It’s just data

Homesteaders of the 21st Century

This presentation reminded me that I hadn’t posted anything yet on RubyConf, where my favorite quote was:

“Tickets to the interior were suddenly cheap enough for everyone.”

It has been a while since I’ve been to a conference which made my head spin as much as RubyConf has done.  Reminds me of one of the earlier Sells Brothers’ conferences.

For those who couldn’t make it, check out RubyConf for Stragglers and RubyConf presentations.

At RubyConf, people were talking about replacing the VM.  And on Ruby implemented in Ruby (a.k.a. MetaRuby).  And on creating domain specific languages.  And users writing test cases — literally.  And database schemas written in Ruby.

These were all mind expanding, but the one that stopped me cold was by fellow Raleigh-ite Nathaniel Talbott.  He has a blog.  He seems best known for Test::Unit.  And he certainly is an accomplished speaker.

Rails Long Tail

Nathaniel’s talk had no code in it.  But he asked all the right questions.  And I liked his answers, though I actually think he wasn’t bold enough.  More on that in a minute.

Early on Nathaniel noted that with the choice of the “Rails” name, David tapped into a metaphor that is particularly rich to those aware of American heritage.  In the late nineteenth century, it was the rails that connected the eastern US with the western US.  The rails also fueled the gold rush.  But perhaps most importantly, the rails enabled people to live in places other than a big city on the coast.

Before continuing, let me introduce two other historical metaphors: switchboards and motors.  As telephone usage exploded, the number of people employed as switchboard operators followed suit.  Based on observations on the rate of increase of telephone usage, people started to predict a future where everybody would be employed as a switchboard operator.  Similarly as electric motors started to become practical, people predicted that soon everyone would have one.  These would likely be positioned in attics, and be accompanied by a complex system of belts that would allow this motor to drive appliances all over the house.

Rails will certainly connect people.  And it undoubtedly will fuel a Gold Rush.  Some of these people will get rich.  Most will not.

But what interests me most are the new homesteaders that Rails will enable.

“Tickets to the interior were suddenly cheap enough for everyone.”

Nathaniel told an anecdote about an organization that his wife belonged to which had developed a financial application.  In Excel of all things.  As if there was something wrong with that.  You could almost see Nathaniel roll his eyes.

Those are the long tailer developers of today.  Nathaniel asks: what happens when t approaches zero?  Nathaniel’s answer was that people who aren’t currently developers won’t suddenly want to become ones even if the cost were essentially zero.  IMHO, the answer is that you will see a lot more applications like that financial application that was written in Excel.

Sure, such people won’t consider themselves to be a “developer”.  I’ve known “testers” who have literally written thousand line scripts that would also disagree with being given such a label.  These people often won’t even accept the label of “scripter”.  They may prefer to refer to their creations as “recipes”, or “todo lists”, or “spreadsheets”.  Consider this, this or even this (note: don’t get hung up on the syntax, I suspect that the actual UI will look something more like this).

Rails is tantalizingly close.  As Nathaniel said, with Ruby he could contemplate tackling projects that he couldn’t previously.  And with Rails, he had no excuse not to.

But Nathaniel clearly doesn’t need a ticket to the interior.

RadRails is getting a lot of buzz.  Perhaps it will be the ticket for a number of people.  But I suspect that we need to simplify a bit more.
People who use Excel don’t need a lot of intellisense of syntax highlighting.

I envision something like Rails on Rails (meta-rails?).  A web interface for defining your models.  (phpmyadmin shows it can be done).  A web interface for defining forms and reports (a.k.a. views).  And finally, web interface for people to enter short formulas (a.k.a. controllers).

Something that perhaps would appeal to Nathaniel’s wife’s colleagues.

One of the first questions Nathaniel fielded was about how Rails would help people get control over their own data, as it was limited to basically those who have their own BDSD server, i.e. not the moms of the world.  This ignores the point that “mom” probably already has a Linux server in the form of a Tivo box.

Predictions

As computers, like electric motors before them, fade into the woodwork we need to enable a future where everybody can be a switchboard operator.

Furthermore, I suspect that the applications that these homesteaders will create will be qualitatively different than the applications we use today.


A bunch of us gathered after Nathaniel gave his talk, and I set up a mailing list for further discussion.

If you’re interested in the long tail of software development, join up by emailing a blank message to Longtail-subscribe@lists.eurekatoolworks.com (sorry, no web interface yet).

Posted by John Labovitz at

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