JavaScript 2's new direction

A factional fight that held up the popular language's evolution has apparently been resolved

Standardization efforts for the next version of JavaScript have taken a sharp turn this month, with some key changes in the Web scripting technology's direction. JavaScript creator Brendan Eich, CTO of Mozilla, has helped forge a consensus on how to proceed with the direction for JavaScript's improvements. "JavaScript was sitting still. It was stagnant," he says.

The fundamental reason to update JavaScript -- whose standard hasn't changed since 1999 -- is to handle the heavy demands being placed on it. Although the language certainly has caught on for Web application development, it was not envisioned for the workloads now demanded of it by developers, Eich says. "They're using it at a scale that it wasn't designed for."

The biggest change in JavaScript 2's direction is that the ECMAScript 4 project has been dropped. That change resolves a long-simmering debate as to whether ECMAScript 3.1 or ECMAScript 4 should be the basis of JavaScript 2. (ECMAScript is the formal name for the standard, vendor-neutral version of JavaScript.)

This decision at the ECMA International standards group overseeing the JavaScript standard unites the EMCA International Technical Committee 39, including Eich, with Google and Microsoft around the "Harmony" road map. (The committee and Eich favored a major revision to the ECMAScript standard, while Microsoft and Google opposed such grand plans, Eich says. "Microsoft [in particular] started working on a much smaller improvement to the last version of the standard," an effort that is now the core of the ECMAScript 3.1 plan, he says.)

First up: a rationalized ECMAScript 3.1

The "Harmony" road map starts with an effort to finalize ECMAScript 3.1, essentially a rationalization of the current version, and produce two interoperable implementations by spring 2009. "I think you could characterize 3.1 as a maintenance release," says John Neumann, chair of the technical committee. The ECMAScript 3.1 effort will formalize bug fixes but also standardize across all implementations some of the improvements made in the field, Neumann says. That's key, so applications written for one browser will work in another.

After the ECMAScript 3.1 effort, work will then proceed on a more significant ECMAScript successor dubbed Harmony.

The result is that the standards effort "wasn't to be the big, scary fourth edition that Microsoft and others objected to," Eich says. But the decision also means no more stalling on JavaScript 2, as well as agreement to continue to refine ECMAScript 3 after the 3.1 effort is done. Furthermore, developers likely will have to wait until 2010 for the Harmony standard, Eich says.

In essence, the JavaScript 2 effort will no longer depend on ECMAScript 4 being finalized, and instead will proceed from an improved ECMAScript 3.

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