1. IDEA, 2. Kotlin, 3. Profit.

July 29, 2011

I was interested to see that JetBrains, creators of the splendid IntelliJ IDEA IDE amongst other things, are working on their own “better-Java-than-Java” language, Kotlin.

Ostensibly this is to resolve some of the “issues” that the Java language has, whilst being simpler than the currently strongest competitor, Scala.  Kotlin is going to be supported as a first-class citizen in the IDEA IDE from around the end of 2011.

There’s a lot of talk on various fora about the need (or lack of) for introducing a new language when others like Scala, Groovy and Clojure are becoming more established.  This is similar to the fuss back in April 2011 when Gavin King “leaked” the news that Red Hat were working on their “Ceylon” JVM-hosted language.  The public launch of Ceylon is likely to be in the same sort of timescale.

Most of the chatter seems to be about the benefits around the features of the languages, semantic overhead of learning, efficiency of execution, dilution of Java skillsets, etc.  All are interesting and sound discussions.

What I’m not seeing is anyone saying about the pure commercial value of a company such as JetBrains or RedHat launching their languages focusing on their their own ecosystems.  I don’t believe these guys aren’t doing it for the love of the Java community. They’re doing it for cold, hard cash… any why not?

It’s interesting that JetBrains are saying that Kotlin is intended for “industrial use”.  By this I’m expecting the real value-add features (which must be compelling) to be supported in their paid-for “Ultimate” edition of IDEA rather than the free “Community” version and they’re targeting the “enterprise” market.

They would need to convince “corporate” development managers of the benefits of the Kotlin, disabuse them of the risks of selecting a single vendor language  and get it embedded into their companies order to monetise the investment in developing it.

That’s not to say they’re wrong to try – look at how successful VB6 was and that’s a single company language supported by a strong IDE!

They’ll have to be quick though.

Java 7 has just been released and Java 8 is due in late 2012.  Whilst J7 addresses quite a few “niggles” with Java (including reducing some noise around Generics and the equivalent of C#‘s “using” statement)  and add some good features into the JVM it’s not the complete “Project Coin” package.

The “big thing” being sold in all these new languages are Lambdas/Closures which won’t come until J8.  (You can see the split of features here.) This means that they’ll have 12 months to get some traction before the “official” Java language supports this.

Personally, I don’t believe that having closures in an OO imperative language is that important.  Useful, of course, but not the end of world if they’re lacking.  There didn’t seem to be much demand for them in Java before Ruby on Rails became popular in 2006 and there was an outbreak of scripting-envy across the Java community.

Of course, with the JVM bytecode instruction InvokeDynamic being added in Java 7 it means that dynamic language such as JRuby should become much more performant so, if you really want closures on the JVM why not just use that?

I think it’s disappointing that the official Java/JVM ecosystem has been on a bit of a hiatus for the last 5 years (Java 6 was released in 2006) but it’s kind of understandable given the situation with Sun and Oracle.  It’s also disappointing that Coin was split across two releases as this will delay adoption too and, in the Java world, allow third-parties to fill the perceived gap with semi-official solutions in the interim.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.  I do hope it doesn’t distract JetBrain or RedHat/JBoss from continuting to provide world-class platform support for the official Java stack on their products.

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