Christian Heilmann

Why ChakraCore matters

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016 at 10:13 pm

People who have been in the web development world for a long time might remember A List Apart’s posts from 16 years ago talking about “Why $browser matters”. In these posts, Zeldman explained how the compliance with web standards and support for new features made some browsers stand out, even if they don’t have massive market share yet.

fruit stand
Variety is the spice of life

These browsers became the test bed for future-proof solutions. Solutions that later on already were ready for a larger group of new browsers. Functionality that made the web much more exciting than the one of old. The web we built for one browser and relied on tried-and-true, yet hacky solutions like table layouts. These articles didn’t praise a new browser with flashy new functionality. Browsers featured in this series were the ones compliant with upcoming and agreed standards. That’s what made them important.

The web thrives on diversity. Not only in people, but also in engines. We would not be where we are today if we had stuck with one browser engine. We would not enjoy the openness and free availability of our technologies if Mozilla hadn’t showed that you can be open and a success. The web thrives on user choice and on tool choice for developers.

Competition makes us better and our solutions more creative. Standardisation makes it possible for users of our solutions to maintain them. To upgrade them without having to re-write them from scratch. Monoculture brings quick success but in the long run always ends in dead code on the web that has nowhere to execute. As the controlled, solution-to-end-all-solutions changed from underneath the developers without backwards compatibility.

Today my colleague Arunesh Chandra announced at the NodeSummit in San Francisco that ChakraCore, the open source JavaScript engine of Microsoft, in part powering the Microsoft Edge browser is available now for Linux and OSX.

Screen captures showing ChakraCore running inside terminal windows on Ubuntu 16.04 and OS X
ChakraCore on Linux and OS X

This is a huge step for Microsoft, who – like any other company – is a strong believer in its own products. It also does well keeping their developers happy by sticking to what they are used to. It is nothing they needed to do to stay relevant. But it is something that is the right thing to do to ensure that the world of Node also has more choice and is not dependent on one predominant VM. Many players in the market see the benefits of Node and want to support it, but are not sold on a dependency on one JavaScript VM. A few are ready to roll out their own VMs, which cater to special needs, for example in the IoT space.

This angers a few people in the Node world. They worry that with several VMs, the “browser hell” of “supporting all kind of environment” will come to Node. Yes, it will mean having to support more engines. But it is also an opportunity to understand that by using standardised code, ratified by the TC39, your solutions will be much sturdier. Relying on specialist functionality of one engine always means that you are dependent on it not changing. And we are already seeing far too many Node based solutions that can’t upgrade to the latest version as breaking changes would mean a complete re-write.

ChakraCore matters the same way browsers that dared to support web standards mattered. It is a choice showing that to be future proof, Node developers need to be ready to allow their solutions to run on various VMs. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out. It took the web a few years to understand the value of standards and choice. Much rhetoric was thrown around on either side. I hope that with the great opportunity that Node is to innovate and use ECMAScript for everything we will get there faster and with less dogmatic messaging.

Photo by Ian D. Keating

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