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The future of Actionscript

The future of Actionscript

Yesterday, a small bomb exploded among the Flash programming community - the proposed ECMAScript 4 standard will not become the next generation of Javascript. Instead, the working group have opted for a much less ambitious expansion of the existing ECMA3. To Flash developers, this means that Actionscript 3 is now based on a standard that's up in the air.

The working group named TC39 consists of major players in the web space (Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple, Opera, Google, Yahoo and others). These have worked in a committee to decide how the next version of ECMAScript shall be like. ECMAScript is the language that both Javascript and Actionscript is based on. The existing version was developed back in 1999 so an update is long overdue. Up until yesterday, the committee was split in two camps: one that wanted to do a big overhaul (ECMA4) and one that wanted to do just small changes to the existing language (ECMA3.1). The result is now that a unified committee will support the ECMA3.1 standard.

When Adobe created Actionscript 3, it was entirely based on the ECMA4 standard. At that time, this was a "draft standard", a suggestion not yet approved by a standards committee. This standard could bring to Javascript all the constructs that Flash developers now take for granted such as packages, namespaces, vectors as well as a host of other features. ECMA4 would have been a big leap forward for JavaScript, but it also required that the browser manufacturers rewrote the code executing the scripts.

Adobe wanted ECMA4 to become the new standard and to speed this process they donated the Tamarin virtual machine to Mozilla. This piece of technology is what runs at the heart of the Flash Player. With this in place, Mozilla had a lot of what was needed to support ECMA4. Other manufacturers such as Apple and Microsoft would have to write this themselves. Writing code cost money and nobody is making money from selling browsers. This and other "political" issues caused the committee to split in half.

John Resig works for Mozilla and he is kind of a demigod when it comes to Javascript. He sums up the struggles of the commitee and the results in a very sober way. His conclusion is that unity is more important than features and so thinks 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)."

Also don't forget - ECMA4 is not gone and forgotten. There is something beyond 3.1 as well as Brendan Eich points out in his mail titled ECMAScript Harmony. A committee that actually works will do a lot more work than one that's split in two. ECMA4 may get there, but it will take time. That's one of the many things you get from design by committee. In the mean time, Flash/Flex will have a cutting edge language that will continue to expand in terms of fans and features. It'll be like JavaScript could have been, if politics didn't get in the way.

 

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