ECMAScript: The history of JavaScript

JavaScript is a very interesting language that has caught my eye in the last year. Previously I blogged about the power of the Module Pattern in JavaScript; why it’s powerful and how to make sure your site complies to this great pattern. The language has come a long way and is growing up fast to be the defacto language of choice for all front-end UI/behavioral functionality. Flash, the old heavy dog, is on its way out. JavaScript, part of the HTML5 stack, is looking the most promising.

This post isn’t about how great JavaScript is, it’s about its history. Before one delves into anything one should always understand the basics. So let’s begin with some basics and then its history. The history is rather interesting.

What is JavaScript anyway?

JavaScript is a prototype-based scripting language that is dynamic, weakly typed and has first-class functions.

For the business guy

  • JavaScript is client-side language. Meaning anyone with a browser can view it in its entirely. Nothing is hidden. This is how we have access to any site’s code. Right click on any webpage and select “View Source” – Bingo!
  • JavaScript is downloaded via your browser and then executed within the browser. This is where performance bottlenecks are experience and browser compatibility issues.
  • JavaScript’s real name is actually ECMAScript.

For the tech guy

  • JavaScript is a “prototype-based scripting language” meaning it is object-oriented where classes are not present, and inheritance is performed via a process of cloning existing objects that serve as prototypes.
  • JavaScript is “dynamic”; meaning that it executes at runtime.
  • JavaScript is “weakly typed”; meaning you can cast memory to any type and
  • JavaScript has “first-class functions”t meaning it supports passing functions as arguments to other functions, returning them as the values from other functions, and assigning them to variables or storing them in data structures.

History of JavaScript

There are many stories online but I think this one below (source) explains it nicely.

Here is something else you should know about Javascript that seems like it was almost designed to be confusing as possible:

  • There is a programming language called Javascript.
  • There is a programming language called Java.
  • There is an interpreter (‘thing that makes it go’) for the programming language Javascript built into most web browsers
  • There is an interpreter for the programming language Java that is sort of built in to most web browsers, or was.

Back in the olden days, there was a company called Sun that had invented a programming language they decided to call Java. It was very trendy and exciting. There was a company called Netscape that made the trendiest and excitingest web browser. Sun wanted Netscape to include the magical crap that would make Java work with their browser, because everyone was gonna get Netscape, so everyone would also automatically have the stuff that makes Java programs work. On the other hand, Netscape was saying, “but lets also make our own tiny programming language that runs right in the browser so instead of having to make up new html tags like ‘blink’, web authors can make annoying shit we haven’t even thought of yet!” So they said, “Sun, we’ll ship your ‘Java’, but we want to be allowed to call our other programming language, which has absolutely no relationship to yours and is intended to do completely different things, JavaSCRIPT.” And Sun said, “OK, swell. go nuts. That won’t matter to us. ONCE JAVA TAKES OVER THE WORLD!”

So Netscape said to a guy named Brendan, who worked at Netscape, “Please make us a programming language. Also, you have to call it Javascript. Also, if you can make some of it kind-of sort-of look a bit like Java, that would be even better. Also, you have only 10 days to do this so get cracking!”

Fortunately, it turned out that Brendan was a cool genius and he secretly designed a cool programming language and dressed it up in some vaguely Java-looking disguises, kind of like how children will sometimes wear a huge cloak and stand on top of one another in order to get into R-rated films.

But Brendan’s disguise worked too well! People were like “wtf is with this crap version of Java? IT SUCKS!” Also, even a cool genius like Brendan has some some limits, so he did make a few mistakes when he was making his programming language in only 10 days. Also, because Netscape had basically thrown down the gauntlet and said, “You think the blink tag is annoying? Marquee makes you want to rip your eyeballs out? YOU HAVEN’T SEEN NOTHING!” people did manage to find insanely annoying things to do with Javascript. All the cool people installed special software on their web browser JUST TO MAKE JAVASCRIPT NOT WORK. So it took many years before people started to figure out that Brendan’s language was wrapped in an elaborate disguise and that it was actually cool.

Weirdly, some of the main people who did this were people at Microsoft, who had tried to confuse this whole mess out of existence by coming out with programming languages named stuff like J++ and JScript. Netscape, at the time, was threatening to rip Microsoft apart, like a crab rips up a cuttlefish with his claws. So Microsoft, adopting the strategy of the cuttlefish, made a million confusing “J” programming languages, hoping to escape intact. A prophet by the name of Douglas started saying, “guess what nerds, it turns out Javascript is actually sort of awesome.” He managed to attract a fair number of acolytes, who fiddled with Brendan’s invention and realized that it was rather elegant and could certainly be made to do all sorts of useful, non-annoying things on webpages, if only people would stop blocking it.

And so the era now known as Web 2.0 began. There are a lot of things people associate with Web 2.0, but for people who make the internet, one of the biggest things was seeing sites like Flickr or Oddpost do cool stuff with Javascript and other technologies that had been previously considered lame.

And then, in a sort of poetic irony that makes this story almost seem like it was pre-scripted to Teach us a Lesson, JAVASCRIPT succeeded in doing what JAVA had intended to do. Microsoft, Java, Sun, Netscape, all were brought low by their hubris. But humble Javascript, the throwaway, ‘you get 10 days to make this’, blink-tag-replacing runt of a language was able to sneak onto every computer in the world thanks to its clever disguise. Servers are written in Javascript. Databases are built to talk Javascript. The people who build browsers and operating systems move heaven and earth to make Javascript just a tiny bit faster. Java’s still out there, of course. In various forms. It probably makes sure your account is updated when you pay your water bill. It’s making the underpinnings of your android phone work. It’s figured out a way to play host to a zillion new trendier programming languages. But Javascript won the original prize.

Anyway, I’m just pointing this out because I remember the time when I didn’t know the difference between Java and Javascript and I’d find a tutorial for one or an article about the other and I was like “wtf, how do these go together.” The answer is, “they don’t. Marketing people just tried to name them as confusingly as possible.”

JavaScript today is..

  • Used in every website you visit online.. like 99.9999% of them.
  • At the core of famous server-side Node.js, an evented I/O framework.
  • If you heard of beautiful frameworks like jQuery, YUI, and more recently SproutCore and Cappuccino (Objective-J).. all JavaScript.
  • HTML5? replacement for Flash and other slick interface functionality, yap you guessed it.. JavaScript.
  • It is the most important language today!

What next

Plenty more informative & juicy articles on this front are being lined up. Not to mention I am starting a fun project with few smart software engineers in the valley which aims to give back to the community around this most important language today, JavaScript. Stay tuned to find out more on what’s next!

~ Ernest