Commentary on The Rise & Fall of LISP — Too Good For The Rest Of the World

Richard Kenneth Eng
2 min readApr 26, 2023

It’s notable that, historically, there’ve been two languages that share a similar evolutionary trajectory: LISP and Smalltalk. Both languages are VM-based and image-based. Both are very dynamic and flexible. Both had special hardware to run them (in the case of Smalltalk, the Xerox Alto). Both needed expensive hardware (lots of RAM, fast processors, and in the case of Smalltalk, high-resolution displays). Both have experienced massive market fragmentation. Both have been the victims of Java hype. Both missed the mark with respect to the Internet.

However, there are important differences, too. Smalltalk did become mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, according to a 1995 IDC report, Smalltalk was the second most popular object-oriented language after C++ and ahead of Objective-C, Object Pascal, CLOS, and Eiffel. It was mainstream enough that IBM chose Smalltalk as the centerpiece of their VisualAge enterprise initiative.

Today, Smalltalk is still used by thousands of enterprises around the globe supported by no fewer than three major commercial Smalltalk vendors: Instantiations, GemTalk Systems, and Cincom. I can’t think of any major commercial LISP vendors unless you count Franz and LispWorks.

Clojure (2007) and Pharo (2008) are modern adaptations of LISP and Smalltalk, respectively. Neither language is particularly popular — they don’t rank in the Top 50 at TIOBE. For a while, Clojure did receive a lot of hype but now it’s nowhere. What happened to it???

Interestingly, when LISP celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008 (at OOPSLA ‘08), it was very low key. Last year’s celebration of Smalltalk’s 50th birthday was pretty awesome: