Smalltalk in Business, Italian-style

by Lorenzo Schiavina

I’ve been using Smalltalk since 1982; from 1990 until it stopped its activity, I have been the Italian distributor of Digitalk and my company (EDOR Metodi Quantitativi) was the Competence Center for IBM VisualAge for Italy since 1995.

I started my activity as a programmer in 1967 and I have used the following

  • Assembler 360
  • RPG
  • Basic
  • Smalltalk
  • Java

Since 1975, I’ve been Associate Professor of Operations Research at the Faculty of Mathematics at the Università Cattolica of Brescia. In 1970, I developed (in COBOL) a package called MIDA (Management Integrato Dati Aziendali), which was the official package of HP for the HP-150 series and sold around 23,000 packages in Italy, and was brought into several foreign countries.

In my humble opinion, OOP technology (and particularly Smalltalk) is not only a technological change, but a real paradigm shift like (as I was assured by Prof. Enrico Gamba, a math historian with whom I discussed this aspect) the transition from Roman numerals to Arabic numerals. The results obtained are externally the same, but the process (and the mental approach) have little in common.

Since 2000 (when in Italy we passed from lira to the euro), I brought MIDA from COBOL to Smalltalk (it was not a simple port, but a full reimplementation) and I can guarantee that it was a real success; at present, we have about 300 direct clients and they seem very satisfied. In 2002, the Italian Ministry of Research granted my company a contribution for a project (Azienda ad oggetti) for the creation of a general OOP model for any kind of company. In this model, all business components are made in the form of classes and Smalltalk hierarchies.

Please observe that, some years later, IBM tried to develop a similar project (San Francisco project) with Java, but dismissed it. Based on these experiences, I believe that the arguments in the video “What Killed Smalltalk Could Kill Ruby, Too” are ridiculous and meaningless. The real problem (which I lived through) was very similar to what occurred in Tuscany during the Renaissance: those who knew (Roman) arithmetic got scared and saw that his power would be destroyed and hampered by the new paradigm, came to banish the Arabic numerals. I remember perfectly that traditional programmers did not understand absolutely how to convey their experience in objects and then, of course, did not want to change.

When I held lectures on VisualAge at IBM meetings, people expected me to talk about Java, because traditional programmers understood it, since it was not as “abstract” as Smalltalk; and this was a winning strategic choice for Sun. If I have to make one criticism of Smalltalk, it is that it did nothing to take the market from traditional programmers, continuing to make beautiful things (like the Tower of Hanoi, for example) but ignoring the things that were important at the time, such as business applications.


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