Smalltalk: is it a small business thing?

Last saturday we had a little get together in Frankfurt called “Smalltalk Inspect Fest 2012”. We had no pre-organized agenda or anything, just a room and a few people who attended. I’ll probably post a few impressions over the next few days, but one of the most interesting things that I am currently wondering about is whether Smalltalk is a small business thing…

The majority of attendants was willing to show their current work, but unfortunately we were thrown out of the room before all presentations could be made.

The thing I am most thinking about now is that all that I’ve seen came out of small businesses or from one-man companies. Not a single project we’ve seen that evening was a major Smalltalk project of the kind Smalltalk is usually associated with in the public eye: big corporations, multi-million projects with dozens of developers.

In fact, most of the stuff was completely different: innovative web applications, very specific solutions to certain markets or technical challenges. Mostly done in extremely short time and in very elegant ways. And most of the companies that people came from are very successful in their niche, some of them without any competition at all or at least in a very good position within their specific market. Part of what was presented was Software that is on the market for more than a decade and has long proven to be stable and flexible enough to build a constantly growing, happy customer base.

So I wonder if that is the niche where Smalltalk really shows its strengths today: small, agile businesses who come up with a brilliant idea and need a solution that can deliver value very fast and still is flexible enough to grow the solution and keep it easily maintainable over time.

Maybe the Smalltalk market as a business is mostly financed by all those large corporations that have a dozen or two licences for a decade or more and are maintaining their applications, but it seems that innovation is happening outside of these tankers.  Not that this is a big surprise, because many applications in large corporations are not expected to go to the web.

The question I ask myself here is what implications this has on the Smalltalk vendors. Does it mean the vendors will (have to) concentrate on their legacy customers more than on innovative projects? And does that in turn mean that Smalltalk as a whole will divide into a corporate, dinosaur-oriented market and an agile, progressive open-source community? Does that sound scary to Smalltalk vendors?

All three major players are opening up for the open source community, some started early on, some are a bit later in the game, but they all have at least some kind of bridge to make code from open-source projects available to their customers. Some even offer ways to commit code back to the community. All three do support open source projects and provide feedback, help and code, and they also cooperate with their competitors in such projects.

This way, they open up a door for their corporate customers to profit from innovative open-source initiatives in their projects if they need or want to. And some Smalltalk customers donate code to the community, on all kindfs of platforms, like squeaksource, the public StoRE or, mostly those who are closer to the Small Business, Progressive part of the community, but sometimes even banks or insurance companies donate code or finance initiatives.

So maybe the Smalltalk market is not much different from others. And maybe our get together last weekend just was a sign for the fact that smaller companies or one-man shows tend to visit such events while employees of big corporations don’t.

So I can’t really say whether Smalltalk vendors are dinosaurs or not, but our Smalltalk Inspect Fest made me think about all this, and I’ve not yet come to a conclusion. Maybe it even doesn’t really matter as long as people are innovative and build cool solutions, enjoy Smalltalk and make progress. I can say, however, that people do have fun using Smalltalk, build cool software and beat their competition on many fields. And, as long as that is the case, Smalltalk is by far less dead than many people think.

So the Smalltalk Inspect Fest 2012 was a success for me!