How To Develop Code For Essence# Using Your Favorite Smalltalk’s Development Tools

Essence# currently provides no support for any sort of GUI. Nor does it provide any code editing or code browsing tools. You might think that that means that the only way to develop code in Essence# is to use generic text editors, but such is not the case.

You could develop–and debug–your code using, for example, Squeak, Pharo or VisualWorks. That can be done because, unless your development environment’s Smalltalk compiler accepts (or worse, requires) non-standard syntax, the Essence# compiler can and will compile it. It will also accept/compile many of the common non-standard syntax extensions, such as qualified (“dotted”) names (VisualWorks, Smalltalk-X,) dynamic array literals (Squeak, Pharo) or even dynamic dictionary literals (Amber.)

So the heart of the issue is the differences in the standard libraries supported by other Smalltalk implementations. But that issue can be addressed by adding Essence# compatibility classes and methods to the environment where you develop your code, and by adding foreign-environment compatibility classes and methods to your suite of Essence# libraries/namespaces when you port your code to Essence#.

I expect a large body of such inter-Smalltalk compatibility code to be developed over time–some by me, and some of it contributed by others. In Essence# such special-purpose code modules don’t have to be installed by default. They can be partitioned into separate libraries that are only loaded when and as needed. So if you don’t need either the VASmalltalk or the Dolphin compatibility library, just don’t load them.

However, there is one obstacle in the path of this strategy: The file-out formats of other Smalltalk development environments are not at all the same as the Essence# class library format. Given that, it would actually be a lot of work to port code from VisualWorks, Squeak or Pharo to Essence#.

Or more correctly, it used to be a lot of work, because I’m using this post to publish and explain a solution to the problem: Code that will file out a class or class category from VisualWorks, Pharo or Squeak into Essence# class library format. The code can be obtained from the Essence# Tools Repository on GitHub. Although at present only those three development platforms are supported, it should not be too hard to figure out how to port one of them to another Smalltalk development platform. If you do so, please contribute it to the community.

The version of the code export tool for each of the three development environments is named EssenceClassLibraryExporter, and each has the same external API–which will be explained below. The one for Squeak is located here, the one for Pharo is located here, and the one for VisualWorks is located here. Warning: Don’t export code that you do not own, or that is not open source, unless you have the appropriate permission(s.) The VisualWorks class libraries published by Cincom are not open source, although the “Contributed” code may be (don’t assume; verify.)

After you’ve filed in EssenceClassLibraryExporter.st into Pharo, VisualWorks or Squeak, you use it by writing code in a workspace and executing it as a “do It.” Here’s what you need to know in order to do it correctly:

There are two key issues: 1) What code should be exported, and 2) what Essence# class library and namespace should it be exported to.

Because of the way the EssenceClassLibraryExporter works, it’s best to answer the second question first.

Selecting the target Essence# namespace

When exporting from VisualWorks, you probably should use the same namespace name in Essence# that you use in VisualWorks. But when exporting from a Smalltalk development environment that doesn’t have (or doesn’t typically use) namespaces, you’re faced with an architectural decision that you didn’t have to make until such time as you needed to export your code to Essence#. You can, of course, simply export your code to the Smalltalk namespace. But best practice would be to define and use a namespace in Essence# that’s specific to your project (unless you are deliberately extending a namespace authored by someone else.)

Namespaces in Smalltalk have always been controversial. There is a vocal and influential subset of the Smalltalk community that opposes them. So I am going to address that issue upfront:

First, I must point out that all ST80-compliant Smaltalk implementations that support “shared pools” actually do have and use namespaces. That’s precisely what a “shared pool” is: a namespace. Shared pools could be used to do all the things that namespaces do, but for the fact that the ST80-style compilers and code browsers generally used (with the notable exceptions of VisualWorks and Smalltalk-X, and soon Essence#) haven’t been designed to make such usage elegant and easy. But they could be.

And Smalltalk classes also act as namespaces, in that they can define “class variables” that can be used to change the meaning of references to variables defined in the SystemDictionary. And “shared pools” can have the same effect. Consequently, having formal support for modern, first-class namespaces adds no code comprehension or interpretation issues that were not already present even in Smalltalk-80 ca. 1983, as distributed by XSIS.

But the bottom line is that computer science long ago learned that different name binding scopes are necessary–and become ever more necessary as the size of the code base increases, and as the number on independent contributors increases. That’s why objects provide their own “namespaces” for their instance variables, so as to keep each object’s set of named instance variables separate and distinct from that of all other objects, even when the names of the variables are the same. It’s why each method defines and uses its own “namespace” of parameters and local variables–and why blocks do the same. The bottom line is that Essence# (and VisualWorks, and Smalltalk-X, and .Net, and most modern languages) provide namespaces that localize and encapsulate references to non-local variables for analogous reasons, to solve problems that are essentially the same, using a very similar solution, justified by issues and logic that are also largely analogous.

To the extent that multiple name binding scopes cause problems of comprehension or interpretation with respect to the meaning of named variable references, they do so universally for named variable references of all types and in all contexts: Block and method parameters, block and method local variables, function parameters and local variables, the fields of records/structs, the named instance variables of objects, the class variables and shared pools of ST80, the static variables of C++, C# and Java, and modules/assemblies/programs that contain multiple classes and/or functions.

If, on balance, programmers and the code bases they write get more benefit than harm from having separate name binding scopes for class variables, instance variables, parameters and local variables, why would that not also be the case for classes?  Is that not one of the key benefits provided by having separate program files in the case of file-based languages, and separate images in the case of image-based Smalltalk systems? If separate name binding scopes are bad when provided by formal, first-class namespaces, why are they not also bad when implemented by having different images, or by having different program files?

For those reasons, opposition to formal namespaces as first-class objects has always seemed to me to be the equivalent of opposition to compilers by old-school assembly-language coders, opposition to structured-programming by old-school FORTRAN and COBOL coders, opposition to OO by old-school procedural programmers and opposition to dynamic typing by those who think a variable is semantically equivalent to the object it references, and/or that a class is semantically equivalent to the type (concept) it implements.

I’ve used VisualWorks with namespaces for a decade and a half, and have never encountered the issues that opponents of namespaces say they fear.  Not once, not ever. That’s one reason it reminds me so much of opposition to dynamic typing.

Get over it. Move on: Formal namespaces as first class objects solve more problems than they cause. The proof is in the experience of those who’ve been using them for one or more decades now, and in the ever-increasing adoption of them in modern programming systems and languages.

Selecting the target Essence# class library

Conceptually, an Essence# class library is an independently-loadable code module. It roughly corresponds to what other languages/platforms call a “package,” “module,” “parcel” or “assembly” (and these, too, were historically opposed by some; thankfully, they “got over it.”)

It’s important to note that an Essence# class library can contain one or more Essence# namespaces, that the same Essence# namespace can occur (be defined and/or modified by) more than one Essence# class library, that namespaces are an essential and foundational aspect of the .Net platform, and that Essence# namespaces were designed to deal with the fact that namespaces are so central to the way that the .Net framework operates.

You partition your code base into one or more class libraries so that your code modules can be loaded when and as needed as logically-consistent and cohesive units of functionality. You partition your code into one or more namespaces in order to isolate the named entities in your code base from unwanted name clashes with other parts of your own code base, or from unwanted name clashes with code from third parties (of which you may have no knowledge or even interest.) That’s two separate concerns solved by two separate mechanisms (“objects,”) which is proper OO design.

Key point:  You probably should not export your code to the Essence# Standard Library, for the reasons explained in the Essence# documentation section on CodePlex, under the heading Handling multiple releases of Essence#. For one thing, it puts your work at risk of being overwritten when you merge with a new release of Essence# using the Essence# installation program. Using your own private Essence# class library avoids all risk of that happening, and provides several other important benefits that I won’t go into here.

Using the EssenceClassLibraryExporter

The following code snippet will export the class named MyClass to the Essence# class library MyClassLibrary in the Essence# namespace MyNamespace, assuming that MyClass is locally defined in the namespace Smalltalk (i.e., that’s the namespace in which the class is defined in the Pharo, Squeak or VisualWorks image you’re using):

EssenceClassLibraryExporter libraryPath: #('MyClassLibrary').
(EssenceClassLibraryExporter 
        exportingTo: 'MyNamespace' 
        from: Smalltalk)
                exportClass: MyClass

By default, the exported code will be placed in the current working directory of your Smalltalk image. So in the case of the example above, the folder representing/implementing the target Essence# class library would therefore be the current working directory of your Smalltalk image, and the target namespace would be implemented/represented by the folder MyNamespace, which would be created as a direct subfolder in the image’s current working directory.

To use a different folder as the target Essence# class library, send the message #libraryPathPrefix: aPathnameString to the class EssenceClassLibraryExporter before exporting your code, as in the following example:

EssenceClassLibraryExporter libraryPathPrefix: 
        '/Users/myUserName/Documents/Developer/EssenceSharp/Source/Libraries/'.

To export to a nested Essence# namespace, use a qualified named (“dotted notation”) for the target Essence# namespace name, as in the following example, which would export to the nested namespace MyRootNamespace.MyNestedNamesapce, at the absolute path ‘/Users/myUserName/Documents/Developer/EssenceSharp/Source/Libraries/MyClassLibrary/MyNamespace/MyNestedNamespace/’:

EssenceClassLibraryExporter libraryPathPrefix: 
        '/Users/myUserName/Documents/Developer/EssenceSharp/Source/Libraries/'.
EssenceClassLibraryExporter libraryPath: #('MyClassLibrary').
(EssenceClassLibraryExporter 
        exportingTo: 'MyNamespace.MyNestedNamespace' 
        from: Smalltalk)
                exportClass: MyClass

To export all the classes in a class category, replace the message #exportClass: aClass as in the examples above with the message #exportClassCategory: aSymbolNamingAClassCategory, as in the following example:

EssenceClassLibraryExporter libraryPathPrefix: 
        '/Users/myUserName/Documents/Developer/EssenceSharp/Source/Libraries/'.
EssenceClassLibraryExporter libraryPath: #('DevelopmentTools').
(EssenceClassLibraryExporter 
        exportingTo: 'SystemTesting.SUnit' 
        from: Smalltalk)
                exportClassCategory: #'SUnit-Core-Kernel'

If you use the Pharo version of EssenceClassLibraryExporter (in a Pharo image, of course,) then Traits will be handled correctly.

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