The functional beauty of JavaScript

This post is more than 16 years old.

Posted at 22:43 on 22 May 2007

I'm the kind of developer who tends to sit on the "coding" side rather than the "design" side of the fence. I'm at my happiest when I'm designing web services, database access and application architecture, and although I do enjoy the odd creative spurt with Photoshop and the like, I don't find it as interesting as the former. Consequently, until a couple of years or so ago, I only gave JavaScript and client-side development the bare minimum of attention that I needed to do my job. What with all the lunatic inconsistencies that you needed to handle in order to cope with Netscape 4 and Internet Explorer 4, I always perceived it as a monstrosity that needed a lot of ugly hacks to get it to do anything more compelling than bring up a dialog box saying "Hello world", and was content to merely download whatever scripts I could find off the Internet to make it do whatever I needed it to do.

These days, of course, the story is quite different: you have some nifty tools such as Firebug, and despite the myriad rendering bugs in Internet Explorer, standards such as CSS and XHTML make browsers are a lot more compatible with each other than they used to be, plus of course there is all the cool stuff that you can do with Ajax. All this makes learning JavaScript a much more attractive prospect, and not surprisingly I've had to do a lot more of it in the past couple of years than ever before.

It's been a real eye-opener. Far from being the ugly, kludge-ridden monstrosity that I'd always thought of it as being, JavaScript is actually a beautiful, well designed language with some very nice constructs. I always thought of it as one of those linear, procedural languages much like VBScript or Fortran with some vaguely object-oriented bits and pieces thrown in as an afterthought like PHP 4, but in actual fact it has much more in common with functional languages such as Scheme, OCaml or Haskell. It has closures and first-class functions, for example, which means that you can express some things in very clever, succinct and beautiful ways.

One particular JavaScript framework that has gotten my attention in the past few months is jQuery, and it's become my library of choice for DHTML and Ajax gee-whiz. It's an increasingly popular and fully featured toolkit that enables you to do some pretty clever stuff with only a handful of lines of code. For a simple example of what you can do with it, here is a code snippet that will highlight rows in a table when you mouse over it:

var highlightColour = "#ffff00";
var normalColour = "#ffffff";
$(document).ready(function() {
  $("#my-table tr").hover(
    function() {
      $(this).css("background-color", highlightColour);
    function() {
      $(this).css("background-color", normalColour);

I love the simplicity of this. As the WordPress guys say, code is poetry.

(Update: Jeff Attwood has an interesting take on the subject where he describes JavaScript as "the lingua franca of the web" with the likes of Flash and Silverlight as merely pretenders to the throne.)