I was emailed a link to this post on language trends - the post notes that circa 1995, Smalltalk had good mindshare and decent usage, but by 2005 and dropped into niche status. He asks:
So what's the point of all this? Well for me it's background for a bigger story: The decline of Smalltalk. I'm interested in understanding why Smalltalk fell from its zenith as an OO language of choice in 1995 to its current status as a great platform that hardly anyone uses. Is this the future of Java? If I can better understand the fall of Smalltalk (not to mention Objective C), I can better anticipate the future of Java and other languages.
Well, there were two things that impacted Smalltalk usage - the actions of ParcPlace-Digitalk (later ObjectShare), and the actions of IBM. Let me address PPD/OBJS first. ParcPlace was a growing company in 1995, before the merger with Digitalk. Even then the company was showing some organizational strains - the management team was sub-optimal at best (finely illustrated by their decision to merge with Digitalk)
That merger ate the next 18 months and tons of cash. The company not only spent 18 months trying to merge VisualWorks and VSE, it:
- burned through cash making multiple fruitless acquisitions
- failed to release any new versions of VW or VSE during the code merge attempt
- failed to manage the merger itself, leading to internecine warfare within the engineering and consulting groups
Needless to say, that kind of thing didn't engender confidence in the customer base. That was bad enough - then rumors of financial problems started to float, and in winter of 1997 management announced EOL of VSE (without any migration strategy), the termination of the code merge of VW/VSE, and a new Java strategy. Thus the VSE customer base bled out, and the VW customer base, already nervous over the non-existance of new releases, wondered how much focus the product would get with the new Java focus.
Things went that way until the new management team came in and changed the company name to ObjectShare (one of the firms that had been acquired during the old management's mad buying spree). Things muddled along, the Java product was released with a thud, and VW 3.0 crawled out. The new management tried to prop up share prices and failed, and things continued to slide (again, not engendering confidence in customers or prospects). Finally, Cincom bought the Smalltalk business in 1999 (and things have been recovering on our end since then).
That explains part of the slide. For the rest, you have to look at the introduction of Java and the actions of IBM. As of the mid 90's, IBM had a successful Smalltalk product, and they had been basing all of their development environments on it - from VisualAge Smalltalk came a C++, Cobol, and ultimately, a Java toolset. IBM was doing well with this stuff, and had managed to scarf up most of the existing VSE accounts (since PPD had just ditched them). However, Java was getting a lot of buzz, and IBM was spending a lot of their own money to build the VA infrastructure. Mind you, this part is speculation on my part, but here's what I think happened:
- IBM saw the Java buzz growing
- They realized that it would be cheaper to be a free rider on Sun's Java than to maintain their own set of development tools based on VAST
That latter point was enabled by Sun making Java freely available, and licensing the JVM widely. While both actions helped the spread of Java tremendously, I am not at all convinced that they helped Sun in the least. That's another story though - in the Smalltalk world, IBM was slowing down their Smalltalk investments (culminating in their hand off of the technology to Instantiations this year), and ramping up their Java story. This didn't engender confidence in the Smalltalk customer or prospect base - especially when IBM's sales folks started aggressively pushing their Java line and talking down Smalltalk.
To summarize - ParcPlace (and its descendent firm, PPD/OBJS) committed suicide, which roiled its customer base and dropped confidence in Smalltalk amongst potential adopters. Meanwhile, IBM started moving away from Smalltalk and towards Java - which had the same effect. The other Smalltalk vendors of the mid 90's were too small to affect the growing meme that Smalltalk was dying.
Things are different now - Cincom has been working diligently on Smalltalk since late 1999, and we have a growing, profitable business. There are plenty of other Smalltalk dialects out there, including what is now going to be called VA Smalltalk. Smalltalk isn't in the mainstream at this point, but it's being used by a growing number of companies that want a productive alternative.