Rails creator doubts Silverlight can win converts

In this interview, David Heinemeier Hansson also comments on open source, JavaFX, and differentiators in Ruby on Rails framework

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Hansson: In some ways I don't really care. I don't follow it very closely. The Microsoft ecosystem is not that interesting to me. It's a very different world from the world that I inhabit, which is one of open standards, open source, and so on and so forth. It's not to say that they don't do interesting stuff. I definitely do think that they have some interesting thoughts, [such as] LINQ (Language Integrated Query), which is very interesting. There's definitely a good number of things that the open-source world could learn from some of those initiatives, but wholesale jumping into the Microsoft boat has just never appealed to the kind of work I do.

InfoWorld: Can Microsoft succeed with Silverlight, or are AJAX and Flash the major players for rich Internet application development as it relates to multimedia?

Hansson: I think Microsoft can succeed selling Silverlight to people who already use Microsoft. If you're already using ASP.Net and other Microsoft techniques, that really in lot of ways were trying just to re-create the desktop online, then I totally think that these people will jump all over Silverlight. I do not think that people currently working in open source and with open standards like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are going to fall off their chairs in pursuit of adopting Silverlight.

InfoWorld: Why not?

Hansson: I think that we don't need that additional complexity, we don't need that "richer experience."  It's being sold as it's just universally something better than what we have with HTML and CSS and JavaScript. And I think a lot of the success of the Web has been in the constraints that those standards gave us. A lot of the success of the Web came with the standardization of just having a few tools that you really have to be clever about how to use in an effective way. You didn't have all the opportunities of the world, so you could create one crazy use interface after another. And I think that's often what "rich" means. It means wild or out there or fun. And that's totally fine -- if you're creating a game, then something like Flash is awesome. If you're creating yet another information application, which is the bulk of applications out there, then I think HMTL, CSS, and JavaScript [do] just fine.

InfoWorld: Microsoft is adding support for IronRuby and IronPython to the DLR (Dynamic Language Runtime). What's your take on that?

Hansson: I enjoy the fact that more people can get to experience Ruby by getting it in the side door somehow, that Ruby can be used in shops [that are] predominantly Microsoft shops. But I hope that those are more planting seeds for people to then get out. I'm not seeing that Ruby on the DLR or whatever is going to convince a lot of people currently using Ruby to jump in the arms of Microsoft. But I do see it the other way around. I do see people who were traditionally using Microsoft technologies being exposed to languages like Python and Ruby and then realizing that hey, maybe I actually don't need the Microsoft part.

InfoWorld: So then it can have an opposite effect. Do you think Microsoft is just blowing smoke with its threats against Linux that they talked about this week regarding alleged [patent] violations or is there something to it?

Hansson: I think they're doing the techniques that they've used successfully in the past. I think FUD'ing people up and making them insecure -- is Linux going to be sued out of existence? Am I wrong to base my entire infrastructure on open source? Creating all that fear, doubt and uncertainty is what Microsoft does really well. And that's, of course, seeing something like this, it's got to be so frustrating to people, the good forces within Microsoft who do understand open source and do want to get developers who are sympathetic to the open-source movement to get involved with their technologies. How persuasive an argument is it going to be now that Silverlight is this open platform and you can come play, and by the way we're suing everything else you build your business on? It's not going to be very persuasive. And I think it really sends so many mixed messages, and it seems like there's a war going on inside Microsoft. Like [Microsoft CEO Steve] Ballmer on one side pushing this FUD line against Linux and other open-source and open standards, and then you have somebody like [Microsoft Chief Software Architect] Ray Ozzie, who seems to be more with the times in getting that Microsoft can't invent its own universe forever and just ask people to come over. So I do hope that the Ray Ozzie side of a more open approach, a more inclusive strategy, is going to work.

InfoWorld: What's your take on JRuby, which runs the Ruby language on the Java Virtual Machine, and how does that tie into Ruby on Rails?

Hansson: I think it's fascinating. I have to be honest. One year ago I didn't have a whole lot of faith in the JRuby project, and that's mostly just from the experience of seeing other languages being re-implemented on other platforms. It seems mostly to have been curiosities. But I've got to say I'm hugely impressed about the work that the JRuby team has been doing, how fast they've been progressing, how fast they're catching up both in features and in speed. And as it stands right now, where they're actually able to run a good number of Ruby on Rails applications, it's marvelous. I think it opens a whole new avenue for Ruby into enterprise strongholds that would otherwise not [have] considered Ruby and Rails because that they didn't run on their existing infrastructure. So I think it's awesome, and I am really looking forward to seeing more about it. I still have some concerns or skepticism about -- is this really going to be something that appeals to regular long-term Ruby users? Would I run JRuby in a year from now? I am certainly not convinced of that fact. But I am certainly open to them coming up with something great, if they can turn JRuby into being say five, 10 times faster than the C-based Ruby, hey, who am I to say what we're going to run two or three years from now?

InfoWorld: Ruby on Rails is an open-source Web framework, as in you don't sell it. Are you making money from the project just the same through consulting? How do you monetize it?

Hansson: In a lot of ways I don't need to monetize it, I have a job. I work at 37signals, and we make money selling products. But we still in a large sense make money off it primarily through saving money. So we get to collaborate with a lot of other people around the world that then they'll pick up part of the work we would otherwise have to do. So that's the great thing about open source. You get to collaborate, and you get to share contributions and swap. So there's a lot of bartering going on that saves us a ton of development time.  But there are also direct influences [in that] we get now a talent pool who know exactly the kind of technology we're working on, so it's much easier for us to hire new people.  We've gotten a great amount of press out of it.

InfoWorld: What exactly does 37signals do?

Hansson: 37signals is a producer of collaboration and communication tools online. We use Ruby on Rails for everything. We have six products now. Three of them are paid products, the others are free products.  They're all developed with Ruby on Rails.

InfoWorld: Any other points you wanted to raise?

Hansson: I think now that we're here at RailsConf, I'm really just immensely impressed about how far we've gotten in such a short period of time. Rails really took about a year to get going. The first year it was only über geeks getting involved and getting excited about it. The first book didn't come out until a year after. And so the first book is even just two years old. Today we have more than 20 titles, I believe, and we have a conference with 1,600 people showing up. It's fantastic to me to see the kind of impact that a grassroots initiative can have on the software industry in general. And that's not just my contributions, it's the contributions of everybody who's been involved with the Ruby on Rails project. There are so many people who have contributed to it, so many people who have evangelized it.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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