Why do we need commercial Smalltalk implementations?

Over on the VA Smalltalk Discussion group, somebody asked what commercial Smalltalk vendors are needed for nowadays where you have the choice between so many good and innovativa platforms like Pharo, Amber, Squeak and quite a few others that are completely free and maintained by an open community.

I am pretty convinced we need both: open source implementations which test the ground for new, innovative, sometimes radical technologies and tools (I can tell you there is a lot of that stuff going on right now) and vendors that concentrate on stability and longevity, which includes long-term support and downwards compatibility.

Here’s what I wrote on the discussion thread:

I must say I immediately had a smile on my face when I read Sebastians comparison between a tank and an e-car. But it is not bad after all. He surely nailed it when he mentioned the longevity and long-term support of commercial Smalltalks.

VA ST is quite young on the commercial Smalltalk market, just above 20 years old 😉
When Instantiations took VAST over from IBM, they made two very important decisions:

* They’d keep their versions downward compatible to the last IBM version for a while (this still stands true, after 9 years)
* They’d provide support in their support contracts for all existing versions of VisualAge and VA Smalltalk, so that even if you don’t upgrade to VAST 8.6, you’ll still get help from INstantiations for your VisualAge 4.5 code (just an example)

This is very important for commercial customers, and has been for a number of our customers as well. Some of them never used newer VAST versions, but still renew their VAST support contracts every year. They had hard times in the days when top management wanted everything reimplemented in Java. These projects, however, had to deliver new features on mini-budgets for ten years or more, before even the top management realized they’d have to ramp up their budgets and teams again, because the rewrite never actually happened or never worked (not always for technical reasons).

Support is the keyword here. Pharo and Squeak are communities in which some projects just are reinventions of wheels, because somebody thought “well, wouldn’t it be cool if…”, and instead of researching available code or concepts just wrote stuff. SOme of these lead to great sub-projects, some were just dropped in favor of something else. This is not bad per se, because that is what evolution is all about. But if you as a user decided to use such a dead-end, you are in trouble and will probably run into even more trouble if a new version of the IDE simply doesn’t host the old code well. You will be cut off the innovation until you migrate a potentially big pile of code.

With commercial support, decisions will be made more cautious and definitely slower, because the vendor has to guarantuee that their customers can use their code for a number of years. Switching to something new that replaces something old has to be made feasible and as easy as possible, because customers would complain a lot. There have been examples in the Smalltalk world where commercial vendors made exactly this mistake: make a decision, postulate something as the future and after a few years let it drop like a hot potato. Customers were upset, because they had been financing something that never made it into the product, had to live with postponed fixes and extensions of old code, because the vendor said “our now thing will solve this problem anyways”, and so on.

So commercial Smalltalks move slower, but give you safety.

On the other hand, nowadays there are lots of open source projects that get ported from, say, Pharo to VA. There are lots of great stuff coming from the Pharo community especially, and many of them will stay, for sure!

One thing that I hope will happen in the near future is that we’ll also be able to give code and stuff back into the open source community, not just harvest from it. But that is not so much a technical problem, but a political one in the customer base of commercial Smalltalk implementations…

If you don’t buy this argument, just take a second to think about why Redhat and SuSE are so successful? Why do you think Ubuntu got a dent into that market? I think it is because they understood that long-term support is a key factor for commercial users.

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