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Reflections of a JS guy on AS3

2009-08-09 19:31:00

I've been doing a bunch of stuff with AS3 at Slide, and as a long-time JavaScript guy, thought it might be interesting to record my impressions of the language so far. I'll do the bad news first, so I can end on a positive note.

The bad news

Type annotations

Not a fan of the type annotations. I realize this was supposed to be one of the improvements to JS from ECMAScript 4, but so far there has not been a single instance where I've thought "wow, thank FSM I had that static typing to keep me safe."

I know this is jumping into the eternal static/dynamic typing debate, and I skew entirely toward the dynamic. But the reality is that I've met multiple people who've moved from using say, Java, to Ruby or JS, and they always talk about how painful it is to go back to Java. The awful verbosity is one of the reasons.

I see stuff like this in AS3:

var mySprite:Sprite = new Sprite();

This just seems silly.

It's also worth noting that with typed functions you can't have multiple return types from a function now, either -- for example, returning a string on success, and null on failure. (Okay, you could just type it as Object, but that seems pretty pointless.)

// Hello, pretty much everything is an Object
// Why am I typing this at all?
public function foo():Object {
  // I'd kinda like to return different stuff here
}

And now I have to think about two different types for unassigned variables -- one for typed ones (null) and one for untyped ones using the asterisk annotation (undefined, like old-fashioned JS).

// This has a value of null
var foo:Event;
// This has a value of undefined
var bar:*;

Now, there may be benefits to it that are a little bit invisible to me in day-to-day dev, like performance. But with the huge advancements in JS interpreters like the ones we're seeing in TraceMonkey, V8, and SquirrelFish, I'm a lot more dubious about the cost-benefit offered by the static typing and a compile step.

Access modifiers

Seeing all this public/prviate stuff everywhere makes me feel like I'm using Java. Maybe that's the whole idea; I don't know.

At one point I was reading documentation on the Adobe site, and it took me about 10 seconds to realize that a large chunk of code I was looking at actually was Java, not AS3.

Using enclosing scope seems mostly fine for private vars in JS. I guess the implicit binding of all the local vars to this in instances in AS3 makes that impossible, but I get the feeling that some guys really like all the delicious explicitness they get from having to pedantically declare all this stuff.

For me, it's mostly just more crap to have to type, and more noise to filter out when I'm trying to read code.

Closed classes

Again, this is supposed to be a feature. But overriding specific behavior in a class (in say, for example, testing, which is what I'm working on) requires endless subclassing, and having to think about inheritance-chain specificity way too much.

The most annoying example of this so far was some code that needed to accept various types of Events, but some of the containing code might call methods on a specific subclass. The compiler really doesn't like that.

The only way I can see to handle that is to use the "any type" asterisk for the annotation for that param, which kind of raises the question of "this static-typing stuff, it's good for exactly what again?"

Subclass 'super' invocation isn't really a function call

The correlary to this endless subclassing-annoyance is that I can't call a subclass's constructor method with Function.apply, and just pass it the same arguments as the constructor. There are couple of old mailing list threads from back in 2007, one here and the other here that talk about this.

Even after reading these I'm still don't get the rationale for this is -- but as a mere workaday developer, I do know that forcing me to type long lists of parameters mechanically on top of the endless subclassing is horribly tedious and error-prone.

Compile step

Hate it.

I guess I'm way too ADD, or spoiled by JS Web-dev work, but I need my instant gratification. Sitting and waiting for five or six seconds for multiple interdependent SWFs to compile totally breaks my workflow.

I feel like I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time making the compiler happy, and less time thinking about what my program actually does.

Object keys don't iterate in insertion order, WTF?

Okay, so I get that this isn't in the ECMA-262 Edition 3 spec (and don't know if it was supposed to be in ECMAScript 4), but every major ECMA implementation iterates over an Object's keys in the insertion order.

I'm not sure if it's a huge perf-killer, or if they just didn't get around to making it work right, but it seems pointless to position AS3 as "JavaScript with improvements," and then screw up something so fundamental. Before you implement all the improvements, how about getting the basics right?

(And by 'right,' I don't mean "bare minimum correctness according to the spec," I mean "at least as good as the other implementations.")

The good news

A real 'for each'

It's really nice to iterate over items in an array without the tedious array-index incrementation. This is so much nicer, so much more readable:

for each (item in someArray) { // Do stuff to item }

Yes, I know this already exists in newer JavaScript implementations -- but we can't use it until old Internet Explorer albatross goes away.

Checking for the existence of an attribute

So nice to stop using the janky test for whether a property's typeof is undefined. Now I can do:

if ('foo' in bar) { // Do stuff }

I really like this syntax -- way more much readable.

If these kinds of syntactic niceties are in the more-modest ECMAScript 5, I'll definitely continue to be a happy JS programmer.

In Short

I guess it's pretty clear -- what I like about AS3 is its similarities to the JavaScript I know and love, and the small syntactic fixes to what have always been obvious JS warts.

What I don't like is all the Java-like verbosity which, thankfully seems to have died in the main JS evolutionary branch with the ill-advised ECMAScript 4 adventure.

About

This is the blog for Matthew Eernisse. I currently work at Yammer as a developer, working mostly with JavaScript. All opinions expressed here are my own, not my employer's.

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