5 Inconvenient Truths about TypeScript

Stefan Baumgartner

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I’m writing books about TypeScript and I do workshops and trainings online and in-house. Every time I meet a new group of developers there are some TypeScript facts that they need to be confronted with:

1. TypeScript won’t save you from JavaScript #

Every time I give TypeScript workshops there is at least one person learning TypeScript because they tried JavaScript and didn’t work out for them. TypeScript should be better, right? The misconception that TypeScript is a “better” or “fixed” version of JavaScript is very common, it has been around since the very early days when TypeScript was heavily promoted by developers who usually did C#/.NET and had a need to write client-side APIs as well. This was also my first contact with TypeScript: Somebody told me that they found a “better version”. And this was also the reason why I originally rejected TypeScript.

But let me tell you that TypeScript is without a doubt a superset of JavaScript, meaning that it takes all the history, quirks, and gotchas from JavaScript along. Yes, it helps you avoid mistakes, and it helps you work with a dynamically typed programming language. It errors when something doesn’t add up. But in its core, it’s still JavaScript. If you work long enough with TypeScript, you see the yellow patches shine through the blue coating of static types.

TypeScript’s type system fully embraces structural typing – for good reason – and this, combined with the fact that types are just meta information that lie on top of existing code can be alienating to a lot of people who expect a quick transition from one language to the other.

If you want to get into TypeScript, don’t think you can leave JavaScript behind. It will find you, and it will get you.

2. TypeScript adds complexity #

TypeScript is known for its gradual approach: Use as many types as you like, go as deep as you want. TypeScript also wants to continually lower the barrier to entry, making it sure that people who know just as much JavaScript to be dangerous can benefit from type information. Every time you write JavaScript in e.g. Visual Studio Code, TypeScript runs behind the curtains and gives you information on built-in APIs, etc. Very subtle, and sometimes without anybody noticing. In fact, a lot of people think that they can live without TypeScript because JavaScript support is so fantastic in modern editors. Guess what’s, it has always been TypeScript!

Still, TypeScript adds a layer of complexity to your project that you need to be aware of. And I’m not only talking about types and the complex, advanced features like Conditional Typing. I’m talking about all the knobs, switches, and integrations that TypeScript brings to the table to be compatible with fricking everything! Running TypeScript in Deno? Check. Node? Of course! Internet Explorer 5? We got you. With Babel? Sure! Babel and Webpack? Yes. Esbuild? You name it! With my seven-year-old charting library? Turn off noImplicitAny, then it’ll work! A mix between UMD, AMD, and CommonJS? Hah, sure! JSX? Yup. TSX? All clear! TSX in React 18? Uh-huh! 17? It does!

You get the idea. The TypeScript compiler is configured through TSConfig, a huge JSON file with lots of possibilities to tailor TypeScript to your needs. There are so many different configuration options that it gets really hard to tell which rules are now actually applied. And once you overcome this configuration extravaganza, you can start looking into all the trade-offs TypeScript is doing for you so you get safe code.

TypeScript is a complex matter.

3. TypeScript is not type-safe #

This might be a surprise for many, but TypeScript actually isn’t type-safe. TypeScript’s type-checking works really well in what I like to call the “inner type world” of your application. That part where you defined your types, the operations on them, and their flow throughout your program. Here, everything that should work together will work together, everything that doesn’t will cause red squiggly lines and compiler errors.

But there’s stuff at the edges. If you leave the inner world of type safety and need to reach out for basically any IO. User input. File access. Fetching data over the internet. Here TypeScript has no clue what the types are about and needs to rely on what you tell it. You need to make type annotations, type assertions, or huge control flow checks to give TypeScript a hint of what to expect. And those measurements are just as good as you are. in TypeScript, you have the ability to change a type to something else at any time. You can override from a broad type that allows for many values but is less specific to a narrow type that allows for fewer values but gives more information at any time, sometimes without even noticing. And there are situations, especially with APIs that return any, where you might annotate something entirely different than you get back.

And nothing keeps you from it.

Not only that, but TypeScript has a few corner cases where it trades type safety for productivity. And those are the scenarios that can really bite you!

The fun thing about is that TypeScript always had a strict non-goal to be provably type-safe. It’s all about making developers productive. It should not get in the way, but help you find the right information fast. Another trade-off.

4. TypeScript comes in many flavors #

What TypeScript are you writing? JavaScript with a dash of types? Going all-in with class hierarchies and using all language extensions like it’s 2012? Writing mostly React and needing the TSX extension? Do you write functional code and work a lot with conditional types and variadic tuple types? Or do you use experimental decorators that provide information for a gazillion other compilers that run afterward? What works best for you? And especially for you and your team?

TypeScript has so many possibilities that I haven’t seen a single project that looks similar to another one. Every team figures out something different and uses a variety of tools to express themselves in TypeScript. And they all come with different features and trade-offs. Enums might have nice APIs but they are nominal in a structural type system and produce non-treeshakeable code. Abstract classes help you define shared behavior but have no roots in JavaScript at all. Conditional types almost always require additional documentation so people can understand what has been done after some passage of time.

Have you decided on whether to use types or interfaces? Const enums or regular enums? Do you infer or annotate? Do you care? What’s your TypeScript flavor?

It’s almost like in C++, where teams always need to decide on a subset of the language to manage complexity. TypeScript asks the same from you.

5. It’s still worth it #

I’ve been doing TypeScript for 6 years and I have written two books on that topic. I do workshops in-house for teams and publicly through organizations like Smashing Magazine. Today, I showed you a lot of examples where TypeScript is not all glitter and glory.

Still. TypeScript is totally worth it. Understand the language, understand its trade-offs and caveats, and understand what it brings to your table. Then you can fully embrace the power of TypeScript as a type system and programming language.

And you know what, then it becomes fun!

TypeScript is here to make your life and the life of your team easier. And it succeeds! Try going back to a project after 6 months of time and try to recreate the mental model you had from your application. Or look at well-crafted types that tell you a story. I’d always go for TypeScript.

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