Ruby is becoming popular, largely from the influence Ruby on Rails, but it feels like it is currently struggling through its adolescence. There are a lot of similarities between Ruby and Smalltalk -- maglev is a testament to that. Despite having a more unusual syntax, Smalltalk has all (if not more) of the object-oriented beauty of Ruby.

From what I have read, Smalltalk seems to have Ruby beat on:

It seems like Ruby is just reinventing the wheel. So, why don't Ruby developers use SmallTalk? What does Ruby have the Smalltalk doesn't?

For the record: I'm a Ruby guy with little to no experience in Smalltalk, but I'm starting to wonder why.

Edit: I think the ease-of-scripting issue has been addressed by GNU Smalltalk. As I understand it, this allows you to write smalltalk in regular old text files, and you no longer need to be in the Smalltalk IDE. You can then run your scripts with:

gst smalltalk_file
+9  A: 

Ruby is the current buzz language. It's easier to market software built with it right now than a language developed in the 70s.

+4  A: 

For me its not so much a case of what Ruby has, but what Ruby hasn't. And the thing that it doesn't have is the need for a VM and complete environment.

Smalltalk is great - its where I learnt OO concepts, but for ease of use I go for Ruby. I can write Ruby code in my favourite editor and run it form the command line.

So, for me, thats what I choose Ruby over Smalltalk.

Simon Knights
But go-ahead and learn Smalltalk too.
Simon Knights
As per my edit: GNU Smalltalk allows you to use your favorite editor and run from the command line.
Yes - Thanks - just had a look and downloaded a copy!
Simon Knights
Well, it also doesn't have a great web framework. Rails is ok, but it's no Seaside
Stephan Eggermont
+2  A: 

I've done a little Smalltalk - the IDE is one thing I remember - does Ruby have good IDE support?

Chris Kimpton
NetBeans is decent.
Yes. TextMate is great, Eclipse support is good, and Emacs has a mode for it that is decent.
If you think "TextMate/Eclipse/Emacs" is comparable to Smalltalk's built-in IDE, you haven't seen a real Smalltalk!
Randal Schwartz
I still miss select->'Show It' from IDE's on the systems I build with today - with one Exception: SQL Server's SQL development tools will let you highlight a selection and execute it as a query. Smalltalk is influential if nothing else!
The IDE getting nearest to Smalltalk it IMHO ArachnoRuby. It's better integrated than any Emacs/TextMate etc. However it seems people are quite happy with a few windows open running diverse tools Regards

I think part of the problem is the development-environment-is-the-runtime. This gives a lot of power, but it also presents a larger learning curve.

Here is a hello world tutorial.

This is very different from other languages where I just need to know how to open a text editor and copy and paste text, hit save, and run a compiler. I HAVE to know how to use the environment. That tutorial doesn't even show me how to create a basic program (which is likely more a fault of that tutorial) that I can run.

There is definately a higher cost of just getting things going than most other languages.

Most languages have some nice eye-catching code that they can show off. I haven't seen that with Smalltalk. I also think that there is some stigma to Smalltalk because it has been around so long and it is still relatively obscure.

Steve g
At the bottom of the page: self inform: 'Hello, World!'. I agree that the learning curve is steeper, but using "hello, world" as proof, I think, is too much. :)
My point was to see how to write something simple like hello workld, the tutorial has to tell you which windows you need to open. The names and uses of the windows aren't something I'm going to be able to guess at. It took me a little clicking around just to find the windows it was talking about.
Steve g
As per my edit: GNU Smalltalk allows you to use your favorite editor and run from the command line.
+5  A: 

Community! Ruby and especially Rails has such a great community. When messing around with smalltalk it seemed that there were not as many screen casts, articles, blog posts, etc. written about Smalltalk.

Kevin Kaske
+2  A: 

Stephane Ducasse has some great Smalltalk books available here:

so although the Smalltalk community is not as prolific as the Ruby and Rails communities, there is still some great help out there.

Simon Knights
+55  A: 

I'm more of a Pythonista than a Ruby user, however the same things hold for Ruby for much the same reasons.

  • The architecture of Smalltalk is somewhat insular whereas Python and Ruby were built from the ground up to facilitate integration. Smalltalk never really gained a body of hybrid application support in the way that Python and Ruby have, so the concept of 'smalltalk as embedded scripting language' never caught on.

    As an aside, Java was not the easiest thing to interface with other code bases (JNI is fairly clumsy), but that did not stop it from gaining mindshare. IMO the interfacing argument is significant - ease of embedding hasn't hurt Python - but this argument only holds moderate weight as not all applications require this capability. Also, later versions of Smalltalk did substantially address the insularity.

  • The class library of most of the main smalltalk implementations (VisualWorks, VisualAge etc.) was large and had reputation for a fairly steep learning curve. Most key functionality in Smalltalk is hidden away somewhere in the class library, even basic stuff like streams and collections. The language paradigm is also something of a culture shock for someone not familiar with it, and the piecemeal view of the program presented by the browser is quite different to what most people were used to.

    The overall effect is that Smalltalk got a (somewhat deserved) reputation for being difficult to learn; it takes quite a bit of time and effort to become a really proficient Smalltalk programmer. Ruby and Python are much easier to learn and to bring new programmers up to speed with.

  • Historically, mainstream Smalltalk implementations were quite expensive and needed exotic hardware to run, as can be seen this net.lang.st80 posting from 1983. Windows 3.1, NT and '95 and OS/2 were the first mass market operating systems on mainstream hardware capable of supporting a Smalltalk implementation with decent native system integration. Previously, Mac or workstation hardware were the cheapest platforms capable of running Smalltalk effectively. Some implementations (particularly Digitalk) supported PC operationg systems quite well and did succeed in gaining some traction.

    However, OS/2 was never that successful and Windows did not achieve mainstream acceptance until the mid 1990s. Unfortunately this coincided with the rise of the Web as a platform and a large marketing push behind Java. Java grabbed most of the mindshare in the latter part of the 1990s, rendering Smalltalk a bit of an also-ran.

  • Ruby and Python work in a more conventional toolchain and are not tightly coupled to a specific development environment. While the Smalltalk IDEs I have used are nice enough I use PythonWin for Python development largely because it has a nice editor with syntax highlighting and doesn't get underfoot.

    However, Smalltalk is was designed to be used with an IDE (in fact, Smalltalk was the original graphical IDE) and still has some nice features not replicated by other systems. Testing code with highlight and 'Show it' is still a very nice feature that I have never seen in a Python IDE, although I can't speak for Ruby.

  • Smalltalk was somewhat late coming to the web application party. Early efforts such as VisualWave were never terribly successful and it was not until Seaside came out that a decent web framework got acceptance in Smalltalk circles. In the meantime J2EE has had a complete acceptance lifecycle starting with raving fanboys promoting it and finally getting bored and moving onto Ruby ;-}

    Ironically, Seaside is starting to get a bit of mindshare among the cognoscenti so we may find that Smalltalk rides that cycle back into popularity.

Having said that, Smalltalk is a very nice system once you've worked out how to drive it.

+9  A: 

It's true the languages are very much alike. The shallow way to interpret that is to call Ruby a Smalltalk cover band. The more reasonable interpretation is that Smalltalk's closed system isolated it, while Ruby's participation in the Unix ecology and habit of appropriating features from every language under the sun gives it an infinitely gentler adoption curve and effortless integration with kickass tools like Git.

Giles Bowkett


I think the BIGGEST difference is that Ruby is much more similar to perl in terms of USEAGE. Smalltalk never got a foothold into the "scripting" languages.

The VM is really cool and I hope ruby will have something similar to it so we can treat everything on our OS that is written in ruby as object in memory space, however until then I simply enjoy Ruby's terse, short syntax, the ability to just write a tiny script and reuse it later. Ruby got all the advantages of perl and the OOP is much more similar to smalltalk than perl's OOP hack.

+5  A: 

You answered the question in your first line: "Ruby is becoming popular"

  • There are a lot of interesting modules, projects and such based around Ruby.
  • If you have trouble doing something in Ruby, it will be trivial to find help somewhere.
  • Ruby is installed on a lot of computers now (It's included by default on OS X, many Linux distros, and there are good installers for Windows) - I've not seen smalltalk installed by default on any machine I've used..

I would say wether or not one language is superior to another is irrelevant.. As an example, PHP may not be the "best" language ever, but I would still consider using it over Ruby on Rails (a "better" tool for creating websites) because it is so widespread.

Basically, specific pros and cons of a language are far less important than everything surrounding it - namely the community.

+15  A: 

I think your question is somewhat missing the point. You shouldn't choose, you should learn them both!

If you truly are in a position that you can choose the next framework(vm, infrastructure) then you need to decided what to use and can ask a specific question with pros and cons from the perspective of what your application is inteded to do.

I have used smalltalk (love it) and ruby (love it).

At home or for open source project I can use every language I like, but when doing work I have to adopt.

I started to use ruby (at work) because we needed some scripting language that behaved more-or-less equally under solaris,linux and windows(98,2000,xp). Ruby was at that time unknown to average-joe and there didn't exist any rails. But it was easy to sell to everyone involved.

(Why not python? the truth ? I once spend a week hunting for a bug that happened when a terminal converted my space to a tab and the intending got messed up).

So people started to code more and more in ruby because it was so relaxing, enjoying and not a cloud on the sky.

Paul Graham sums it up

It's true, certainly, that most people don't choose programming languages simply based on their merits. Most programmers are told what language to use by someone else.


To be attractive to hackers, a language must be good for writing the kinds of programs they want to write. And that means, perhaps surprisingly, that it has to be good for writing throwaway programs.

And when were at the Lisp land try to replace LISP with smalltalk

Ruby’s libraries, community, and momentum are good

So if LISP is still more powerful than Ruby, why not use LISP? The typical objections to programming in LISP are:

  1. There aren’t enough libraries.
  2. We can’t hire LISP programmers.
  3. LISP has gone nowhere in the past 20 years.

These aren’t overwhelming objections, but they’re certainly worth considering.


Now, given a choice between a powerful language, and popular language, it may make excellent sense to pick the powerful one. But if the difference in power is minor, being popular has all sorts of nice advantages. In 2005, I’d think long and hard before choosing LISP over Ruby. I’d probably only do it if I needed optimized code, or macros which acted as full-fledged compilers.

Ahem, "the past 20 years"?!?!I think you meant, "the past 51 years". :-)
@DigitalRoss - I'd go with 20; LISP was actually quite big in certain circles at one point, but (ViaWeb notwithstanding) no new 'killer apps' have really been seen since the 1980s. However, LISP based technologies actually got quite a lot of funding in the '60s, '70s and '80s; people really thought LISP was going places for quite a while.
+7  A: 

what does Ruby have that Smalltalk doesn't?

  • Massive, current support by major platforms (IronRuby and jRuby) that enrich the set of libraries
  • Evangelists like Dave Thomas who, for years, have been touring around the country preaching the gospel of their language. I have seen Dave at Java conferences stating he doesn't know Java and that he prefers Ruby.
  • Strong, current real estate on the bookshelves
  • The creator of Ruby has said that he thinks about the programmer: Ruby's syntax seems to have this Zen appeal. It is hard to pin down, yet seems to galvanize the fans.
  • Creative, dynamic presentations like Giles and this one that gain mindshare

I think your point is well-taken. As a friend once put it, Ruby might be "old wine in a new bottle" vis-a-vis Smalltalk. But sometimes the new bottle matters. A wine has to be in the right place at the right time.

Michael Easter
Your first bullet point is off. JVM and .NET VM support mean crap for Smalltalk since each implementation runs on a VM already (how else can they run so well on multiple operating systems, right?)Ruby's syntax is more complicated than Smalltalk's. It's hard to pin down which is part of the problem with it ;)
Yes part of the reason why some people might use jruny/ironruby is the relative immaturity of the ruby vm, but there are some really nice libraries available for .net/jvm that they may want to use that don't have equivalents elsewhere plus its a lot easier for some business to mesh with their java/c# code bases.
Roman A. Taycher
+31  A: 

When I leave my house in the morning to go to work, I often struggle with the decision to make a left or right turn out of my drive way (I live in the middle of a street). Either way will get me to my destination. One way leads me to the highway which, depending on traffic, will probably get me to the office the quickest. I get to drive very fast for at least part of the way and I have a good chance of seeing a pretty girl or two on their way to work :-)

The other way allows me to travel down a very enchanting, windy back road with complete tree cover. That path is quite enjoyable and of the two approaches is definitely the more fun, though it means that I will get to the office later than I would have had I taken the highway. Each way has its merits. On days that I am in a big hurry, I will usually take the highway though I may run into traffic and I also increase my chances of getting into an accident (if I am not careful in my haste). Other days I may choose the woody path and be driving along, enjoying the scenery and realize that I am running late. I may try to speed up, raising my chances of getting a ticket or causing an accident myself.

Neither way is better than the other. They each have their benefits and risks, and each will get me to my goal.

Mario Aquino
+1 for your zen-like answer
Which one is the interstate, and which is the windy back road with tree cover? lol
Charlie Flowers
Charlie: that is what makes it zen :)
Sam Pearson
+1  A: 

I think everyone who has been working with Ruby for a while recognizes its deep debt to Smalltalk. As one of these people, what do I like about Ruby over Smalltalk? I think from a strictly language perspective, it's the sugar. Ruby is deliberately a very syntax-sugary language, whereas Smalltalk is a very syntax-minimal language. Ruby is essentially the Smalltalk object model with Perlish syntax sugar. I happen to like the sugar and find it makes programming more fun.

Ruby has a different object model to Smalltalk though. I'd say "influenced by" but not the same. You can write ruby programs in a prototype-based way avoiding the need to create new classes. Whilst this is unusual, Smalltalk just doesn't support that.
+2  A: 

Because Smalltalk distributions were priced in multiples of $1000USD whereas Ruby is free.

+2  A: 

Use Ruby because it has might have business legs, Smalltalk doesn't.

I can tell you from personal experience. Still using Smalltalk, love it, and have used a couple flavors. Although Smalltalk is a great language, and is everything you mentioned, you wont likely convince the average CIO/CTO to use Smalltalk on a new project. Of course, you might even have a hard time convincing a conservative CIO/CTO to use Ruby. In the end you have to be very careful if you want sustained long term commercial support and the ability to find off-the-street employees that can support your systems in the future. As an example, Smalltalk was a really big thing in the early 90's and IBM invested heavily into it in the late 90's. For IBM Smalltalk was going to be the next language for all business applications. IBM put Smalltalk on everything including their mainframe systems. Java became popular, took over the market, and Smalltalk became a niche player. Over a year ago IBM dumped the language (their term is sunset). Also, take a look at the History. ParkPlace and Digitalk where the first major commercial players in the Smalltalk arena, they merged and then went out of business.

+4  A: 

Smalltalk: people backwards ifTrue: think

Ruby: people think forwards unless thinking backwards

1) Smalltalk's effective RPN (control flow by messages) is like Lisp - it's regular and cool but weirds people out.

2) Ruby lets people write code using the idiomatic way people speak - do blah unless there's a reason not to.

Andy Dent
+2  A: 

Ruby is to Smalltalk as Arabic numerals are to Roman numerals. Same math, easier syntax.

That's the wrong way around. Smalltalk has much easier syntax.
Stephan Eggermont
Only if you think in rpn. Most people don't. I actually take pride in the fact that this post keeps getting up and down votes.
RPN? Java: Perl: foo->bar() Python: Smalltalk: foo barSo other than having a simpler syntax, if you claim Smalltalk is RPN, you have to say that *all* major OO languages are "RPN".
Randal Schwartz
+6  A: 

I would say the opposite: Smalltalk syntax is one of the simplest and powerful programming language syntaxes.

Igor Stasenko
Just want to say amen!
+6  A: 

Guess who said this? (quote is close, maybe not exact): "I always thought Smalltalk would beat Java. I just didn't know if would be called 'Ruby' when it did so."

Drum roll ....


The answer is ... Kent Beck

Charlie Flowers

I would go further than Jonke's answer, and say there are now a large number of languages that have a very strong community, almost enough to suit every taste, and a subset of these have mainstream recognition (i.e. your manager will let you use them at work as well).

It's easy to learn the basics of a language, but to actually use it effectively you need to invest enough time to learn the platform and the tools, as well as the syntax and the idioms. IIRC, McConnell claims that it takes about three years to become truly proficient.

Given those things, it's hard to justify spending a lot of time on languages like LISP and Smalltalk, although they are interesting and perhaps educational to look at.

Stuart Ellis

Interesting perspection from Bob Martin: "What Killed Smalltalk Could Kill Ruby, Too"

That talk presumes smalltalk is dead (it's not) and that ruby is similar enough to smalltalk in space and time that it might suffer the same (non-)fate. It isn't.
Randal Schwartz

I love both Smalltalk and Ruby - but have found that Ruby is more applicable to what I do daily, and is closer to my heart (practically speaking). What does Ruby offer that Smalltalk doesn't?

  • Text-based scripting
  • Low implementation requirements (runs in more places)
  • Easier to learn and justify (Perl and Python programmers will have no trouble
  • Easier to move programs around - text files!
  • Interfaces well with native environment
  • Anywhere Java runs, jRuby runs...
  • Bigger and much more active community

Some have mentioned gst (GNU Smalltalk); the problems still hold.


The question is meaningless. The real question is: Why would anyone use Ruby when C# is there?

Why would anyone use C# when Java is there?The question is about smalltalk and ruby.
+1  A: 

Beats me. I spent a year checking out Ruby and doing some smallish projects to see how I liked it. I guess I'm a Smalltalk bigot because every time I'd sit down to work with Ruby I'd sigh and think "I'd really rather be doing this in Smalltalk". Finally I gave in and went back to Smalltalk. Now I'm happier. Happier is gooder.

Which of course begs the question, "Why?". In no particular order:

  1. Because the IDE blows away anything else I've ever worked with. This includes a bunch of platforms from ISPF on IBM mainframes to Microsoft's Visual (.*), include things such as Visual Basic 4-6, Visual C++ (various incarnations), Borland's Turbo Pascal and descendants (e.g. Delphi), and stuff on DEC machines in both character mode and under X-Windows.
  2. Because the image is a beautiful place to live. I can find what I want in there. If I can't figure out how to do something I know that somewhere in the image is an example of what I'm trying to do - all I have to do is hunt until I find it. And it's self-documenting - if you want to see the details of how something works you just open a browser on the class you're interested in, look at the method, and that's how it works. (OK, eventually you'll hit something that calls a primitive, and then it's "here there be dragons", but it's usually understandable from context). It's possible to do similar things in Ruby/C++/C, but it's not as easy. Easy is better.
  3. The language is minimal and consistent. Three kinds of messages - unary, binary, and keyword. That describes the priority of execution, too - unary messages first, then binary messages, then keyword messages. Use parentheses to help things out. Dang little syntax, really - it's all done with message sends. (OK, assignment isn't a message send, it's an operator. So's the 'return' operator (^). Blocks are enclosed by square brace pairs ([ ] ). Might be one or two other 'magic' bits in there, but darn little...).
  4. Blocks. Yeah, I know, they're there in Ruby (and others), but dang it, you literally can't program in Smalltalk without using them. You're forced to learn how to use them. Sometimes being forced is good.
  5. Object-oriented programming without compromise - or alternatives, for that matter. You can't pretend that you're "doing objects" while still doing the same old thing.
  6. Because it will stretch your brain. The comfortable constructs we've all gotten used to (if-then-else, do-while, for( ; ; ), etc) are no longer there so you have to Learn Something New. There are equivalents to all the above (and more), but you're going to have to learn to think differently. Differently is good.

On the other hand this may just be the ramblings of a guy who's been programming since the days when mainframes ruled the earth, we had to walk five miles to work through blinding snowstorms, uphill both ways, and computers used donuts for memory. I've got nothing against Ruby/Java/C/C++/, they're all useful in context, but give me Smalltalk or give me...well, maybe I should learn Lisp or Scheme or... :-)

Bob Jarvis
+1  A: 

You can find a job pretty easily doing Ruby. Although I really love Smalltalk, it's virtually impossible to get into the Smalltalk niche. There is work around in it, but if you didn't get in when it was popular it's virtually impossible now.

All the other reasons pale into insignificance because you need to be challenged to do a real project in a language and spend time in it to really be good at it. Working in a language is the best way to get that exposure to it.


As a latecomer to discussion, the main problem with Smalltalk and Lisp is that you can't run them with CGI or FastCGI on shared hosting.

The unwashed masses are never going to use them if they need VPS or dedicated servers to use them. IMHO Seaside is superior to almost anything out ther, but will it run on Dreamhost or Webfaction?


Smalltalk implementations have several open-source look at: Probably the connection with Ruby Smalltalk will that people feel comfortable with the use of the two, and there is an interaction between communities and IT WILL BE GOOD. (If English sounds strange, I used an automatic translator)


Use whatever makes you more powerful and faster to beat your challenge.

For us, a little in house framework, we built in top of seaside is really our superpower.

I love the RoR community, it has the right attitude. That's very very valuable. But at the same time, technologically, seaside makes you stronger against more complicated problems.

You can do great seaside web apps using open-source stuff.

dabbledb was a sartup based on seaside and, hey! Avi sold it to twitter in june this year!

I say you don't need to wait for others to approve your initiative.

Just go for it. Make it done. Show us that works.

You're not alone. We are on the same boat.

Sebastian Sastre