Tag Archives: javascript

Microsoft releases WinJS cross-browser JavaScript library but why?

Microsoft has announced WinJS 3.0:

The Windows Library for JavaScript (WinJS) project is pleased to announce the general availability of its first release – WinJS 3.0 – since the open source project began at //BUILD 2014.

Much of WinJS will run on any modern browser but the browser support matrix has a number of gaps:

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You can also see what runs where from this status table.

But what is WinJS? Note that it comes from the Windows apps team, not the web development team at Microsoft. WinJS was designed to enable app development for Windows 8 “Metro” (also known as the Windows Runtime) using JavaScript, CSS and HTML. Back in 2010, when Microsoft signalled the end of Silverlight and the rise of HTML 5 for browser-based applications, early versions of WinJS would already have been in preparation. Using WinJS you can share code across a Windows 8 app, web apps, and via an app packager like Apache Cordova, in apps for Android and iOS as well.

Note that Cordova is now integrated into Visual Studio, using the catchy name Multi-Device Hybrid App:

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If you want to know what kind of controls and components are on offer in WinJS, you can find out using the excellent demo site here. This is Firefox:

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Quick summary then: WinJS lets you build apps that look like Windows 8 Store apps, but which run cross-browser and cross-platform. But who wants to do that?

Maybe Microsoft does. The messaging from the company, especially since CEO Satya Nadella took over from Windows guy Steve Ballmer, is “any device”, provided of course that they hook up to Microsoft’s services. That messaging is intended for developers outside the company too. Check out the current campaign for Microsoft Azure, which says “consume on any device”.

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This could be a web application, or it could be a client app using Azure Mobile Services or an ASP.NET Web API application to connect to cloud data.

You do not have to use WinJS to consume Microsoft’s services of course. Why would developers want to use the look and feel of a rather unloved app platform, rather than the native look and feel of Android or iOS? That is an excellent question, and in most cases they will not. There could be cases though, for example for internal business apps where users care most about functionality. What is the current stock? What is the lead time? Show me this customer’s order history. A WinJS app might not look right for the platform, but the UI will be touch-friendly, and ease of rollout across the major mobile platforms could trump Apple’s design guidelines.

If you are writing a pure web application, users expectations concerning native look and feel are not so high. The touch-oriented design of WinJS is its main appeal, though other web frameworks like JQuery Mobile also offer this. The “Metro” design language is distinctive, and Microsoft will be making a renewed push for Windows Store apps, or Universal Apps, as part of the new wave of Windows called Windows 9 or “Threshold”. WinJS is the way to build apps for that platform using JavaScript and HTML, with the added bonus of easy porting to a broad range of devices.

This is a hard sell though. I am impressed by the effort Microsoft has put into making WinJS work cross-platform, but will be surprised to see much usage outside Windows Store apps (including Windows Phone). On the other hand, it does help to keep the code honest: this really is HTML and JavaScript, not just a wrapper for Windows Runtime APIs.

Here comes TypeScript: Microsoft’s superset of JavaScript

Microsoft’s Anders Hejlsberg has introduced TypeScript, a programming language which is a superset of JavaScript and which compiles to JavaScript code.

The thinking behind TypeScript is that JavaScript is unsuitable for large projects.

“JavaScript was never designed to be a programming language for big applications,” says Microsoft’s Anders Hejlsberg, inventor of C#. “It’s a scripting language.”

The ubiquity of JavaScript makes it remarkably useful though, with that now extending to the server thanks to projects like node.js. Microsoft is using node.js for its Azure Mobile Services.

TypeScript therefore lets you use features including type annotations, classes, modules and interfaces to make large projects more robust and maintainable.

Variable names are preserved when TypeScript is compiled. Further, since TypeScript is a superset, any JavaScript code can be pasted into a TypeScript project. The compiler is open source and you can download an early version here.

Microsoft is also trying to stay close to the specification for Ecmascript 6, the proposed next iteration of the official JavaScript standard, where relevant.

There is tooling for Visual Studio including a language service to provide code hinting, syntax highlighting and the like.

TypeScript differs from projects like Google Web Toolkit or Script#, both of which also emit JavaScript, in that it does not compile from one language into another; rather, it compiles into a reduced version of itself.

Why is Microsoft doing this? That is the interesting question. I would conjecture that it is partly self-interest. Microsoft itself has to write increasing amounts of JavaScript, for things like Office Web Apps (apparently written in Script#) and the new Azure portals. Azure Mobile Services uses JavaScript as mentioned above. JavaScript is also one of the options for coding apps for Windows 8. Better tools will help Microsoft itself to be more productive.

That said, the arrival of TypeScript will re-ignite the debate about whether Microsoft, while not anywhere close to abandoning .NET, is nevertheless drifting away from it, towards both native code in Windows and now JavaScript in the managed code space.

More information from Microsoft’s S Somasegar here.

Dropbox turns to CoffeeScript to beat JavaScript syntactic noise

Dropbox is a high-profile convert to CoffeeScript, a language that has the elegance of Ruby or Python but compiles into clean JavaScript in order to run in the browser. The Dropbox team says that CoffeeScript fixes many of JavaScript’s “syntactic problems.” In addition, a porting exercise reduced 23,437 lines of JavaScript to 18,417 lines of CoffeeScript, code, and this brevity was considered the “strongest argument” in favour – even though many of those eliminated lines were just curly braces and parentheses.

In order to port the code, the team used the Js2coffee tool; a bit of a brain-twist, a tool to convert JavaScript to a language that later compiles back to JavaScript.

The whole post is worth a read, and gives before and after examples.

Consider also the following:

Google’s Dart is an alternative web language that compiles to JavaScript, as is Google Web Toolkit

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are written in C# compiled to JavaScript with a version of Script#. Microsoft’s Roslyn compiler as a service project lets you copy and paste VB code as C# and vice versa, and is already also being used to compile C# as JavaScript. Microsoft’s Anders Hejlsberg is rumoured to be working on a JavaScript project.

JavaScript seems to be becoming the new Common Language Runtime, not that Microsoft’s .NET CLR is going away, but rather that JavaScript now better fulfils the goal: pick whatever language you like and run it in the browser. 

PostScript:

I was intrigued to note that the Dropbox post does not render properly in Internet Explorer 10. For some reason that must appeal to geeky humour, it includes code spoken as audio, but the audio tags fail:

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instead of

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Possible reasons: the Dropbox page has a DOCTYPE of XHTML 1.0, and the files are in .wav format where IE is documented only to support MP3 or MP4. IE10 therefore refuses to play the audio, which works fine in Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

The significance of this is not so much the technicalities, but rather what it implies about how many people now use IE in the community most likely to read this post.

Convert .NET Intermediate Language to JavaScript

Whomever called JavaScript the assembly language of the web was a true prophet.

Compiling .Net code to JavaScript is not new. I have heard that Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, browser-hosted editing of Office documents, are built with Script#.

The difference with JSIL is that it compiles .NET Intermediate Language (IL), and therefore works with any .NET language – though note that:

JSIL is still in development. You will hit bugs

The screenshot says it all

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Compile Object Pascal to JavaScript with Smart Mobile Studio

Here is an interesting project for Delphi developers: a compiler and IDE that takes your Object Pascal code and outputs HTML and JavaScript. 

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Smart Mobile Studio, also known as OPJS (Object Pascal to JavaScript) is a project from Optimale Systemer AS, and supports not only the Object Pascal language. but also reusable components in true Delphi style. The goal is to bring Object Pascal programming to mobile platforms, using PhoneGap to wrap the generated code as a native application for iOS, Android or other platforms.

According to the developers, “The Smart object pascal dialect is more or less identical to Delphi 7”. That said, there are no pointers, and ASM blocks contain normal JavaScript instead of machine instructions. This enables use of JavaScript libraries such as JQuery from Smart Mobile code:

You can access native JS through an ASM section, create an instance of it to a variant, and then access its methods directly.

Smart Mobile Studio is currently in closed Alpha so not ready for most of us just yet. Note that there are other options for mobile development with Delphi, including Embarcadero’s official FireMonkey project which can be used with the Free Pascal iOS compiler. Embarcadero has promised its own compiler for IOS in a future version, as well as an Android option.

Microsoft backs ECMAScript, dismisses Google Dart

Microsoft has posted an article on Evolving ECMAScript on its IE Blog. ECMAScript is the official standard for what we call JavaScript. The company is proposing some minor additions “to address gaps in Math, String and Number functionality as well as Globalization.” It has also taken the opportunity to take a shot at Google, which is proposing a new web language called Dart:

Some examples, like Dart, portend that JavaScript has fundamental flaws and to support these scenarios requires a “clean break” from JavaScript in both syntax and runtime. We disagree with this point of view. We believe that with committee participant focus, the standards runtime can be expanded and the syntactic features necessary to support JavaScript at scale can be built upon the existing JavaScript standard.

Dart will compile to JavaScript so there is a measure of compatibility, but if the language catches on then browsers without a native implementation will be disadvantaged.

Adobe’s Falcon JS: Compile Flex code to HTML and Javascript

Adobe has issued further information about its intention to donate the Flex SDK, which builds Flash applications from XML and ActionScript, to the Apache Software Foundation. Specifically, the donation will include:

  • BlazeDS, the free version of LiveCycle Data Services
  • Falcon, the new Flex compiler due to be completed in 2012
  • Falcon JS, a previously unannounced project

Of these, Falcon JS is the most eye-catching. This is an “experimental cross-compiler from MXML and ActionScript to HTML and JavaScript.” In other words, Falcon JS has the potential to give developers a migration path from Flash to HTML clients. Note that it is described as a cross-compiler rather than a porting tool, so it may well be that the output is not easily edited. The Google Web Toolkit works like this, converting Java to JavaScript but not in a form that anyone is expected to edit. Adobe also adds:

We have undertaken some experimental work in this area, but remain unsure as to the viability of fully translating Flex-based content to HTML. The Falcon JS cross-compiler, referenced above, represents this early work.

What about the most sensitive of Adobe’s statements, that HTML is the long-term solution for enterprise applications? Adobe says:

In time (and depending upon your application, it could be 3-5 years from now), we believe HTML5 could support the majority of use cases where Flex is used today.

and adds:

We intend to make investments in HTML-related technologies, so that we can help advance HTML5 to make it suitable for enterprise applications.

I am not sure to what extent the new statement will ease the worries of Flex developers; but at least Adobe is clear about its intentions. While there are benefits in the Flex SDK moving to Apache, overall the message is that Adobe is hastening towards HTML 5. I am surprised, considering the progress the company has made in creating a strong cross-platform toolkit for mobile and desktop applications. Although no-one should doubt that Adobe will continue to support and evolve Flex as a development platform, it has in effect declared it to be a legacy technology, and I would guess that the effect will be to depress the level of activity there.

Google offers the web a new language called Dart – but why?

Google has announced an early preview of Dart, a new language for web applications. The news is not a surprise, especially if you have been keeping track of the developer conference GOTO Aarhus, whose organisers had pre-announced that Google would be announcing its new language there, as indeed it did.

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Dart is a curly-brace language like JavaScript, Java, C, C++ and C#. In Dart, as in C# and Java, a class can implement multiple interfaces, but only inherit from a single class. Dart supports both static and dynamic typing. Google says it can be executed by a Dart VM, or converted to JavaScript:

Dart code can be executed in two different ways: either on a native virtual machine or on top of a JavaScript engine by using a compiler that translates Dart code to JavaScript. This means you can write a web application in Dart and have it compiled and run on any modern browser. The Dart VM is not currently integrated in Chrome but we plan to explore this option.

Google also says that you will be able to “execute Dart code directly in a VM on the server side”, so you can infer that Google has Dart in mind as an alternative PHP as well as to JavaScript. The company is using the phrase “structured web programming” to describe Dart, and this phrase appears in the announcement and as the subtitle on the Dart site. The implication is that JavaScript code tends to be poorly structured and that Dart will promote more maintainable code.

In the preview Dart only runs in Chrome, Safari 5 and Firefox 4+ – spot the missing browser vendors.

At first glance, Dart looks like a promising language, though I find myself asking what it is really for, when it bears a strong family resemblance to existing languages, and bearing in mind that the Google Web Toolkit, which compiles Java to JavaScript, already enables structured programming for web applications. The list of problems which Dart solves in the technical overview is not all that compelling.

Google states that:

Developers have not been able to create homogeneous systems that encompass both client and server, except for a few cases such as Node.js and Google Web Toolkit (GWT).

This is or was one of the attractions of Microsoft Silverlight, presuming you use C# on both server and client, but Silverlight is a plug-in that was never going to run on an iPad and from which Microsoft itself is now retreating; though it is worth noting that Dart is not unlike C#, especially the latest version of C# with dynamic features.

I guess that Dart is a consequence of the failure of ECMAScript 4.0, which was a cooperative effort to create a more modern and advanced JavaScript. Google is now going it alone; the key question is whether it can win support from others such as Apple and Microsoft, or whether this will be a Google language for Google on the server and Chrome on the client, or an interesting experiment that never really catches on.

Do we need Dart? I would value hearing from others what you think of Google’s proposal.

Wolfram announces Computable Document Format for interactive docs

Wolfram has announced the Computable Document Format (CDF), a document format that enables live computation to be embedded within it. “It’s a new way to communicate the world’s quantitative ideas much more richly than we have in the past, and in doing that a new kind of active document,” says  Conrad Wolfram, Strategic Director of Wolfram Research. That said, the technology here is not really new. There is a close relationship between CDF and Mathematica, Wollfram’s tool for creating mathematical calculations and simulations. The authoring tool for CDF is Mathematica:

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The announcement then is really about a new player for Mathematica content and applications, to broaden their usage. The CDF player is free, though there are some limitations. If you charge for your document, or want to display it without the player chrome, then a paid licence is needed. A CDF document can also be compiled into a standalone executable, blurring the distinction between document and application.

The CDF player is available for Mac, Windows and Linux. There is also a browser plug-in for embedding CDF documents into web pages.

It is easy to find use cases for CDF. It is for documents where there is value in performing calculations or interacting with data within the page. An example is pension planning:

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We have all seen those documents with a series of projections based on different assumptions about retirement age, contributions, investment growth and so on. This works better as an interactive chart where you can enter whatever values you like.

Other examples are statistical analysis and business intelligence, textbooks and course books where students can interact with equations and simulations, business proposals where you want to show how financial projections change based on different assumptions, or even general news reports where instead of a static chart you might want to show interactive graphics that let readers drill down into the data that interests them, or see real-time results.

Along with the computation engine, CDF supports a decent range of traditional content formatting features including cascading stylesheets.

Wolfram is correct in assuming that this kind of interactive document is important, and something we will increasingly take for granted in the era of the Web, eBooks and tablets. But can it succeed in establishing its own new document format when we already have HTML, Adobe PDF and Flash, Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, and other formats which are also capable of embedded interactive content?

That is a key question. Wolfram offers a table which claims to show the benefits of CDF versus competitors such as HTML and PDF, but it is as skewed as these tables usually are. Wolfram says a PDF document cannot be compiled as a standalone executable, for example, but a PDF in an Adobe AIR application comes close. It is also worth noting that you can embed Flash in PDF, which would be an obvious route to something like the pension planning document mentioned above.

Nevertheless, CDF does have advantages. In particular, it has Mathematica, and whereas authoring a Flash applet requires programming and design skills, Mathematica is more approachable presuming you have the necessary mathematical, scientific or financial skills; and if you do not, you should not be authoring the document. Mathematica will construct a user interface automatically. It also has a huge range of built-in algorithms, functions and charts. Wolfram claims that authoring a CDF should be within reach of anyone who can work with an Excel macro.

The challenge Wolfram faces is how to make CDF usable across a broad range of devices and clients. Having to install a player or plug-in is a considerable deterrent. PDF or better still HTML5 has broader reach and works on Google Android and Apple iOS as well as on desktop PCs.

I tried the CDF plugin and player on Windows 7 and encountered several issues. The plug-in does not play nicely with Internet Explorer’s Protected mode and I saw this dialog frequently:

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I also had some issues with the player. I could not get an example document on Gulf Oil Spill Estimation to work:

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The player is currently for Windows, Mac and Linux – what about Apple iOS? Wolfram says it is working on this, with a two-pronged approach. One idea is presumably based on some sort of app, I’d guess either a player if Apple allows it, or some way to compile a CDF into an app. The other idea is to render the interactive parts server-side, so you could use them in a web page without a plug-in. This second idea could also remove the need for a plug-in on the desktop. You will get a performance hit because of all those trips back and forth to the server, but this could be mitigated by high performance computing on the server that will perform calculations more quickly than your client.

I can see CDF being popular within its niche, but whether it can transition into being a mass-market format I am not sure. Established plug-ins and runtimes such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Java on the client are all under pressure, particularly as Apple’s iOS spreads its reach; it is not a good moment to launch a new format that has a plug-in or runtime dependency. I wonder if Wolfram is exploring the possibility of compilation to HTML5 and JavaScript?

Despite these reservations, the broader vision behind CDF seems to me spot-on. There are many cases where we currently see static charts, that would be better served by an embedded computation engine.

Microsoft partners with Joyent to bring node.js server-side JavaScript to Windows

Microsoft will port node.js to Windows in partnership with Joyent. This will work on Windows Azure as well as other versions of Windows back to Server 2003.

But can you not already run node.js on Windows? This is possible using Cygwin and instructions are here. Cygwin makes Windows more like Linux by providing familiar Linux tools and a Linux API layer. Cygwin is a great tool, though it can be an awkward dependency, but a true Windows port should be higher performance and more robust, particularly as the intention is to use the IOCP API. See here for an explanation of IOCP:

With IOCP, you don’t need to supply a completion function, wait on an event handle to signal, or poll the status of the overlapped operation. Once you create the IOCP and add your overlapped socket handle to the IOCP, you can start the overlapped operation by using any of the I/O APIs mentioned above (except recv, recvfrom, send, or sendto). You will have your worker thread block on GetQueuedCompletionStatus API waiting for an I/O completion packet. When an overlapped I/O completes, an I/O completion packet arrives at the IOCP and GetQueuedCompletionStatus returns.

IOCP is the Windows NT Operating System support for writing a scalable, high throughput server using very simple threading and blocking code on overlapped I/O operations. Thus there can be a significant performance advantage of using overlapped socket I/O with Windows NT IOCPs.

I was impressed by node.js when I saw it presented by author Ryan Dahl at a pre-Dreamforce event last year. Since then it has become better known. This is an interesting move, particularly in the context of an greater focus on JavaScript in the forthcoming version of Windows known as Windows 8. End to end JavaScript for your next-generation real time networking applications?