From PHP to Perl: What's hot, what's not in scripting languages

Scripting languages now do 'real' programming -- so the race is on to get developers on board with just-in-time compilers and other advanced tools

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This is not to say that JavaScript does not have its share of detractors. "Aesthetically I just don't like JavaScript," says Mile Liles, a Baltimore programmer who tends to work either in Ruby on Rails or Java. "It's a personal thing."

Liles, however, acknowledges JavaScript's dominance on the Web and is intrigued by how you can use JavaScript without compromising aesthetic standards. In particular, he's drawn to CoffeeScript, a cleaner syntax that inserts the necessary curly brackets and compiles down to regular old JavaScript. In other words, it allows you to write JavaScript without getting your hands dirty with all of the JavaScript punctuation.

But CoffeeScript may prove even more powerful. St. Laurent, for one, sees projects such as CoffeeScript establishing JavaScript as the new JVM, a reference to how the Java virtual machine provided processor independence. CoffeeScript and other projects like Google Web Toolkit are converted into JavaScript in a similar way that Java is converted into the bytecode that runs on a JVM.

This strength as a competitor to the JVM has helped JavaScript find a second career on the server, thanks to Node.js. Yes, the visionaries at Netscape tried to build JavaScript-driven servers from the start, but they didn't have slick just-in-time compilers.

Further fueling JavaScript's resurgence on the server is the fact that every browser vendor seems to have concocted its own superspeedy tool to run JavaScript faster than ever. These new engines are easily 10 to 20 times faster than the ones from just three or four years ago. The Node.js team took one of these engines, V8, and produced the stellar throughput that drew everyone's attention back to the server.

But JavaScript's bread and butter remains on the client, where developers are building powerful capabilities using elaborate JavaScript libraries that smooth out the differences between browsers. These ambitions have been made possible in large part by jQuery, which is now so ubiquitous and stable that many people might be said to be programming in jQuery not JavaScript.

This vector is also giving JavaScript an increasing role in smartphone programming. While many developers who need very responsive interfaces swear by native code, a number of people with simpler, less performance-dependent requirements are turning to JavaScript frameworks such as Sencha or jQuery Mobile. This code can be hosted on a Web server or be bundled into an application using the open source project PhoneGap.

All of this interest is immediately apparent in O'Reilly's book sales charts, with JavaScript accounting for 57 percent of scripting-language-related book sales, up from 42 percent in 2009. It was also one of the few computer languages to sell more books in 2010 than 2009, bucking the economic downturn.

But not everything is perfect. Programmers gossip that the JavaScript committee is frozen by an inability to change the established infrastructure. And the stakes have become so high that battles will inevitably hobble the effort to create the next edition of JavaScript -- ironically code-named "Harmony." Google is reportedly working in parallel on a new language called either Dash or Dart that will fix all of the problems with using JavaScript for big projects like Gmail. Yet for all of these flaws, it's more omnipresent than ever.

Not-hot scripting language: ActionScript

If sales of O'Reilly scripting language books are any indication, the rise of JavaScript has claimed one clear victim: ActionScript.

Created by Adobe to help juggle sprites in Flash and Flex, ActionScript rose to 31 percent of O'Reilly book sales among scripting languages in 2009. While language experts note that ActionScript is a superset of ECMAScript, the official name of JavaScript, the two dialects are not interchangeable. In 2009, everyone wanted to build sophisticated games and other slick presentations with the language.

That was then. Now, ActionScript accounts for 17 percent of the scripting language marketplace at O'Reilly Books, while plain old JavaScript is booming. What happened? In two buzzwords: HTML5 and iPhone.

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