arun thampi  /  writing  / 

is it still time to build?

The similarity between the iPhone in 2010 and Ruby On Rails in 2007

30 Apr 2010 - Singapore

The whole brouhaha about the openness (or lack thereof) of Apple and its evilness has had me confused for a while now. On the one hand, I really admire Apple’s gumption in taking on the behemoth that was the mobile phone industry, turning it around and winning in the marketplace because of its sheer awesomeness. On the other hand, the closed nature of the AppStore, the haphazard way in which Apple rejects apps and it’s borderline anti-competitive stance against Adobe and languages which are neither C or C++ have gone against the principles of openness of the Web - principles I firmly believe in.

That’s when the epiphany struck. Turn your clocks back to 2005, when a Danish guy with a funny accent demoed how easy it was to make an AJAX-powered blog in a shiny new web-framework called Ruby On Rails. While there were existing web frameworks at the time (Struts, Servlets, PHP et al), Rails changed the way you developed web applications. No more spaghetti SQL in your HTML templates, no more worrying about databases and no more figuring out how you can do AJAX (because Rails came with a snazzy DSL called RJS). For a developer who had no experience doing web applications and databases, Rails was a dream come true. It is my belief that Rails empowered a new generation of developers (and cross-over developers like myself) to get into web application development.

Even after a couple of years after the introduction of Rails, all was not well. It was still a bitch to deploy your web application. Ruby as a language was severely handicapped by poor performance, as compared to its other counterparts such as PHP and Python, which led to a lot of FUD that Rails can’t scale. The enterprise mocked Rails as a toy and not something you can build “serious” applications with. Even serious Rails developers complained that Rails forced you to tread the golden-path prescribed by DHH, and if you had to deviate from it, it certainly meant that you were entering a ball of hurt (Merb was a result of such a complaint).

Fast-forward to 2010, and look at how all-encompassing the Rails landscape has become. Ruby On Rails has become such a game-changer that there are multiple companies providing simple deployment solutions which enable you to deploy web applications to the cloud with the press of a button. Sun (sorry EngineYard), Microsoft, Smalltalk and Apple have multiple implementations of Ruby all conforming to a single spec. The fact that Microsoft (and the erstwhile Sun) is pushing for IronRuby to become a part of the .NET suite is certainly proof that Ruby is ready for the enterprise. And, Merb itself is being merged into Rails 3 to address concerns of modularity, while still maintaining the Rails ethos of convention over configuration and sensible defaults.

So, on to the iPhone. The iPhone has changed the mobile phone in a similar way to how Rails changed the world for web developers. Can you imagine being able to distribute applications to mobile phones and actually make money off it before 2008? Can you imagine the mobile internet being mainstream before the iPhone? The iPhone is still a relative child in “technology-years”. Call me naive but in my opinion, the iPhone platform is not evil, it’s just young and immature. Distractions such as the dogmatic App Store and the perceived anti-competitiveness are growing pains. Apple and the iPhone have been able to do so much more than so many other mobile phone companies in the last 20 years. So give it some time.

I understand that there are crucial differences between the stories of Rails and the iPhone - the number one being that Rails itself was open-source and thus is the exact opposite of the iPhone/iPhone OS. But the whole Rails 3 project shows the ability of the Rails Core (and DHH) to admit that Rails is not perfect and that it’s willing to adapt and keep ahead of the competition. They realised that it’s not just enough that Rails is easy to use, it now has to be both powerful and modular and easy to use. They felt that it was now mature and mainstream enough (in that there were enough Rails copycats) that they needed to raise the bar again.

Similarly, it’s absurd to think that the iPhone and it’s associated ecosystem will not adapt to how users view their mobile phones in a few years time. The mobile web will be more mature by then and mobile operating systems and hardware will have advanced to such a stage that it would make my MacBook Pro feel like a calculator from the 80s. Most importantly, more people will begin to see mobile phones as information/communication appliances and not just devices used to make calls. It’s in Apple’s best interests to adapt and keep raising the bar, and it is my belief that they will.