of programming in that one domain a lot simpler.

What we've been trying to do is get a lot of that simplicity out of the tool. Because we have this horrible balancing act. On the one hand we really need simplicity, and on the other hand we really need power. And those are evil twin brothers of each other. Building systems that have a lot of power just sort of attracts complexity. And because of the way that the world has become so interconnected, it helps hugely to have systems where you do have a framework that carries over.

So with PHP you can write stuff that does web presentation stuff pretty well. You could never write a library that does interplanetary navigation in PHP. It just doesn't work.

The other one that's out there is C# from Microsoft. At some level it is hard to criticize C# because they just copied the Java spec. There was a time when we were afraid they were going to do something really creative, and they didn't. ... And they're obviously focused on one platform.

We also try to work with all of these. We know there's lots of folks who talk about Java versus X or Java versus Y. And we work hard to make sure Java works with PHP and works with Python. So you can do the web presentation layer in PHP. Lots of people do the web presentation layer in PHP and analytics in Java, because Java's really good for doing high performance analytics."

In other words, the version that Yakov Fain published in his own popular blog wasn't far off.

The Father of Java was upset enough about being taken for task for seeming to underestimate scripting languages and overestimating Java to spend some considerable time blogging his way out of the controversy. He started by clarifying what he sees as being the distinction between the two categories:

"I'll make the generalization that 'scripting language' means one that is interpreted with dynamic runtime typing, and the other camp is languages that are compiled to machine code and have static runtime typing. This is a broad over-simplifying generalization, but it matches pretty well what goes on in common conversations."

His masterclass - one of the longest entries in his java.net blog since he began - continues:

"One of the usual arguments for scripting languages having acceptable performance is that the overhead of interpretation and dynamic typing doesn't matter. The performance of the system is dominated by other factors: typically IO and the language primitives. For example, PERL apps usually spend the majority of their time in file IO and string primitives. I've strongly made this argument in the past, and it's quite valid. But having observed developers usage patterns, the two most common things that happen to erode the argument are:

Developers start doing things that are outside of what the language primitives are good at. For example, PostScript has great primitives for rendering. So long as you're doing rendering, it flies like the wind. But then someone goes and writes a game that's heavily based on rendering, and a piece of it needs to do collision detection between missiles and targets. Physics in PostScript: a bad idea. Developers start clamoring for new primitives. Some are too specialized to be reasonable 'I want a fast collision engine,' some are rational 'object oriented programming has become the dominant style in PostScript, but the OO model is implemented in PostScript as a library and is slow.'"

What most developers seem concerned about, at this point, is not whether Gosling is right or wrong, quoted fairly or misquoted, so much as: what's best for them to learn and to use right now if they wish to eke a living our of software development.

Let us then risk further ire by giving the last word to the developer Roy Batty who wrote, in a feedback thread to one of the many discussions that the original JDJ report sparked off:

"The irony about the 'serving up web pages' statement is that Java never really made it out onto the desktop at large and the vast majority of the presentation of Java apps is done through a browser...Gosling needs to get back to the lab and think about what's beyond Java."

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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