What’s Happening in the JavaScript Ecosystem

Lots of things are happening there. As of today it’s the liveliest software ecosystem. The last time I’ve seen such an interesting gathering was 15 years ago in Java.

The Past

Fifteen years ago Java developers were looking down on the JavaScript folks. It was assumed that JavaScript was only good for highlighting menus and making an impression that the Web site is current by displaying a running clock on the page. Mobile phones still had buttons with one digits and three letters. There were no App stores. Java was promising “Write once run everywhere”, but now we can see that JavaScript actually delivered on this promise.

Say, you are developing in the XYZ language and wrote tons of programs in this language over the last 15 years. During this time new versions of the XYZ were released. The hardware advanced and new versions of operational systems came about. And you decided to take your old XYZ program written in the last century and run it on the brand new iPhone 6 or Android. Voila! It works without changing a line of code! I don’t know about the XYZ language, but programs written in JavaScript 15 years ago still work on iPhones.


Having said that, writing in JavaScript was never a pleasant experience. Some people made fun of JavaScript. Making fun of Brendan Eich, who created JavaScript in 10 days, was popular.

Other people started creating multiple libraries and frameworks to lower the pain of writing in plain JavaScript and making it work in different browsers. Ten years ago there were a couple of hundred JavaScript libraries and frameworks. People were overwhelmed by the freedom of choice well explained by Barry Schwartz in this video. The ECMAScript was abandoned. HTML5 was not born yet. In short, Web development was not fun.

The Present

In 2016 the situation is drastically different:

— The ECMAScript (ES) standard is actively being worked on, and its new versions will be released annually. Last year the ES6 (aka ES2015) spec was released and ES7 will be released this year. Now the JavaScript language has classes, lambda expressions (a.k.a. arrow functions), predictable “this”, block scope, generator functions, promises, destructuring, spread and rest operators and more. Some hardcore JavaScript developers immediately started WTF-ing classes as being a lot worse than functions, but these discussions are as useful as arguments about where to put curly braces in the if-statements: on the same or on the new line. Classes are just a syntax sugar that doesn’t change the prototypal inheritance, but reading and writing code is much easier now.

— All major browsers support most of the ES6 syntax.

— Transpilers easily generate ES5 program from the ES6 code so you can deploy the ES6 code today in all browsers.

— Dozens of languages emerged allowing you to write code that gets converted int to JavaScript automatically. The best of the breed is TypeScript created by Anders Hejlsberg from Microsoft. In the past he also created C#, Delphi and Turbo Pascal.

— Tons of open-source JavaScript code are published in various repositories. The most popular repo is npmjs.org, which has more than 200K libraries, frameworks and useful utilities. By the way, npm literally killed bower, his former competitor.

— Google created a super-fast JavaScript engine V8. The Node.js framework allows you to write standalone applications that don’t require browsers. Node servers started to compete with the ones written in Java. Despite the single-threaded architecture of I/O, Node’s asynchronous processing allows handling tens of thousands client requests simultaneously.

— There are build automation tools (we use Webpack), which minimize and optimize the JavaScript code with the further bundling separate files together so browsers don’t need to make dozens of requests to the server to download that home page.

— The WebComponents standard prescribes how to develop custom HTML components. The Material Design principles explain how to develop nice-looking Web pages. Google implemented these principles in a library of custom components called Polymer. We already tried it in the real-world projects, and it works!

– HTTP/2, a major revision of HTTP will substantially speed up the client-server communications.

Libraries and Frameworks

The number of JavaScript libraries and frameworks is comparable to the number of presidential candidates in the Republican Party in the USA. Those (mainly enterprise) folks who want to get everything out of the box and are not afraid to sell themselves into slavery still use Ext JS. This is not an easy to master framework, but it has everything you need to develop back-office enterprise applications.

Developers who want a lighter framework that puts a structure on your app with navigation and data binding usually go with AngularJS 1.x or Ember. They would need to integrate third-party libraries for graphical components, grids, and a usual Twitter’s Bootstrap (to make the app usable on mobile phones and tablets), but it’s doable. Some people prefer the React framework from Facebook, but React is mainly about views, and you’d need to use some third-party libraries to build an app.

Those who don’t like prix fixe meals and prefer a la carte menus pick a bunch of small libraries each of which can do one thing well. They are ready to face the issues while trying to make these libraries work together. Such people charge higher rates and project managers keep their fingers crossed hoping that these developers won’t quit.

Fashion Trends

In this season every top model-developer entering a catwalk wears reactive accessories. Not that “reactive” is something completely new (even our grandmas liked messaging, pub-sub, and the observer-observable pattern), but in today’s asynchronous UI world, reactive is a must have. We need to give a credit to Microsoft (do people still hate it by default?) for beautifully designed reactive extensions, which in JavaScript world go by the name RxJS.

In the reactive world every component or service is implemented as a stream. Everything is a stream. You are a stream. I am a stream. A click on a button spits out the event as a next element of a stream. An HTTP request to a server returns a response as an element of a stream (promises had their 15-min of fame and are considered old fashioned these days). A piece of data pushed over a WebSocket connection is an element of a stream you can subscribe to. And there is a nice little twist to it: a subscriber can regulate the stream volume and lower the pressure if need be.

A year ago a team from Google decided to re-write their super-popular (1.1M devs) framework AngularJS. They started with creating a new language AtScript just for the new Anguar 2, but then invited the TypeScript team from Microsoft (can we start liking Microsoft, just a little bit?), and asked them to add some features to the TypeScript language. Microsoft folks kindly agreed, and Google wrote Angular 2 in TypeScript, which also became a recommended language for developing Angular 2 apps. Now the code of Angular 2 apps is easy to read and write even for Java and C# developers (see this). Needless to say that RxJS is embedded inside Angular 2.

Jokes aside, I really like the Angular 2/TypeScript/RxJS/npm/Webpack combo. During the last ten months I’ve been working with my colleague Anton Moiseev on the book “Angular 2 Development with TypeScript“. So far Manning published 300 pages of this book, and the remaining 150 pages are almost ready. The code faindz will lower the price of the eBook by 39%.

If you prefer to learn Angular 2 in a classroom setting, this year I’ll be teaching Angular 2 classes and my training/speaking schedule is published here.

The Bottom Line

My hat off to Brendan Eich for not over-engineering the language. JavaScript is getting a lot of traction and the demand for professional JavaScript developers will grow by leaps and bounds. Be there and stay current.

5 thoughts on “What’s Happening in the JavaScript Ecosystem

  1. Excellent summary! I look forward to attending your NYC class later this month.

    Regarding Polymer, it appears now that the Angular team is not promoting it as a first choice for Material Design controls in Angular 2. Rather, they’re positioning their own suite of “Angular Material 2” components as the preferred option, which was just released in alpha yesterday, with a promise for a final version when Angular 2 comes out of beta: http://angularjs.blogspot.com/2016/03/angular-material-2-alpha-preview.html .

    I was at the Fluent conference in SF last week, and in a Q&A, Brad Green (the Angular 2 team lead) said that yes, Polymer will work in Angular 2, but additional work may be required to overcome polyfill issues outside of Chrome (the only browser where Polymer’s pure web components are already natively supported). In a follow-up, I asked why Angular 2 wasn’t embracing Polymer more fully, and he cited “performance and architecture concerns”, noting that the “Angular Material 2” components will be ready when Angular 2 is ready.

    All this I take to mean that google is still very much wanting to expand adoption of Material Design; but it doesn’t necessarily have to come through Polymer (the first MD adopter). So, “Angular Material 2” for Ang2 projects, and Polymer for those who want MD without Angular. I had been planning to use Polymer in Angular 2 going forward, but for the moment this has changed my thinking.

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