Dolphin Smalltalk is discontinued

I learned this past weekend via. a posting on James Robertson’s blog that the Professional edition of Dolphin Smalltalk has been discontinued. The free version will continue to be available for free. According to Object Arts the costs outpaced the profits.

When I used to see discussions on blogs about Seaside, often the subject of Squeak would come up, since that was the first platform Seaside appeared on. Most commenters didn’t like Squeak much, but they raved about Dolphin Smalltalk. Incidentally I heard about a month ago that Seaside had been ported to Dolphin, and VisualWorks (which is sold by Cincom).

Dolphin was a Windows-only implementation. People described it as having a nice native look and feel on Windows, and a consistent UI. It did not run a bytecode-executing VM, unlike most other Smalltalk implementations. Instead it was an interpreter.

It’s sad to see it go. I imagine that this will drive some people away from Smalltalk, since some considered Dolphin the best of the lot.

One of the comments in the Object Arts announcement that jumped out at me was:

There will no doubt be a number of you who would suggest that we Open Source Dolphin. Of course, you are free [to] harbour such opinions and to discuss the idea on the newsgroup but please do not expect us to be persuaded. It simply will not happen! Both Blair and I dislike the Open Source movement intensely and we would rather see Dolphin gradually disappear into the sands of time than instantly lose all commercial value in one fell swoop.

My emphasis. Why the hostility towards open source? Andy Bower follows with a possible answer:

The best, and probably only, way in which the future of Dolphin could be assured would be a sale of the assets to another company. Whilst we are not actively seeking buyers, serious negotiations can be started by writing to me at my e-mail address.

Well if it does get bought that would be a relief, because then it would have a new life. One can hope. Personally I think it would have a better chance at new life if it was open sourced. It would have the attraction of being free (as in beer), in addition to being a good development environment. It would be a waste of the effort to port Seaside to Dolphin if it faded into oblivion.

There are other commercial implementations out there. There’s VisualWorks, as I mentioned (also known as VW Smalltalk), and VA Smalltalk which is currently sold by Instantiations, Inc. These are the major ones I’ve heard about often, but there are several others.

This event with Dolphin should not be taken as a sign of decline for the Smalltalk realm. As James Robertson over at Cincom often points out they are in no danger of dropping Smalltalk. It remains solidly profitable for them. I wish I could comment on the health of VA Smalltalk, but I have no source of information on that.

A history of VisualWorks (VW) and VisualAge (VA) Smalltalk

Both VisualWorks and VisualAge Smalltalk have interesting histories.

From what I’ve been able to gather so far in my research, VisualWorks is a direct descendent of Smalltalk-80 developed at Xerox PARC, much as Squeak is also a descendent (through Apple Computer’s licensing of ST-80). I’m not clear on the distinction between the two, but apparently there is one. My recollection is a bit fuzzy, but it sounds to me like each was based on a different revision of ST-80.

I based the following history on three sources: (Update 5-24-2013: One of my sources has disappeared) here and here. VisualWorks was originally called ObjectWorks, and was introduced in 1991 by ParcPlace Systems, a spin-off of Xerox. ParcPlace and another company by the name of Digitalk were the two largest Smalltalk companies in the world at the time (from what I hear). Digitalk had introduced the first commercial implementation of Smalltalk, called Methods, in 1983, which eventually became Visual Smalltalk. ParcPlace and Digitalk decided to merge in 1995 and form ObjectShare, Inc. ObjectWorks was renamed VisualWorks.

As is often the case with mergers, the two corporate cultures were incompatible, and the company imploded in 1997. From what I’ve come to understand, this implosion led to “the death of Smalltalk,” as it’s often called. One of the sources I referred to above cited a few technical issues that turned customers off to it. Others blame the current state of Smalltalk on Java’s success (here’s the video Steve Yegge refers to. His link is broken). The impression I’ve gotten from reading the stories of others who were around then, though no one has directly put their finger on it, is that one of the conflicts at ObjectShare was over whether to adapt Smalltalk to the internet, and how to go about it. Java was seen as “made for the internet”. I think that was a key differentiator. Stephan Wessels blames the decline on the corporate failure. It sounds to me like both theories are right.

As is evident with Seaside, Smalltalk can deal with the internet quite well.

Anyway, Cincom bought the Smalltalk intellectual property from ObjectShare in 1999, making it part of its ObjectStudio package, which it still sells today.

According to VisualAge Smalltalk was the first VisualAge product from IBM, released in the late 1980s early 1990s. In the 1990s Other languages were added to the VisualAge line, like C++ and Java. According to Wikipedia no matter which VisualAge programming language the programmer was using, the development environment for it was always written in Smalltalk. VisualAge for Java actually ran Java programs on a hybrid VM that ran both Smalltalk and Java bytecodes. The Java primitives were written in Smalltalk.

It looks like in April 2006 IBM stopped supporting VisualAge Smalltalk. Instantiations, Inc. took over product development completely in 2004. According to Wikipedia it is currently licensed by IBM to Instantiations, Inc., and renamed VA Smalltalk. In fact IBM sells no VisualAge products anymore for any language. They’ve been replaced by the WebSphere line, or the XL compiler line.

So there are still versions of Smalltalk around with a long heritage and a visible user base. I have no idea what they’re like since I haven’t used them. I found Squeak and I’ve been quite happy with it.

Disclaimer: I do not work for any of the companies I have mentioned above. I have no sales relationship with them. I’m just writing this to inform about the goings on in the Smalltalk community.

Note: Since it’s come to my attention that some of my posts are being pilfered by a “web search honeypot” trying to siphon some ad revenue from Google, I’m going to try signing my posts from now on so at least people can accurately determine authorship.

—Mark Miller,


5 thoughts on “Dolphin Smalltalk is discontinued

  1. A couple of points of clarification on VisualAge…

    The VisualAge name was first used with VisualAge Smalltalk when it was first released in 1992/3 (it was early ’90’s; not late ’80’s as staed on the site).

    We (Instantiations) took over support and engineering for VisualAge Smalltalk in 2004 and formally took over Sales and Marketing as well in 2005 (not 2006). VisualAge Smalltalk was often referred to as “VA Smalltalk” or “VAST” by its users, so that is the name we chose when we renamed it (“VisualAge” is an IBM trademark, so we couldn’t use that).

    Our VAST team had been involved with the IBM product since day-one in the early ’90’s and had released numerous successful add-ons for it over the years. Thus, we were natural choice for IBM to license the product to for further development and long term support.

    IBM’s final major VAST version was v6.0 in 2002 (with several minor maintenance updates since then). Since we took over in 2005, we have revitalized the product (it had langushed at IBM for years earlier) with two major releases (v7.0 and v7.5) and several minor updates.

    We have plans in place to support the product long term and to continue to enhance it base on customer feedback. Our current major project is to port Seaside to VAST as part of VAST v8.0. For more information on VAST, see our web site at:

    – Eric Clayberg, VP of Product Development, Instantiations

  2. Pingback: PressPosts / User / elikoh / Submitted

  3. Pingback: A couple updates from the Smalltalk world « Tekkie

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