Just Starting Out?

I’ve recently had the opportunity of introducing a newcomer to the world of Smalltalk, something that happens far too infrequently these days.  The neophyte was doing it out of an interest in the language rather than out of an employment requirement, which made it especially important that the experience be as painless and rewarding as possible.

It should be no surprise to any of us that new Smalltalkers are most likely going to be coming to us from the Ruby world.  A large number of them are also Linux or Mac users.  When I have a choice, I use a Mac, but I’m willing to let others make their own mistakes.  As it turns out, the person I was working with was a Linux user, which immediately ruled out a look at Dolphin Smalltalk.  There are, however, a number of Smalltalk environments that do work in Linux.

These days, I spend most of my Smalltalk life in VA Smalltalk from Instantiations, which happens to support Linux, more or less.  Given that I’m supporting an existing environment, I don’t really have a choice, but I’d probably have chosen VA Smalltalk anyway.  There’s absolutely nothing like ENVY for supporting co-located development.  However, for someone approaching Smalltalk for the first time, VA Smalltalk is just too much complexity, even for the installation.  On top of that, the development environment under Linux is just too slow and flakey.   I did a quick demo of the VASt environment on Linux, and my protégé commented on how old the environment looked.  For myself, didn’t want to subject a newcomer to the raft of error messages that kept showing up in the shell window from which VASt was started.

In a past life, I’ve spent a lot of time with Cincom products.  VisualWorks runs quite well on both the Mac and Linux, and they’ve done some excellent work in keeping the environment fresh.  I’d happily have used it for this introduction but Cincom Smalltalk can’t currently be downloaded from their website.  Instead, one has to request that a CD be mailed; this is a significant barrier that will hold back investigation by potential new users.

When Cincom was downloadable, they provided an ISO of the installation disk that included all supported platforms.  I’d strongly recommend to Instantiations that they look at a similar mechanism.  They currently require one to download multiple zip files, unzip each file, step into a subdirectory and then execute a setup program.  After the install is complete, the unzipped directory needs to be removed.  Cincom provided a single download for all environments, and all the installation programs were located in the same directory.

I didn’t even give GNU Smalltalk serious consideration because I find the Smalltalk IDE to be a significant advantage to developers.  It also offers a lot of code one can look at that is already known to be working, since it’s running the IDE. Smalltalk/X offers an IDE, but I’m just not familiar enough with it to risk using it during an introduction. These two Smalltalk dialects certainly have their place, but I don’t think they’re appropriate for newcomers.

Ultimately, we ended up in Pharo, an environment I haven’t really had the opportunity to spend much time with.  After some bad experiences with Squeak a few years ago, I’ve tended to stick with the old standards, but I was pleasantly surprised with the current state of Pharo, and given that much of the current innovation in the Smalltalk world is coming from Pharo, it’s not a bad place to start a newcomer.


5 Responses to “Just Starting Out?”

  1. 1 Stéphane Ducasse 2011-05-03 at 02:54

    welcome to Pharo.
    our vision is to create an ecosystem where innovation and business can grow and to make sure that Smalltalk continue to innovate.


  2. 2 Friedrich 2011-05-03 at 07:55

    Smallalk/X is very under appriciated IMHO. It’s one of the fastest IDES around and even documented. It uses GTK and fits nice into gnome. And IIRC you can even produce stand alone programs with it.

    What I do not know is if Seaside, Aida or what other software runs in it.

  3. 5 Geert 2011-05-05 at 09:27

    I hope you did show your newcomer http://www.world.st … and the Smalltalk community is also very happy to help out on forum.world.st 🙂

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