Periodically, a customer or interested party asks me about the future of Smalltalk - invariably, it's a question along the lines of:
Will I be safe selecting Smalltalk? Will it still be here in 20 years?
The thing that always strikes me is the periods people choose to ask about. 20 years is a long time in the software industry. Cast your mind back to 1985, for instance (listen to this song if you have trouble :) ) In 1985, Windows 1.0 was released (in November). It landed mostly with a thud. In the PC world, most people were using DOS, although a not insignificant amount of CP/M installations were still floating about. The Macintosh had been out for a year, but the Apple IIe was still a popular platform (it's what I was using back then).
The most common programming language in use was probably Cobol, although C (K&R C, ANSI C was a long ways off yet) was gaining ground. It would be years before C really broke through in the PC world though - people working on those systems were mostly writing in assembly language. In 1985, C was mostly used by Unix geeks (and I say geeks because Unix had not, at that point, broken out into widespread use in industry).
Smalltalk had been around for awhile, mostly as an academic R&D creature at Xerox PARC. Digitalk produced Methods (the precursor to ST/V) in 1985, and ParcPlace had not yet commercially released a product - that wouldn't come until 1987. Why am I going through this abbreviated view of 1985? Well, let's stand in 1985 for a minute, and - with what I just sketched - try to look at 2005. Do you have any sense that you would be able to foresee the dominance of Microsoft, the fall (and rise) of IBM - or Google and the internet? Would you have spotted OO as the future of software development, and seen that a pair of C hybrids (Java and C#) would be widely used?
I doubt it. Which takes us to the "what about 20 years from now?" question. The short answer is, no one knows. Java and C# look dominant now - but in 1985, what language/system would you have bet on? By the same token, I'd be very wary of making predictions about the year 2025.
A lot of people are going to ask for long term comfort words anyway. As it happens, I can give you some level of reassurance. I mentioned that Methods had just been released in 1985, and that ParcPlace was working toward a release (which ultimately came out in 1987). The current Cincom Smalltalk VisualWorks environment is a direct descendant of that work - in fact, it's a direct descendant of the Smalltalk work done at PARC in the mid to late 70s. So Smalltalk has been around for 30 years now, and in continuous use over that interval (continuous commercial use for 20 of those years). Does that guarantee anything 20 years hence? Like stock traders, I have to say that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results - but look at these signposts:
- Cincom is now the corporate home of both VisualWorks and ObjectStudio.
- Cincom has been in business since 1968, with the same President now that we had in 1968.
- Cincom is supporting customers using products that were originally purchased in those first years of business
- Cincom is profitable, and privately held - which means that quarter to quarter issues which buffet public companies don't concern us
- The Smalltalk group within Cincom is profitable, and our revenues are growing
- We are currently selling 3 and 5 year contracts for Cincom Smalltalk - which means that we are constantly pushing the future of the product out (legally speaking) into the future
We have a product roadmap here, but you'll notice that it doesn't delve deeply into the future. There's a reason for that. Five years ago, how critical were web services? Given that, just how useful is it for me to talk about what we'll deliver in 5 years? Some vendors have elaborate 3, 5, and 10 year roadmaps. Those vendors are full of (insert your favorite substance here). They have no idea what their products will look like that far out. Demands shift, and plans have to be changed. The Smalltalk group at Cincom is extremely nimble, and has been excellent at tacking in new directions. Take Web Services, for instance - we have a fully standards compliant implementation, complete with code generating wizards to ease the problem of dealing with the mass of WSDL out there. Five years ago, we had no idea that any of that was going to be necessary - and yet there it is. We tacked - shifting the importance of things like CORBA down in favor of WS*.
Nothing speaks to longevity like success, and we have a lot of good stories to tell there. Take a look at our success story page, where users of our technology sing its praises. Many of these companies have been using the product for years - telling you everything you need to know about the value of the product as compared to newer fads that have been crossing the industry. There are a few stories I'd like to point to in particular, as they show long term interest in the product, and high levels of success and satisfaction:
All of those companies have been using Smalltalk for many years - they've stayed with it through various corporate upheavals, including the sale of VisualWorks to Cincom. My point? Smalltalk has been a safe choice over the last 20 years, and the odds are that it will be a safe choice for the next 20. Go ahead and give it a try - download it here.