NodeJS is the new Java

I’ve been getting a kick out of the thrashing NodeJS has been taking recently. The whole situation reminds me of a similar world about 15 years ago. At the time, I was working at a consulting company in France with this newfangled language called Java. Me and three guys (Remy, Laurent and Jacques) were working on an embedded Java operating system for a smartcard terminal. We were the company’s only Java developers. At the time, everyone was either doing client-server development in PowerBuilder and Visual Basic, or hard-core C and C++.

Java was a paradigm shift. But it also had a lot of warts. It was slow. Dog-ass slow. AWT was a nightmare. But everyone was attracted to it because of the cross-platform promise and the simple API. In the JDK 1.1.6 days, here is what the documentation looked like:

JDK 1.1.6 API Docs

The API was pretty basic. It provided the essentials for network IO, file handling, collections and the object hierarchy. While others saw limitations, my team saw a unconquered world of possibilities. If was fun finding solutions to problems learning Java. But Java was a disruptive technology for a lot of people. As Ghandi said, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I went through every stage of it over the span of a decade with Java.

Now, fast forward to Java 7. Java is now the establishment. But Java picked up a lot of baggage along the way to earning that crown. Here’s what the current API documentation looks like:

Java 7 API Docs

A new developer does not see a world of possibilities, they see a world of hurt. Hell, even the old timers see a world of hurt. Nothing about this gives you the feel of Java’s original, nimble roots. Which is a shame, because what made Java great is all still there, just wrapped in a crap sandwich.

Which brings us to NodeJS. To the uninitiated, NodeJS is server-side javascript. It is on the tipping point between the “ignore you” and “laugh at you” phases, and it is progressing along faster than Java. So why would anyone be interested in a limited, single-threaded language? The documentation tells the story:

Compare this to the original JDK 1.1.6 API documentation at the top. One would dare say it’s a pretty close clone. And that is why people like it. They see a world of possibilities in that basic API, warts and all. I see in NodeJS the same spark I saw in Java a decade ago. Everyone jokes Java (and .NET) are the new Cobol — NodeJS makes them both look like the new PowerBuilder.

So I believe the original JDK perfectly nailed the API hackers want. It provided the essentials, but no more. It ran pretty much everywhere. And it was fast enough. NodeJS has perfectly replicated that, and there is no reason it won’t become as big a success. The only challenge will be keeping it lean. NodeJS has a higher chance of success than Java because Sun wanted to court the enterprise market, whereas as the NodeJS crowd, to steal a DHH-ism, doesn’t give a shit what the enterprise thinks about their language.

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