The great JavaScript debate: Improve it or kill it?

Google's Dart aims to replace JavaScript, Intel's River Trail to extend it; the race is on as smartphone apps threaten the need for open JavaScript

Whatever you may think of JavaScript, it's undeniably one of the most important programming languages in modern computing. The only language that can run in every modern Web browser without the aid of plug-ins, regardless of platform, JavaScript is the lingua franca of the client-side Web.

That's a heavy burden to place on one language. Naturally, not everyone is happy. As Web applications gain ever more prominence, the pressure on JavaScript to be all things to all developers is mounting.

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A lot of progress has already been made. Google, in particular, has been urging browser makers to improve the performance of their JavaScript engines, resulting in a miniature arms race among the top vendors. Mozilla has made distinct improvements in Firefox's JavaScript engine in recent years, but perhaps the greatest gains have been achieved by Microsoft, after realizing that poor JavaScript performance threatened to render Internet Explorer irrelevant. Today, Microsoft is even working to integrate JavaScript into Windows and Office as a core scripting language.

But even these improvements don't seem to be enough. As developers continue to ask more and more of JavaScript, its limitations are thrown into sharp relief. Now comes news that Google, long one of the most vocal supporters of browser-based applications over desktop software, has been quietly working on a new language called Dart, to be unveiled at the upcoming Goto Conference in Denmark, that's designed to overcome JavaScript's "fundamental flaws" by replacing it altogether.

So which is it? Will the Web development community continue to work to make JavaScript a first-class development platform, despite its failings? Or will it take the "nuclear option" and abandon it for greener pastures? The answer seems to be a little of both.

Google hedges its bets
Facts about Dart are scarce and will probably remain so until the Goto Conference. Most of what we know now comes from a leaked memo from November 2010 written by Google developer Mark S. Miller, titled "The Future of JavaScript." Yet even that memo shows Google pursuing not one but two options for the future of the client-side Web.

In the memo, Miller described Dart as an "extremely high-risk" option, one that relies on convincing other browser vendors to make a "clean break" with JavaScript. The other option -- Miller describes it as "relatively low-risk" -- is to evolve JavaScript into a better language. What's significant is that Miller's memo advises Google not to choose between the two options, but to tackle both at the same time.

That's exactly what Google has been doing. According to Alex Russell, a Google developer working on Chrome Frame, among other projects (in addition to being one of the founders of the Dojo Toolkit), "Google is absolutely committed to making JavaScript better, and we're pushing hard to make it happen ... And boy, does it need a push."

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