20 years ago this week, a trendy young language was just finding its feet. And no, we’re not talking about Java (for the record, that official birthday is May 23rd). First, it’s JavaScript’s turn to bask in the spotlight – and we think it’s around this week. In a Quora thread, creator Brendan Eich puts it at some point between May 6th -15th, 1995 (though he’s a little fuzzy on the specifics).


Mandatory retro birthday gif

At the time, Eich was working for Jurassic internet giants Netscape, who would later go on to be pummelled into oblivion in the first great-browser war. JavaScript was forged in the crucible of this battle. Originally intended to make Netscape Navigator’s support for Java applets (whatever happened to those?) more user friendly, the lightweight interpreted language proved more than capable of standing alongside Java on the client-server side.

It began life as Mocha, before its creators rebranded it to LiveScript, and then, in a decision that would continue to baffle everyone to this day, finally settled on JavaScript. Whilst JavaScript to Java is, as the saying goes, like ‘ham is to hamster,’ Netscape were hoping to piggyback of the cool cachet of Java by giving the impression that it was a spin-off language.

Here’s the joint-announcement from Sun Microsystems that was issued back in the day;

“The JavaScript language complements Java, Sun’s industry-leading object-oriented, cross-platform programming language…

JavaScript is an easy-to-use object scripting language designed for creating live online applications that link together objects and resources on both clients and servers. While Java is used by programmers to create new objects and applets, JavaScript is designed for use by HTML page authors and enterprise application developers to dynamically script the behavior of objects running on either the client or the server.”

Having settled into its niche as the dominant language for web programming (for now at least), JavaScript has continued to thrive. In 2014, it was named the language of the year by ranking people TIOBE, on the grounds that it had enjoyed the steepest rise in popularity on the index.

However, even with a 1.7% growth rate, it still failed to match its pre-2010 user count. As InfoWorld wrote back in March, there’s a clear movement among developers for JavaScript alternatives – signalled by the swell in popularity for JavaScript compiler CoffeeScript. Paul Jansen, TIOBE Managing Director, linked this trend to the ubiquitousness of the language, commenting, “Now that everybody is forced to use JavaScript and it is very easy to shoot yourself in the foot with JavaScript.”

Jansen sees the industry looking for alternatives among Dart, CoffeeScript, TypeScript, “and many others.” Though, as Dart’s subsequent relegation to “JavaScript helper language” has shown, the dominance JavaScript has established on the web is going to prove difficult to shake. Or, as one Hacker News reader put it at the time, “JavaScript didn’t ‘win’ because it was great; it won because it good enough and we were literally stuck with it.”

It’s not just the factor of critical mass that has ensured JavaScript remains relevant though. There’s also the new generation of tools that have grown up around the language. Most notably in recent years, there have been been innovations like trendy framework Node.js, which are bringing the language direct to the server side. Thanks to software such as Chrome OS, there’s also an increased movement away from traditional operating systems – which means an even greater demand for JavaScript.

Two decades on, and the language and the ecosystem that has grown up around it is still ripe for innovation. And like it or not, JavaScript looks set to carry on gobbling the market for years to come. So happy birthday JavaScript – from us, and everyone that grudgingly uses you.

Happy Birthday JavaScript – Two Decades of Confusion, and Still Going Strong

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