What is Dart?

Inside a new language for building structured web apps.

By Kathy Walrath and Seth Ladd

Writing a web app can be lots of fun,
especially at the beginning when you experience instant gratification:
code, reload, repeat.

Unfortunately, finishing and maintaining a web app are not so fun.
JavaScript is great for small scripts,
and it has the performance chops to run large apps.
But when a script evolves into a large web app,
debugging and modifying that app can be a nightmare,
especially when you have a large team.

Enter
Dart,
an open-source project that aims to enable developers
to build more complex, highly performant apps for the modern web.
Using the Dart language, you can quickly write
prototypes that evolve rapidly,
and you also have access to advanced tools, reliable libraries,
and good software engineering techniques.

Even though Dart is young, it already has tools such as Dartboard
(which lets you write and run Dart code in your browser) and
Dart Editor
(which lets you create, modify, and run Dart apps).
A recently released
SDK
contains command-line tools such as a
Dart-to-JavaScript compiler
(which produces JavaScript that you can put in any modern browser)
and a Dart Virtual Machine
(the VM, which lets you run Dart code on servers).
The latest tool to become available is
a build of the Chromium browser, nicknamed
Dartium,
that contains a built-in Dart VM.

(Note: Dart is still changing. This article is correct as of March 2012,
but facts might change and links might go bad. For the latest information, see the Dart website.)

Why did Google create Dart?

We want you to be able to create great web apps.
Great web apps improve the web,
and when the web does better, everyone wins.

Engineers at Google have been
thinking about web apps for a long time.
We’ve written a bunch of
complex and widely used large-scale web apps
(think Gmail, Google+, and Google Docs),
so we’re quite familiar with
the challenges of architecting web apps.
We’ve also written a browser (Chrome)
and a JavaScript engine (V8),
so we’ve thought a lot about
how to make web apps run faster.

Basically, we created Dart because we think
it’ll help bring more great apps to the web,
and we think it should be easier
to create more complex web applications.

Does the web really need another language?

App developers from all platforms should be able
to build for the modern web,
but many non-endemic web developers have
different expectations and requirements
from their language, tools, and development platform
than what is available today.
We believe there is room for a new platform,
one that is not encumbered by 15 years of cruft,
that is familiar to developers of different backgrounds,
and that is structured to enable the larger, more complex apps
that users are demanding.

We don’t think JavaScript is going away.
In fact, Google is actively working with
TC39
to improve JavaScript, and new
features are already landing
in V8 and Chrome.
However, our commitment to improving JavaScript doesn’t prevent us
from thinking about other solutions.
For example, Dart will take advantage of
the continued work on JavaScript,
because Dart programs compile to JavaScript
to run across the entire modern web.

We believe Dart is a compelling and familiar platform
that meets the needs of developers from different backgrounds and experiences,
including endemic web developers.
We believe that Dart brings fresh ideas to web programming,
and that innovation in both Dart and JavaScript will help
push the web forward for app developers and users.

Show me the code

Enough talk, let’s see some code.
Whether you know JavaScript or Java,
Dart code should look familiar.
Here’s an example of a simple web page in Dart:

hi.dart:

hi.html:

Now let’s look at some Dart code that uses functions:

The => syntax used to implement main()
is a nice, compact way to implement a function
that evaluates and returns a single expression.
Without =>,
the implementation of the main() method would look like this:

In the send() method implementation above,
rate is an optional parameter with a default value.
That method also illustrates string interpolation at work
(${var}).

Here’s some Dart code that’s more object-oriented:

This code should look pretty familiar if you’ve
ever used a class-based language.

How can I play with Dart?

The easiest way to try out Dart is to use Dartboard,
a way to execute Dart code interactively in any modern browser.
Dartboard is embedded in the Dart site, at
www.dartlang.org.
You can also use Dartboard by going directly to
try.dartlang.org.
Here’s a picture of what you’ll see on that site:

Dartboard

Change the code as you like,
and then click the Run button (at the upper left).
You’ll see the results of your code in a new area below:

Dartboard

The URL at the upper right of the Dartboard is a link to the code you just ran.

Like most things related to Dart, Dartboard is still changing.
For the latest information, see the
Dartboard tutorial.

How about a real editor?

When you outgrow Dartboard, try
Dart Editor.
It’s a downloadable editor for Windows, Mac, and Linux
that lets you write, modify, and run Dart web apps.
Dart Editor can run your Dart code via the VM,
or it can compile it to JavaScript and launch it in your browser.
Here’s a picture of what Dart Editor currently looks like:

Dart Editor

To run any program in Dart Editor,
just click the Run button
while any item in that program’s library is selected.
If your program is a web app,
Dart Editor launches Dartium
(Chromium with an embedded Dart VM) to run the program.
When you are ready to ship to production,
the Dart Editor can compile it to JavaScript,
making your app available to the entire modern web.

Dart Editor has several features to help you edit Dart code,
and we expect more features soon.
As you can see from the screenshot above,
Dart Editor highlights Dart syntax.
Dart Editor also supports auto-completion,
and it can quickly take you to where types and other APIs are declared.
You can also get a quick outline of your program’s
classes, methods, and fields.

See the
Dart
Editor tutorial

for download instructions and a walkthrough.

What’s new about Dart?

Now that you’re all tooled up,
let’s talk about the language.
We’re not going to go into Dart’s
features and syntax in detail—you
can read about all of that on
www.dartlang.org—but
here are a few of the more interesting features of Dart.

Optional typing:
You can use types or not, it’s up to you.
Types in Dart code don’t change the way your app executes,
but they can help developers and programming tools to understand your code.
You might not bother with types
while you’re developing a prototype,
but you might add types when you’re
ready to commit to an implementation.
An emerging pattern is to add types
to interfaces and method signatures,
and omit types inside methods.

Snapshots:
Currently, browsers need to parse a web app’s source code
before that app can run.
Dart code can be snapshotted—all
its state and code recorded at a certain point in time—which
can speed up startup considerably.
In initial testing, a web app with 54,000 lines of Dart code
started up in 640ms without snapshotting.
With snapshotting, it started up in 60ms.
When your Dart program is running in the Dart VM,
it can see significant startup time performance improvements,
thanks to snapshots.

Isolates:
Dart supports concurrent execution by way of isolates,
which you can think of as processes without the overhead.
Each isolate has its own memory and code,
which can’t be affected by any other isolate.
The only way an isolate can communicate with another isolate
is by way of messages.
Isolates allow a single app to use multi-core computers effectively.
Another use for isolates:
running code from different origins in the same page,
without compromising security.
For more details see
Isolates,
below.

Interfaces with default implementations:
Ignore this one if you’ve never used a language
that features classes and interfaces/protocols.
Still here? OK.
If you take a look at the
Dart libraries,
you’ll notice that they use interfaces in cases where
some other languages would use classes—for example, for
Date and
HashMap.
This is possible because a Dart interface can have
a default implementation—a class (usually private)
that is the default way to create objects that implement the interface.
For example, even though
Stopwatch
is an interface,
you can call new Stopwatch()
to get a default stopwatch implementation.
If you look at the API doc or
source code,
you can see that the default implementation of Stopwatch
is a class named StopwatchImplementation.

Generics, but easy:
Generics have been done before,
but they’ve been confusing.
Dart takes a new approach by designing a generics system that’s more understandable.
The tradeoff is sacrificing a bit of exactness,
but we believe that enabling developers to be more productive trumps ivory-tower language design.
For more details see
Generics, below.

HTML library:
We also took a fresh look at how you should use the HTML DOM.
(DOM is short for Document Object Model;
it’s the interface that lets you programmatically update
the content, structure, and style of a web page.)
By creating a native Dart library
(dart:html) to access and manipulate the DOM,
we made elements, attributes, and nodes feel natural to work with.
More details are in the sections
What libraries are available? and
Manipulating the DOM.

Why does Dart look so familiar?

A cutting edge and unique language might be beautiful,
but it would have maybe five users.
Dart is designed for mass adoption,
so it has to feel familiar to both scripting language users
(such as JavaScripters) and structured language users
(such as Java developers).

Still, Dart has some unique features for
a language targeted at the mainstream.
For example, interfaces with default implementations
help with hiding implementation details.
Optional typing, another new feature for the web,
should help with more clearly annotating developer intention
and interface and library contracts.

What is in the Dart platform?

Dart is more than just a language,
it’s an entire platform for modern web developers.

Language specification:
The Dart language is familiar,
with a few new features such as optional typing and isolates.

Libraries:
Core libraries provide functionality
including collections, dates, and math,
as well as HTML bindings,
server-side I/O such as sockets,
and even JSON.

Compiler to JavaScript:
You can compile Dart programs to JavaScript that can run across the entire modern web.

VM:
The virtual machine is built from the ground up to run Dart code natively.
The VM runs on the command line for server-side applications,
and can also be embedded into browsers for client-side applications.

Integration with Chromium:
The Dart VM has been embedded into a build of Chromium,
nicknamed Dartium,
allowing native Dart applications to run without first being compiled to JavaScript.

Dart Editor:
This lightweight editor,
complete with syntax highlighting and code completion,
can launch your script in the VM or web app in Dartium.
It can also compile your web app to JavaScript
and run it in another browser.

Should I use Dart for my app today?

Dart is still changing,
so for now, don’t bet the farm on it.
However, everything in Dart is
open source and
open to debate,
so we encourage you to check out Dart and provide feedback.
Once the language and libraries settle down
(this year, if all goes according to plan)
we expect that you’ll be able to run
production Dart web apps in all major modern browsers.

How do you expect people to use Dart?

You can use Dart to build complex, high-performance
apps for the modern web.
The Dart language is designed to work
on the client and the server,
which means that you can use it to implement
a complete, end-to-end application.

You can also use Dart to scale your development
as your program grows from a small set of functions
to a large collection of classes.
For instance, web development encourages
extremely short development iterations.
As you refine your idea and your program grows in scope and complexity,
your code will probably need more modularity and encapsulation.
Dart enables you to refactor from functions to classes,
and from untyped code to typed code.

As for deployment, you have two options:
compiling to JavaScript or using the Dart VM.
For your client-side code,
compiling to JavaScript enables your Dart code to run on modern browsers.
A future version of Chrome will ship with an embedded Dart VM,
allowing your Dart code to run directly in Chrome
without first being compiled to JavaScript.

How can I compile to JavaScript?

To produce human readable JavaScript,
you should use the Frog compiler
(available in the
Dart SDK).
Still a work in progress,
Frog generates JavaScript code that is small and performant.

For example, say you have the following Dart code:

Frog compiles that into the following JavaScript code:

As you can see, the JavaScript code is straightforward.

To get the Frog compiler,
download the SDK,
which is available now in prerelease.

What libraries are available?

For now, Dart has three libraries that you can use:

dart:core

The basic APIs that all apps can count on,
whether they’re standalone scripts or inside the browser.
These APIs let you perform operations such as:

dart:html

APIs for producing UIs for web apps.
For example:

  • get global objects
    (document,
    window)
  • find HTML elements
    (Element’s
    query() and
    queryAll())
  • add and remove event handlers
    (Element’s
    on property)
  • operate on groups of objects
    using the built-in Dart collection interfaces

For an example of using this library, see the
Manipulating the DOM section.

dart:io

Server-side APIs for connecting to the outside world.
This library is accessible only when the Dart VM is running on the server.
Examples:

You can see the API documentation at
api.dartlang.org.

The community has also started porting libraries that you can use.
For example, the
crypto libraries
from Closure have been ported to Dart.
For game development, the popular
Box2D physics engine
has also been ported to Dart.

Show me more code

We’ve given an overview of Dart’s most interesting features
and shown some Dart code.
Now we’ll elaborate on a few of these features—types,
generics, isolates, and DOM manipulation—and
show yet more code.

Types

Up above, we showed this example:

You might notice that although the code defines and uses a class,
it otherwise has no types.
Types are optional in Dart.
They don’t change the way programs run,
but they make the code more understandable by tools
(such as debuggers and IDEs) and developers
(such as your replacement,
when you move on to an even better project).
Think of types as annotations or documentation
that can help tools and humans
understand your intention better and catch bugs earlier.

We think a good place to start adding types is
method signatures and interfaces—the
“surface area” of your program.
As more people are added to your project and more classes are generated,
it’s useful to know what types are used by
(and returned from) methods.

Here’s the previous sample with types added to the API definitions:

Notice how we didn’t add types to
the method body of distanceTo().
An emerging pattern of
idiomatic Dart
is to use types for method signatures but not method bodies.
Method bodies should be small enough to be easily understood,
and we expect tools to perform type inference at some point.
However, if you prefer to use types everywhere,
you’re free to change
var dx to num dx, and so on.

Generics

If you haven’t used generic types before—or
maybe even if you have—seeing something like
List<E>
in the API reference might be a bit scary.
Don’t worry.
Generics in Dart are easy peasy.

For example, if you don’t care what types of objects are in a List,
then you can create a list like this:

If you know that your list will only have
one kind of object in it—only strings,
for example—then you can
(but don’t have to)
declare that when you create the List object:

Why bother with the extra ceremony?
Specifying what types your collection can hold is
a good way to document to both your fellow programmers and your tools
what your expectations are.
The tools and the runtime can detect bugs early on.

(Fact: new List() is shorthand for new List<Dynamic>().
Dynamic is the type used behind the scenes for “untyped” variables.)

Here are examples of how Dart treats
different types and untyped collections.
If you’re familiar with generics in Java,
pay close attention to the last two examples.

The last two examples highlight Dart’s covariant generics.
Because you will run into untyped Dart code in the wild,
the Dart language must allow you to treat an untyped List
the same as a typed List,
and vice versa.

As you may be able to tell from the code above,
Dart’s parameterized types are reified.
This means that the generics aren’t lost at compile time,
so Dart truly knows that a List<String>
is a “list of Strings”.

For more tips on using generics, see the
Generics
section of the
Optional
Types in Dart
article.
Also see the blog post
Generics in Dart,
or, Why a JavaScript programmer should care about types
.

Manipulating the DOM

Revisiting the DOM to make it more Dart-esque has a lot of advantages.
You can use elements and nodes as actual Dart objects,
and you can loop through child nodes just like you can with other Dart collections.

For example, here’s some code that finds a specific element
and then performs various operations
on the element and its children.

For more information, read the article
Improving
the DOM
, and browse the
dart:html library.

Isolates

Even though Dart is single threaded,
you can still take advantage of multi-core machines by using isolates.
An isolate provides memory isolation between
different parts of a running program.
Each isolate can run in a separate thread or process,
managed by the Dart VM.

Isolates communicate by sending messages through ports.
The messages are copied so that an isolate can’t change the state of objects that belong to other isolates.

To illustrate isolates at work, let’s build a simple echo service. First we will define echo(), a function to run in an isolate. Each isolate has a port, which we can use to receive messages. We’ll reply to the message via the provided reply port.

The main() method creates a new isolate for the echo() function with spawnFunction(). Use the SendPort to send messages to the isolate, and listen for any responses using then().

Here’s the output:

We tested the preceding code on the Dart VM. In JavaScript, isolates compile to web workers so that they can run in separate processes. Isolates are still getting refactored, stay tuned for more updates.

Where can I learn more?

The main place to go for Dart information is dartlang.org.

Here are some places to get news about Dart:

You can discuss Dart at our main group.

Other official groups give you access to detailed information such as code reviews, commits to the source code repository, and issue tracker changes:

If you want to see how Dart is implemented
or you want to become a contributor,
check out the Dart open-source project.

And finally, here are some good interviews and videos about Dart:

Dart is getting ready.
We encourage you to
learn more about Dart,
play with Dart in your browser,
browse the API docs,
enter
feature requests and bugs
, and
join the discussion.
Please give it a try.
We look forward to your feedback.

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topic: Web Platform