Happy silver jubilee to JavaScript, king of the web at 25 and still hanging on to its crown, for now

Two and a half decades on, JavaScript is everywhere


JavaScript turned twenty-five years old on Friday, if you count from December 4, 1995, when Netscape Communications and Sun Microsystems first announced the technology.

The programming language's creator, Brendan Eich, presently CEO of browser biz Brave Software, considers May 1995 to be when the project – 10 days in the making – was born. But when first conceived, JavaScript was called Mocha and subsequently LiveScript before the trademarked JavaScript name surfaced seven months later.

At the time, Sun co-founder and VP of research Bill Joy described JavaScript as a "the most effective method to connect HTML-based content to Java applets." But in the years that followed, improvements in JavaScript, the language's better integration into browsers, developments like Google's V8 JavaScript engine, and Java applet issues related to compatibility, security, and API versioning combined to end the plug-in model.

JavaScript, properly described as an implementation of the ECMAScript specification since it became a standard in June 1997, has become the primary language for web-based applications. Over the past few years, it has consistently ranked among the most popular programming languages in the world.

Douglas Crockford, a veteran JavaScript developer and author who proposed the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) specification, told The Register in an email that while Netscape may be dead and gone, JavaScript continues to rule the web.

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"JavaScript's cobbling together of functions and malleable objects was brilliant," he said. "It also has heaped on top a big load of crap, which increases each year with every revision of the ECMAScript standard."

"But the core language remains good, and has propelled JavaScript to become the world's most important programming language," he said. "The World Wide Web would have been supplanted years ago had it not been for JavaScript's ability to work about the web's limitations and defects."

In an email to The Register, Ben Vinegar, VP of engineering at web performance monitoring biz Sentry and author of JavaScript books, argued that JavaScript's ubiquity has been the key to its success.

"Today JavaScript runs on every computing device, server (and serverless) platform, and most importantly the browser," said Vinegar. "The barrier to getting started with JavaScript is as simple as starting Chrome and trying out some code on the developer console."

"And more importantly, nearly every software company today is shipping software to browsers," he said. "Facebook, Google, Microsoft – no matter how wildly different their backend infrastructure may be, regardless of whatever language they use on the backend, they are shipping complex UIs written in JavaScript to be executed in the browser."

Vinegar pointed to Microsoft Office, which a decade ago ran only as native desktop software, mostly for the Windows operating system. Office now can be invoked in the browser under the Microsoft 365 umbrella, thanks to a lot of JavaScript.

JavaScript is likely to remain popular for years to come, though it may have reached its highwater mark. Other technologies have emerged that may be better for certain tasks. One of these is TypeScript, a Microsoft-backed superset of JavaScript that adds support for static typing.

Vinegar, however, is skeptical that TypeScript can supplant JavaScript.

"TypeScript confers many advantages, but it loses on ubiquity," he said. "That example of opening up my browser’s developer console and executing JavaScript: I can’t do that with TypeScript. You need to download and install the TypeScript compiler, fiddle with your application’s build scripts, compile your TypeScript files to JavaScript, then run that in the browser (or another runtime like Node.js)."

Vinegar said until there's native support for TypeScript in the browser and other runtimes, he doesn't see things changing. "It’s really, really hard to beat 'just works out of the box,'" he said.

Even so, Vinegar said he believes JavaScript's popularity may ebb over the next five years as WebAssembly matures. WebAssembly, or wasm, provides a way to convert code from various languages like C++, Go, and Rust into a binary format that can be executed by a stack-based virtual machine in the browser. As such, wasm modules can be run in conjunction with JavaScript code, allowing scenarios where JavaScript hands processor-intensive tasks off to wasm code for greater speed and efficiency.

Vinegar said browser-based apps that rely on compiled WebAssembly and not so much on JavaScript have already begun to appear. He pointed to Figma, a browser-based design-collaboration tool written in C++ and converted to wasm so it can run in the browser.

"I think JavaScript will always be there, but you could see a future where it’s 20 per cent of the code people are writing, and the remaining 80 per cent shifting to other languages that compile to Web Assembly," he said.

Even Eich, JavaScript's maker, recently modified his often-vindicated dismissal of JavaScript rivals – "Always bet on JS" – to accommodate the impact of WebAssembly: "Always bet on JS (engines, where wasm runs)." ®


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