“Without an interface definition you can’t safely swap a dependency because you don’t know what the dependency is supposed to be doing,” said Schiemann. “So if you were a framework author or building a large app, you had no control of whether something would behave in the way it had before. We’d been bitten by that, so Dojo was an early adopter of TypeScript for that reason.”
“When the world shifted to ES6, they also shifted to TypeScript.”
-Dylan Schiemann, CEO of Living Spec and creator of the Dojo framework
In 2015, Google decided Angular 2 would also be built using TypeScript, citing static typing as one of the reasons. Ryan Cavanaugh, the principal engineering lead for the TypeScript language at Microsoft, believes this was a major spur for wider TypeScript adoption. In a discussion with Ryan Donovan of Stack Overflow, he said:
“…if you look at the graphs for TypeScript, literally any graph — GitHub stars, downloads, pull requests — you can see the exact point when that Angular announcement came out. And the graph just changes. It never looks back. You can’t see that little bend in the curve anymore because the curve kept going. That was a real inflection point.
And I think it’s been interesting that people thought at the time that TypeScript was going to be just what Angular people use and not much else. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Obviously, we’re still popular among Angular devs. But that was a real momentum builder for us.”
Conversely, Schiemann believes that it was the arrival of ECMAScript 6 that triggered the tipping point: “I think that when the world shifted to ES6, they also shifted to TypeScript, because they said, ‘well if I’m going to go this route, let me look at TypeScript while I do this.’”
The Importance of Community
In Schiemann’s view though, Microsoft’s management of the community is even more important.
“If the TypeScript folks were at all untrustworthy as a team, I think people wouldn’t have adopted TypeScript,” he said. “The thing is that with Anders [Hejlsberg] you have this person who’s super smart, but super approachable. And the whole team is like that — they are like the most humble, unassuming team I’ve ever worked with, with that level of technical aptitude.”
Schiemann explained that when the team behind Angular first started using TypeScript, they forked it to add a feature they needed called Decorators. Seeing this, the TypeScript team reached out and suggested they work together to add the feature into TypeScript itself.
“And then when React became more widely adopted, the TypeScript team said, ‘well, how about we work with the React ecosystem to help make TypeScript better to work with React’, and then they did a similar thing when Svelte started to gain popularity. So they do a good job of reaching out to frameworks and saying, ‘Hey, how can we support you?’”
Microsoft’s emphasis on community also extends to developer tooling; another reason the Angular team cited for their decision to adopt the language. Microsoft’s own VS Code naturally has great support for TypeScript, but the TypeScript Language Server provides a common set of editor operations — like statement completions, signature help, code formatting, and outlining. This simplifies the job for vendors of alternative IDEs, such as JetBrains with WebStorm (and some of their other IDEs).
Ekaterina Prigara, WebStorm project manager at JetBrains, told the New Stack that “this integration works side-by-side with our own support of TypeScript – some of the features of the language support are powered by the server, whilst others, e.g. most of the refactorings and the auto import mechanism, by the IDE’s own support.”
The availability of the TypeScript Language Server reduces the development burden for tool makers.
The details of the integration are quite complex. Continued Prigara, “Completion suggestions from the server are shown but they could, in some cases, be enhanced with the IDE’s suggestions. It’s the same with the error detection and quick fixes. Formatting is done by the IDE. Inferred types shown on hover, if I’m not mistaken, come from the server. But there’s always a fallback provided by the IDE in case the server takes too long to respond.”
However, the availability of the TypeScript Language Server still reduces the development burden for tool makers. Because of this, it is used by a large number of tools and frameworks — e.g. ESLint for type checking, and Vue for it’s Typescript support. Indeed the tooling angle is so important that, according to Schiemann, “the TypeScript team won’t ship a feature that can’t be made fast enough for an IDE”.
Moreover, because TypeScript is a compiler, it can compile a codebase to support older browsers and environments. Add to this a linter and the built-in support for documentation, and it is easy to see why TypeScript is so compelling. “At this point I can’t imagine really writing anything significant without it,” Schiemann said, “because it just helps me write clearer code that is easier to maintain.”
Not Your Father’s Microsoft
Given Microsoft’s history with open source, it is interesting to reflect on how we got here.
And, of course, being open source made it possible for a community to develop around the language.
Still, it was easy at the time to be skeptical. Microsoft had earned itself a bad reputation in the open source community. In 2001, Microsoft’s then CEO Steve Ballmer declared that “Linux is a cancer.” The company sponsored SCO’s copyright attack on Linux, claimed that Linux violated unnamed Microsoft patents, and forced Linux-based Android vendors to pay for dubious patent claims.
Long-term industry watchers will also remember Microsoft’s use of “embrace, extend, and extinguish”, particularly in the second half of the 1990s, leading to deliberate browser incompatibilities, preventing Office documents from being rendered properly in browsers other than IE, and breaking Java’s portability.
Schiemann agreed. “One thing the TypeScript team told me,” he said, “was [that] when they fully embraced open source, they’d still get enterprise requests like, ‘can you add this feature to TypeScript for company X,’ and they’d respond ‘well, no, you have to open an issue in GitHub, make your case and maybe provide a PR. If you want this open source, you have to run it like an open source project’.”
Ultimately, TypeScript has won through Microsoft being good open source stewards and citizens.
Feature image adapted from a photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels.