Saturday, June 07, 2008


So, here's some news: people at 280 Slides created a web application that allows you to build presentations in your web browser. It does look very nice, people are comparing it to Apple's Keynote application. All in all, yet another webapp out there; what's the big deal, right?

Well, the people who created 280 Slides were previously Apple employees. 280 Slides wasn't just written in JavaScript. No. These people created something called Objective-J, which is to JavaScript as Objective-C is to C. And then they implemented part of Apple's Cocoa application framework atop of it (named it Cappuccino), and finally implemented the application atop of it.

Now that's quite amazing.

Dion Almaer writes that

Objective-J is the language that takes JavaScript and makes it Objective (as Obj-C did to C). Lots of square brackets. When the browser gets served .j files, it preprocesses them on the fly. This means that you can do things like, use standard JavaScript in places.

Interesting. Objective-J will eventually be open sourced at, and I'll be quite curious to see what did they do. I suspect they have a transformer from Objective-J source code to plain JavaScript (presumably itself written in JS), and then the browser's JS runtime converts the source code to JS when it downloads it. But I might be wrong.

Then there's the interesting issue that Objective-C improved C with OO features. But what did Objective-J improve? JavaScript is extremely object-oriented to begin with, so this sounds more as if they wanted to bring the actual Objective-C flavor of OO to JavaScript instead, because that's what they're comfortable doing. They need to drive nails into a different wall now, and they'd still prefer to do it with their old hammer!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not making fun of them. Shaping one's tools in a new environment after ones you knew and loved in a previous environment is a valid activity if you percieve it as the path that allows you to be most productive. To build a new language atop of JS and then build an application framework atop of it, and then build a very usable and visually appealing application on top of it (very cross-browser compatible too) gets you a metric shitload of geek cred in my circles. It might turn out to be a catalyst for getting a lot of similarly nice future webapps out there. It might turn out to be the next big thing for JavaScript in browser.

I'm eagerly waiting for content to start popping up at, although of course the Objective-J.js can be readily inspected.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

So, WebKit JS used an AST walker before?

Color me flabbergasted.

WebKit recently announced a new JavaScript interpreter, named SquirellFish, claiming it is much faster than the previous interpreter in WebKit.

That's good and all, but in the "Why it's fast" section of the linked article, they say:

Like the interpreters for many scripting languages, WebKit’s previous JavaScript interpreter was a simple syntax tree walker.

It was? Oh my... They also say that:
SquirrelFish’s bytecode engine elegantly eliminates almost all of the overhead of a tree-walking interpreter. First, a bytecode stream exactly describes the operations needed to execute a program. Compiling to bytecode implicitly strips away irrelevant grammatical structure. Second, a bytecode dispatch is a single direct memory read, followed by a single indirect branch. Therefore, executing a bytecode instruction is much faster than visiting a syntax tree node. Third, with the syntax tree gone, the interpreter no longer needs to propagate execution state between syntax tree nodes.

Why, yes, indeed!
For the record, Rhino has been doing this for ages - AST is compiled to internal "JS bytecode" format that strips away grammar, and then interprets it. This works like this since, well, around the turn of the millenium. (Actually, Rhino can even kick it another notch and can also optionally compile the JS bytecode to Java bytecode, eliminating the interpreter altogether. Which bytecode then the JVM JIT compiler can further compile to machine code at its own discretion.)

Anyway, I digress. All I wanted to say is that I'm honestly amazed that a supposedly professional implementation of JavaScript (the one shipped in WebKit before SquirellFish came along, and by consequence, shipped in Apple's Safari browser) would use an AST walking interpreter. Yeah, I know, you'll say "most scripts run once on the page, so optimization is overkill", but with AJAX this is no longer true, and apparently, the WebKit team also thinks so.

On the positive side, they're finally moving on to a better solution, and I congratulate them on the undoubtedly hard decision to finally take the leap toward a more modern execution architecture.