Smalltalk users aim for a big comeback

TORONTO — This programming language may have small in its name but it is putting up a big fight against its C-based competitors that currently dominate the application development world.

An object-oriented-based programming model, Smalltalk has been around for three decades. Despite many CIOs’ brief flirtation with it in the early 90s, however, it has failed to capture the market share that other languages such as C++ and, more recently, Java have. While opinions on the reasons behind this vary, a Toronto advocate and user of Smalltalk said it comes down to a lack of marketing muscle.

“As a community we are woeful when it comes to marketing the benefits of Smalltalk,” said Bob Nemec, the newly elected executive director of the Smalltalk Industry Council in Toronto. “There wasn’t enough energy put into the marketing of the unique benefits of Smalltalk. We’re paying for that to this day.”

That’s why the Council, which has sponsored the Smalltalk Solutions conference since 1999 (the conference has been running since 1992), decided for the first time to host its conference at this year’s LinuxWorld/NetworkWorld Conference & Expo in Toronto. Smalltalk Solutions is sponsoring over 20 seminars at this year’s conference and Nemec said the Council is already making plans for next year.

In making its decision, Nemec said the council looked at a variety of technology conferences but chose this one because Linux is about the sharing of information.

“It’s a good way to remind the audience (about Smalltalk),” said Nemec. “It seemed to be a reasonable fit.”

Smalltalk was designed by a group of researchers at Xerox PARC labs in the 1970s. The language was generally released as Smalltalk-80, which was bought by Smalltalk distributor Cincom Smalltalk. Similar to other object-oriented programming models, the main idea behind Smalltalk is that an object is always an instance of a class. Classes describe the properties and behaviours of their instances.

To illustrate this, Georg Heeg, founder of German-based consulting and training firm Georg Heeg eK, described the properties and behaviours of a pencil and a pen such as materials, size, and transfer method to other media. Heeg’s conclusion is that both objects can be used to write and draw something. This example was part of a seminar called, “What is so Special that Smalltalk is Still Hot after 25 Years?” that Heeg made to LinuxWorld/NetworkWorld attendees.

In his presentation, Heeg said Smalltalk experienced a “small hype” in the early to mid-90s in industries with complex systems such as banks, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, chip manufacturers and, more recently, railway companies. But in 1996 to 2002, Heeg said Smalltalk had a slowdown due to the “promise of Java.” In recent years, however, Heeg said Smalltalk has experienced a “second spring” with new customers adopting Smalltalk apps. Customers range from one-person enthusiasts to large corporations using Smalltalk for stagnating projects.

The company Nemec works for, Northwater Capital Management Inc., a financial firm with offices in Toronto and New York, falls into the latter category.

There, Nemec, vice-president of Northwater Objects, a subsidiary of Northwater Capital, and a handful of developers wrote an in-house application to help the firm manage its financial products.

Nemec said he chose to write the program in Smalltalk because it offered flexibility over other languages such as Java.

“We can configure relationships between different financial instruments and define how those instruments relate,” said Nemec. “If we were to do that with a relational database it would involve a schema change. We would have to define new relationships between tables.”

The solution Nemec and his team came up was written in a development environment called VA Smalltalk version 7.0, which is distributed by a company called Instantiations. Northwater also uses an object-oriented database from vendor GemStone Systems.

Eric Winger, a software engineer with GemStone, which is based in Beaverton, Ore., said relational databases such as Oracle’s 10g or mySQL make it a lot more difficult to make changes.

“If you want to make changes it’s a big deal,” said Winger. “With Smalltalk, you just add a new object and a new class. It has less impact on everyone else.”

One of GemStone’s customers is Thornhill, Ont.-based Cherniak Software, which develops business intelligence software based on Smalltalk. Cherniak, which was founded in part by company president Bob Cherniak 28 years ago, got into Smalltalk just over a decade ago. Cherniak said he chose to develop his apps on Smalltalk because of its combination of productivity gains and technical elegance. But when it comes to selling Smalltalk to businesses versus more popular programming languages, Cherniak said businesses don’t need to know the specifics of the infrastructure, they just need it to work.

“Our philosophy is we can make our software do what you want it to do,” said Cherniak, comparing it to SAP, which he says makes customers adopt its methods.

Cherniak’s software targets major industry verticals including distribution, manufacturing and municipal governments, including Toronto and Waterloo.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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