REBOL rolls forward

Unix Insider –

REBOL is a proprietary scripting computing language invented by Carl Sassenrath, founder and CTO of REBOL Technologies of northern California. This week, we'll look at the progress that REBOL and its language have made in the last six months, and their future prospects.

Not just another language

Regular Expressions subjects seem to fall into two extreme categories. One category contains subjects with a single, simple idea accompanied by technical details. PyQt, for instance, is Qt bound to Python. The content of this kind of article fits in the headline; the body contains the who, what, and where: licensing, release dates, name, places, and so on.

The other category consists of topics that require considerable context. For example, to write about how exception handling is qualitatively different for scripting languages, you must have a good background in scripting, exception abstractions, and subtleties of syntax and semantics just to express the main point.

REBOL is in the latter category. Newcomers typically need to learn a lot before they understand REBOL. For now, concentrate on three keywords: technology, tool, and product.

Sassenrath's technologic vision

Our three previous columns that focused on REBOL emphasized that most of the credit for REBOL's technology goes to Sassenrath. REBOL's executives all have deep industry experience, but Sassenrath is the celebrity, mostly for his design and implementation of the Amiga OS. REBOL combines ideas that appeared in Amiga with other insights Sassenrath has been cultivating for up to 20 years.

The result is a messaging language that is succinct, quick to learn, and almost heroically portable. (REBOL works as universally as Java is supposed to: on BeOS for PPC, Open VMS, Amiga, MPE/iX, and dozens of other platforms.) It is also, as Australian developer Allen Kamp exults, "more fun" than anything in the last 20 years. REBOL knows about the most important networking technologies, and is designed for readability. This makes for compelling one-liners, such as:

<font face="Courier"> 
    do ftp://ftp.rebol.com/hello.r
  </font>

This retrieves the

<font face="Courier">hello.r</font>
REBOL script from the
<font face="Courier">ftp.rebol.com</font>
FTP server and executes it as a local application. REBOL incorporates knowledge of HTML, networking protocols, and email, as well as the usual data and control structures.

The real excitement, though, comes from applications that are more than just illustrative samples. Sassenrath encapsulates his ideas on source development and reuse in REBOL's dialecting mechanism. In a manner reminiscent of List Processing (Lisp) or Forth, it's good REBOL style to extend the base language with domain-specific jargon that precisely expresses a solution. That's a dialect.

REBOL Technologies offers several dialects. REBOL/View is a GUI toolkit that's proved surprisingly popular and has several applications in production. REBOL/Serve manages the publication and distribution of information within an organization. The catalogue of dialects expands each month.

What's new

Almost all of the aforementioned features were in place by 1998. Since then, REBOL has been largely successful and has generally delivered on its promises to developers.

The company is now releasing a few important changes. In early autumn, the REBOL core will take on three of the most important enhancements since REBOL's first release:

  • Shell access to external processes
  • Simplified database-management system communication, starting with Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) and Oracle interfaces
  • In-process connections to foreign libraries

Sassenrath has also been refining REBOL/View. He said proudly, "I really have strong feelings about it. It's the easiest way on the planet to create a [graphical] user interface. The power of dialecting in user interface systems is quite exciting."

Technically, then, REBOL is a hit: it has happy users, enough vitality to grow according to their needs, plenty of real-life applications, an interesting syntax, and even its own magazine, REBOL Forces. But is it sustainable?

Who's paying for all this?

Remember, REBOL is a proprietary language. Its long-term future depends on REBOL Technologies's revenue. As important as its technical advances have been, the biggest REBOL news of the last six months was on the business side.

REBOL Technologies was originally conceived as a tools company that concentrated on selling to developers, like ActiveState Tool or the old Borland. A base commercial license to work with REBOL is relatively inexpensive: only a few hundred dollars.

Regardless of REBOL Technologies's profits from sales of the language and various runtime and dialect licenses, its prospects have excited venture capitalists, who provide most of the company's resources. In 1998, a first round from Avalon Investments sustained it through the 1.0 and 2.0 releases of REBOL/Core; a second round will likely be complete by the time you read this.

Financing REBOL for the next couple years would be momentous. Even more significant, though, is the company's shift to a product orientation. The REBOL executive team sees great opportunities in working with large companies to implement highly refined, efficient applications that automate relations between those companies and their best customers or brokers.

The leisure-cruise industry is a favorite example of REBOL's director of marketing, Dan Stevens. Cruise operators exchange information with thousands of travel agents through a nearly overwhelming combination of faxes, emails, and surface mail. The REBOL language's facility with messaging and networking should help automate and improve such operations.

Information publication and synchronization has a wealth of other applications. REBOL Technologies is positioning itself as a better balance between the Web's limited demand/response algorithmic model and the swamp of poorly standardized, outdated client/server customizations. The exploding application service provider (ASP) industry is a good fit for REBOL's strengths: communications, distribution, and rapid time to market.

Therefore, REBOL Technologies is turning most of its attention to the development of authoring and interface dialects. It will use them to develop prototype applications over the next several months. Those prototypes should demonstrate REBOL's power in customer relation management and related business processes. By early next year, REBOL Technologies aims to win several top-tier, marketing-oriented companies as clients for its relation solutions built with REBOL.

While there are no guarantees about the business outcome, the REBOL language remains an interesting and rewarding technology for Regular Expressions readers. Its Website includes straightforward tutorials and script libraries that explain REBOL's advantages.

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