Dart and TypeScript as JavaScript alternatives

JavaScript was designed at Netscape by Brendan Eich within a couple of weeks as a simple scripting language for the web browser. It’s an interesting mixture of Self‘s prototype-based object model, first-class functions inspired by LISP, a C/AWK-like syntax and a misleading name imposed by marketing.

Unfortunately, the haste in which JavaScript was designed by a single person shows in many places. Lots of features are inconsistent and violate the principle of least surprise. Just skim through the JavaScript Garden to get an idea.

Another aspect casting a poor light on JavaScript is the bad design of the browser DOM API, including incompatibilities between different browser implementations.

Douglas Crockford redeemed the reputation of JavaScript somewhat, by writing articles like “JavaScript: The World’s Most Misunderstood Programming Language“, the (relatively thin) book “JavaScript: The Good Parts” and discovering the JSON format. But even his book consists for the most part of advice on how to avoid the bad and the ugly parts.

However, JavaScript is ubiquitous. It is the world’s most widely deployed programming language, it’s the only programming language option available in all browsers on all platforms. The browser DOM API incompatibilities were ironed out by libraries like jQuery. And thanks to the JavaScript engine performance race started by Google some time ago with their V8 engine, there are now implementations available with decent performance – at least for a scripting language.

Some people even started to like JavaScript and are writing server-side code in it, for example the node.js community. People write office suites, emulators and 3D games in JavaScript. Atwood’s Law seems to be confirmed: “Any application that can be written in JavaScript, will eventually be written in JavaScript.”

Trans-compiling to JavaScript is a huge thing. There are countless transpilers of existing or new programming languages to JavaScript. One of these, CoffeeScript, is a syntactic sugar mixture of Ruby and Python on top of JavaScript semantics, and has gained some name recognition and adoption, at least in the Rails community.

But there are two other JavaScript alternatives, backed by large companies, which also happen to be browser manufacturers: Dart by Google and TypeScript by Microsoft. Both have recently reached version 1.0 (Dart even 1.2), and I will have a look at them in this blog post.

Large-scale application development and types

Scripting languages with dynamic type systems are neat and flexible for small and medium sized projects, but there is evidence that organizations with large code bases and large teams prefer at least some amount of static types. For example, Google developed the Google Web Toolkit, which compiled Java to JavaScript and the Closure compiler, which adds type information and checks to JavaScript via special comments, and now Dart. Facebook recently announced their Hack language, which adds a static type system to PHP, and Microsoft develops TypeScript, a static type add-on to JavaScript.

The reasoning is that additional type information can help finding bugs earlier, improve tool support, e.g. auto-completion in IDEs and refactoring capabilities such as safe, project-wide renaming of identifiers. Types can also help VMs with performance optimization.

TypeScript

This weekend the release of TypeScript 1.0 was announced by Microsoft’s language designer Anders Hejlsberg, designer of C#, also known as the creator of the Turbo Pascal compiler and Delphi.

TypeScript is not a completely new language. It’s a superset of JavaScript that mainly adds optional type information to the language via Pascal-like colon notation. Every JavaScript program is also a valid TypeScript program.

The TypeScript compiler tsc takes .ts files and translates them into .js files. The output code does not change a lot and is almost the same code that you would write by hand in JavaScript, but with erased type annotations. It does not add any runtime overhead.

The type system is heavily based on type inference. The compiler tries to infer as much type information as possible by following the flow of types through the code.

TypeScript has interfaces that are very similar to interfaces in Go: A type does not have to declare which interfaces it implements. Interfaces are satisfied implicitly if a type has all the required methods and properties – in short, TypeScript has a structural type system.

Type definitions for existing APIs and libraries such as the browser DOM API, jQuery, AngularJS, Underscore.js, etc. can be added via .d.ts files.
These definition files are very similar to C header files and contain type signatures of the API’s functions. There’s a community maintained repository of .d.ts files called Definitely Typed for almost all popular JavaScript libraries.

TypeScript also enhances JavaScript with functionaliy that is planned for ECMAScript 6, such as classes, inheritance, modules and shorthand lambda expressions. The syntax is the same as the proposed ES6 syntax, and the generated code follows the usual JavaScript patterns.

TypeScript is an open source project under Apache License 2.0. The project even accepts contributions and pull-requests (yes, Microsoft). Microsoft has integrated TypeScript support into Visual Studio 2013, but there is support for other IDEs and editors such as JetBrain’s IDEA or Sublime Text.

Dart

Dart is a JavaScript alternative developed by Google. Two of the main brains behind Dart are Lars Bak and Gilad Bracha. In the early 90s they worked in the Self VM group at Sun. Then they left Sun for LongView Technologies (Animorphic Systems), a company that developed Strongtalk, a statically typed variant of Smalltalk, and later the now-famous HotSpot VM for Java. Sun bought LongView Technologies and made HotSpot Java’s default VM. Bracha co-authored parts of the Java specification, and designed an object-oriented language in the tradition of Self and Smalltalk called Newspeak. At Google, Lars Bak was head developer of the V8 JavaScript engine team.

Unlike TypeScript, Dart is not a JavaScript superset, but a language of its own. It’s a curly-braces-and-semicolons language that aims for familiarity. The object model is very similar to Java: it has classes, inheritance, abstract classes and methods, and an @override annotation. But it also has the usual grab bag of features that “more sugar than Java but similar” languages like C#, Groovy or JetBrain’s Kotlin have:

Lambdas (via the fat arrow =>), mixins, operator overloading, properties (uniform access for getters and setters), string interpolation, multi-line strings (in triple quotes), collection literals, map access via [], default values for arguments, optional arguments.

Like TypeScript, Dart allows optional type annotations. Wrong type annotations do not stop Dart programs from executing, but they produce warnings. It has a simple notion of generics, which are optional as well.

Everything in Dart is an object and every variable can be nullable. There are no visibility modifiers like public or private: identifiers starting with an underscore are private. The “truthiness” rules are simple compared to JavaScript: all values except true are false.

Dart comes with batteries included: it has a standard library offering collections, APIs for asynchronous programming (event streams, futures), a sane HTML/DOM API, removing the need for jQuery, unit testing and support for interoperating with JavaScript. A port of Angular.js to Dart exists as well and is called AngularDart.

Dart supports a CSP-like concurrency model based on isolates – independent worker threads that don’t share memory and can communicate via SendPorts and
ReceivePorts.

However, the Dart language is only one half of the Dart project. The other important half is the Dart VM. Dart can be compiled to JavaScript for compatibility with every browser, but it offers enhanced performance compared to JavaScript when the code is directly executed on the Dart VM.

Dart is an open source project under BSD license. Google provides an Eclipse based IDE for Dart called the “Dart Editor” and Dartium, a special build of the Chromium browser that includes the Dart VM.

Conclusion

TypeScript follows a less radical approach than Dart. It’s a typed superset of JavaScript and existing JavaScript projects can be converted to TypeScript simply by renaming the source files from *.js to *.ts. Type annotations can be added gradually. It would even be simple to switch back from TypeScript to JavaScript, because the generated JavaScript code is extremely close to the original source code.

Dart is a more ambitious project. It comes with a new VM and offers performance improvements. It will be interesting to see if Google is going to ship Chrome with the Dart VM one day.

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