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A Brief History of JavaScript (Part 2)

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A Brief History of JavaScript (Part 2)

Continuing on with his brief history of JavaScript, Sebastian Peyrott explains how JavaScript became standardized as ECMAScript.

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Continuing on from part 1, we'll dive into how JavaScript became standardized.

ECMAScript: JavaScript as a Standard

The first big change for JavaScript after its public release came in the form of ECMA standardization. ECMA is an industry association formed in 1961 concerned solely with standardization of information and communications systems.

Work on the standard for JavaScript was started in November 1996. The identification for the standard was ECMA-262 and the committee in charge was TC-39. By this time, JavaScript was already a popular element in many pages. This press release from 1996 puts the number of JavaScript pages at 300,000.

JavaScript and Java are cornerstone technologies of the Netscape ONE platform for developing Internet and Intranet applications. In the short time since their introduction last year, the new languages have seen rapid developer acceptance with more than 175,000 Java applets and more than 300,000 JavaScript-enabled pages on the Internet today according to www.hotbot.com. - Netscape Press Release

Standardization was an important step for such a young language, but a great call nonetheless. It opened up JavaScript to a wider audience and gave other potential implementors voice in the evolution of the language. It also served the purpose of keeping other implementors in check. Back then, it was feared Microsoft or others would stray too far from the default implementation and cause fragmentation.

For trademark reasons, the ECMA committee was not able to use JavaScript as the name. The alternatives were not liked by many either, so after some discussion, it was decided that the language described by the standard would be called ECMAScript. Today, JavaScript is just the commercial name for ECMAScript.

ECMAScript 1 & 2: On The Road to Standardization

The first ECMAScript standard was based on the version of JavaScript released with Netscape Navigator 4 and still missed important features such as regular expressions, JSON, exceptions, and important methods for built-in objects. It was working much better in the browser, however. JavaScript was becoming better and better. Version 1 was released in June 1997.

Image title

Notice how our simple test of prototypes and functions now works correctly. A lot of work had gone under the hood in Netscape 4, and JavaScript benefited tremendously from it. Our example now essentially runs identically to any current browser. This is a great state to be for its first release as a standard.

The second version of the standard, ECMAScript 2, was released to fix inconsistencies between ECMA and the ISO standard for JavaScript (ISO/IEC 16262), so no changes to the language were part of it. It was released in June 1998.

An interesting quirk of this version of JavaScript is that errors that are not caught at compile time (which are in general left as unspecified) leave to the whim of the interpreter what to do about them. This is because exceptions were not part of the language yet.

ECMAScript 3: The First Big Changes

Work continued past ECMAScript 2 and the first big changes to the language saw the light. This version brought in:

  • Regular expressions
  • The do-while block
  • Exceptions and the try/catch blocks
  • More built-in functions for strings and arrays
  • Formatting for numeric output
  • The in and instanceof operators
  • Much better error handling

ECMAScript 3 was released in December 1999.

This version of ECMAScript spread far and wide. It was supported by all major browsers at the time, and continued to be supported many years later. Even today, some transpilers can target this version of ECMAScript when producing output. This made ECMAScript 3 the baseline target for many libraries, even when later versions of the standard where released.

Although JavaScript was more in use than ever, it was still primarily a client-side language. Many of its new features brought it closer to breaking out of that cage.

Netscape Navigator 6, released in November 2000 and a major change from past versions, supported ECMAScript 3. Almost a year and a half later, Firefox, a lean browser based on the codebase for Netscape Navigator, was released supporting ECMAScript 3 as well. These browsers, alongside Internet Explorer continued pushing JavaScript growth.

The Birth of AJAX

AJAX, asynchronous JavaScript and XML, was a technique that was born in the years of ECMAScript 3. Although it was not part of the standard, Microsoft implemented certain extensions to JavaScript for its Internet Explorer 5 browser. One of them was the XMLHttpRequest function (in the form of the XMLHTTP ActiveX control). This function allowed a browser to perform an asynchronous HTTP request against a server, thus allowing pages to be updated on-the-fly. Although the term AJAX was not coined until years later, this technique was pretty much in place.

The term AJAX was coined by Jesse James Garrett, co-founder of Adaptive Path, in this iconic blog post.

XMLHttpRequest proved to be a success and years later was integrated into its separate standard (as part of the WHATWG and the W3C groups).

This evolution of features, an implementor bringing something interesting to the language and implementing it in its browser, is still the way JavaScript and associated web standards such as HTML and CSS continue to evolve. At the time, however, there was much less communication between parties, which resulted in delays and fragmentation. To be fair, JavaScript development today is much more organized, with procedures for presenting proposals by any interested parties.

Playing With Netscape Navigator 6

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This release supports exceptions, the main showstopper previous versions suffered when trying to access Google. Incredibly, trying to access Google in this version results in a viewable, working page, even today. For contrast we attempted to access Google using Netscape Navigator 4, and we got hit by the lack of exceptions, incomplete rendering, and bad layout. Things were moving fast for the web, even back then.

Playing With Internet Explorer 5

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Internet Explorer 5 was capable of rendering the current version of Google as well. It is well known, however, there were many differences in the implementation of certain features between Internet Explorer and other browsers. These differences plagued the web for many years, and were the source of frustration for web developers for a long time, who usually had to implement special cases for Internet Explorer users.

In fact, to access the XMLHttpRequest object in Internet Explorer 5 and 6, it was necessary to resort to ActiveX. Other browsers implemented it as a native object.

var xhr = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");

Arguably, it was Internet Explorer 5 who brought the idea to the table first. It was not until version 7 that Microsoft started to follow standards and consensus more closely. Some outdated corporate sites still require old versions of Internet Explorer to run correctly.

ECMAScript 3.1 and 4: The Years of Struggle

Unfortunately, the following years were not good for JavaScript development. As soon as work on ECMAScript 4 started, strong differences in the committee started to appear. There was a group of people that thought JavaScript needed features to become a stronger language for large-scale application development. This group proposed many features that were big in scope and in changes. Others thought this was not the appropriate course for JavaScript. The lack of consensus, and the complexity of some of the proposed features, pushed the release of ECMAScript 4 further and further away.

Work on ECMAScript 4 had begun as soon as version 3 came out the door in 1999. Many interesting features were discussed internally at Netscape. However, interest in implementing them had dwindled and work on a new version of ECMAScript stopped after a while in the year 2003. An interim report was released and some implementors, such as Adobe (ActionScript) and Microsoft (JScript.NET), used it as basis for their engines. In 2005, the impact of AJAX and XMLHttpRequest sparked again the interest in a new version of JavaScript and TC-39 resumed work. Years passed and the set of features grew bigger and bigger. At the peak of development, ECMAScript 4 had features such as:

  • Classes
  • Interfaces
  • Namespaces
  • Packages
  • Optional type annotations
  • Optional static type checking
  • Structural types
  • Type definitions
  • Multimethods
  • Parameterized types
  • Proper tail calls
  • Iterators
  • Generators
  • Instrospection
  • Type discriminating exception handlers
  • Constant bindings
  • Proper block scoping
  • Destructuring
  • Succint function expressions
  • Array comprehensions

The ECMAScript 4 draft describes this new version as intended for programming in the large. If you are already familiar with ECMAScript 6/2015 you will notice that many features from ECMAScript 4 were reintroduced in it.

Though flexible and formally powerful, the abstraction facilities of ES3 are often inadequate in practice for the development of large software systems. ECMAScript programs are becoming larger and more complex with the adoption of Ajax programming on the web and the extensive use of ECMAScript as an extension and scripting language in applications. The development of large programs can benefit substantially from facilities like static type checking, name hiding, early binding and other optimization hooks, and direct support for object-oriented programming, all of which are absent from ES3. - ECMAScript 4 draft

An interesting piece of history is the following Google Docs spreadsheet, which displays the state of implementation of several JavaScript engines and the discussion of the parties involved in that.

The committee that was developing ECMAScript 4 was formed by Adobe, Mozilla, Opera (in unofficial capacity) and Microsoft. Yahoo entered the game as most of the standard and features were already decided. Doug Crockford, an influential JavaScript developer, was the person sent by Yahoo for this. He voiced his concerns in strong opposition to many of the changes proposed for ECMAScript 4. He got strong support from the Microsoft representative. In the words of Crockford himself:

But it turned out that the Microsoft member had similar concerns — he also thought the language was getting too big and was out of control. He had not said anything prior to my joining the group because he was concerned that, if Microsoft tried to get in the way of this thing, it would be accused of anti-competitive behavior. Based on Microsoft's past performance, there were maybe some good reasons for them to be concerned about that — and it turned out, those concerns were well-founded, because that happened. But I convinced him that Microsoft should do the right thing, and to his credit, he decided that he should, and was able to convince Microsoft that it should. So Microsoft changed their position on ES4. - Douglas Crockford — The State and Future of JavaScript

What started as doubts, soon became a strong stance against JavaScript. Microsoft refused to accept any part of ECMAScript 4 and was ready to take every necessary action to stop the standard from getting approved (even legal actions). Fortunately, people in the committee managed to prevent a legal struggle. However, the lack of concensus effectively prevented ECMAScript 4 from advancing.

Some of the people at Microsoft wanted to play hardball on this thing, they wanted to start setting up paper trails, beginning grievance procedures, wanting to do these extra legal things. I didn't want any part of that. My disagreement with ES4 was strictly technical and I wanted to keep it strictly technical; I didn't want to make it nastier than it had to be. I just wanted to try to figure out what the right thing to do was, so I managed to moderate it a little bit. But Microsoft still took an extreme position, saying that they refused to accept any part of ES4. So the thing got polarized, but I think it was polarized as a consequence of the ES4 team refusing to consider any other opinions. At that moment the committee was not in consensus, which was a bad thing because a standards group needs to be in consensus. A standard should not be controversial. - Douglas Crockford — The State and Future of JavaScript

Crockford pushed forward the idea of coming up with a simpler, reduced set of features for the new standard, something all could agree on: no new syntax, only practical improvements born out of the experience of using the language. This proposal came to be known as ECMAScript 3.1.

For a time, both standards coexisted, and two informal committees were set in place. ECMAScript 4, however, was too complex to be finished in the face of discordance. ECMAScript 3.1 was much simpler, and, in spite of the struggle at ECMA, was completed.

The end for ECMAScript 4 came in the year 2008, when Eich sent an email with the executive summary of a meeting in Oslo which detailed the way forward for ECMAScript and the future of versions 3.1 and 4.

The conclusions from that meeting were to:

  1. Focus work on ES3.1 with full collaboration of all parties, and target two interoperable implementations by early next year.
  2. Collaborate on the next step beyond ES3.1, which will include syntactic extensions but which will be more modest than ES4 in both semantic and syntactic innovation.
  3. Some ES4 proposals have been deemed unsound for the Web, and are off the table for good: packages, namespaces and early binding. This conclusion is key to Harmony.
  4. Other goals and ideas from ES4 are being rephrased to keep consensus in the committee; these include a notion of classes based on existing ES3 concepts combined with proposed ES3.1 extensions.

All in all, ECMAScript 4 took almost 8 years of development and was finally scrapped. A hard lesson for all who were involved.

The word "Harmony" appears in the conclusions above. This was the name the project for future extensions for JavaScript received. Harmony would be the alternative that everyone could agree on. After the release of ECMAScript 3.1 (in the form of version 5, as we'll see below), ECMAScript Harmony became the place were all new ideas for JavaScript would be discussed.

ActionScript

ActionScript was a programming language based on an early draft for ECMAScript 4. Adobe implemented it as part of its Flash suite of applications and was the sole scripting language supported by it. This made Adobe take a strong stance in favor of ECMAScript 4, even going as far as releasing their engine as open-source (Tamarin) in hopes of speeding ECMAScript 4 adoption. An interesting take on the matter was exposed by Mike Chambers, an Adobe employee:

ActionScript 3 is not going away, and we are not removing anything from it based on the recent decisions. We will continue to track the ECMAScript specifications, but as we always have, we will innovate and push the web forward when possible (just as we have done in the past). - Mike Chamber's blog

It was the hope of ActionScript developers that innovation in ActionScript would drive features in ECMAScript. Unfortunately this was never the case, and what later came to ECMAScript 2015 was in many ways incompatible with ActionScript.

Some saw this move as an attempt of Microsoft to remain in control of the language and the implementation. The only viable engine for ECMAScript 4 at the moment was Tamarin, so Microsoft, who had 80% browser market share at the moment, could continue using its own engine (and extensions) without paying the cost of switching to a competitor's alternative or taking time to implement everything in-house. Others simply say Microsoft's objections were merely technical, like those from Yahoo. Microsoft's engine, JScript, at this point had many differences with other implementations. Some have seen this as a way to remain covertly in control of the language.

ActionScript remains today the language for Flash, which, with the advent of HTML5 has slowly faded in popularity.

ActionScript remains the closest look to what ECMAScript 4 could have been if it had been implemented by popular JavaScript engines:

package {
    import flash.display.Sprite;
    public class MyRectangle_v3 extends Sprite {
        private var _outlineWeight:Number;
        private var _color:uint;
        private var _xLocation:int;
        private var _yLocation:int;
        private var _rectangleWidth:int;
        private var _rectangleHeight:int;

        public function MyRectangle_v3(outlineWeight:Number, color:uint, 
                                       xLocation:int, yLocation:int, 
                                       rectangleWidth:int, rectangleHeight:int) {            
            _outlineWeight = outlineWeight;
            _color = color;
            _xLocation = xLocation;
            _yLocation = yLocation;
            _rectangleWidth = rectangleWidth;
            _rectangleHeight = rectangleHeight;
        }  

        public function draw():void{
            graphics.lineStyle(_outlineWeight);
            graphics.beginFill(_color);
            graphics.drawRect(_xLocation, _yLocation, _rectangleWidth, _rectangleHeight);
            graphics.endFill();
        }  
    }  
}  

E4X? What is E4X?

E4X was the name an extension for ECMAScript received. It was released during the years of ECMAScript 4 development (2004), so the moniker E4X was adopted. Its actual name is ECMAScript for XML, and was standardized as ECMA-357. E4X extends ECMAScript to support native processing and parsing of XML content. XML is treated as a native data type in E4X. It saw initial adoption by major JavaScript engines, such as SpiderMonkey, but it was later dropped due to lack of use. It was removed from Firefox in version 21.

Other than the number "4" in its name, E4X has little to do with ECMAScript 4.

A sample of what E4X used to bring to the table:

var sales = <sales vendor="John">
    <item type="peas" price="4" quantity="6"/>
    <item type="carrot" price="3" quantity="10"/>
    <item type="chips" price="5" quantity="3"/>
  </sales>;

alert( sales.item.(@type == "carrot").@quantity );
alert( sales.@vendor );
for each( var price in sales..@price ) {
  alert( price );
}
delete sales.item[0];
sales.item += <item type="oranges" price="4"/>;
sales.item.(@type == "oranges").@quantity = 4;

Arguably, other data formats (such as JSON) have gained wider acceptance in the JavaScript community, so E4X came and went without much ado.

Stay tuned for part 3, coming soon.

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Topics:
proposal ,standard ,new ,features ,ecmascript

Published at DZone with permission of Sebastián Peyrott, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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