Monday, April 18, 2005

Language culture and the Ruby-on-Rails phenomenon

Ruby-on-Rails has been making a lot of noise lately, and a lot has been written about that. What I find interesting, though, is the varied reactions to RoR success that the different language communities have.

I follow a number of language specific blogs, and I think I at least have a decent sample of some of the web's most read bloggers in each of the Python, Java and Smalltalk communities, at least those involved in some way with web application development. For what is worth, I also follow a number of .net related blogs, but I am really not that well informed about the .net community. All I can say is that it seems from what I read that they rarely write about stuff not directly related to Microsoft development tools.

The Java bloggers have written a lot about this subject. For a couple of weeks, a blog post featuring RoR was almost guaranteed daily. Most of these posts also were commented on abundantly. What I found very interesting here is that very few people seem to really, really love Java. When confronted with Rails, many Java developers assumed that to work with a tool like that, they would have to switch languages. Some proficient J2EE developers mentioned that they were considering using Rails for their next project. As an example, David Geary and Bruce Tate, both of them authors of at least two Java books, will be teaming up to write a RoR book, after Geary initially dismissed Rails as just a CRUD scaffolder. That's a heck of a conversion!

Of course, a lot of Java coders were quick to dismiss RoR as a simple tool for simple web sites that never would scale. After all, they say, the first 'E' in J2EE stands for Enterprise. To them, Rails is ok for small, simple developments, but for large applications, well, only J2EE (ok, maybe also .net) is worth considering. Other than the charge that it won't scale, most arguments from this group against Rails focus on the low numbered current version (0.12.1), which to them speaks of immaturity, and the lack of static typing. It doesn't help to warm them up to RoR that David Heinemeier Hansson takes frequent shots at the J2EE community and is continually (and successfully) hyping his web framework. He also is not shy about constantly self-congratulating himself.

Over at the Python community, it seems that what truly bugs us is all that popularity Rails is enjoying. Many think that there should be a single greatest solution for all our web programming needs, like RoR is characterizing itself to be in the Ruby world. The feeling is that there is nothing that Rails does that more than one Python framework can accomplish, but that we should learn from the RoR guys about neatly packaging and presenting our efforts. But other than this, few Python people see Rails as such a big threat or think it is very innovative. The Rails folks claim 10x productivity over other web frameworks, but that is clearly referring to Java or .net frameworks, since Python frameworks also posses the single most responsible element for making RoR so formidable: a powerful, object oriented, dynamic language at its core.

Smalltalk web developers take it even easier than that. They applaud Rails success and are maybe just a little envious of its popularity, but they know that the key element there is Ruby's dynamic nature and in that regard they consider Smalltalk superior. Besides, one of the truly innovative web frameworks right now, Seaside, is done in Smalltalk. One thing is for sure, this crowd really love their language.

I think it is no coincidence that dynamic language programmers, even if they see in Rails a nice example of a web framework and perhaps something to emulate in their own languages, seldom consider a switch of development language or feel as insulted and threatened by Rails as their Java and .net counterparts. We know that what really makes us productive is the language underneath the framework.


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