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Visual Basic, PHP, Rails. Is Node.js next?


I had a nerdy conversation on what might be the next mainstream framework for building web products, and in particular whether the node.js community would ultimately create this framework, or if node.js will just be a fad. This blog post is a bit of a deviation from my usual focus around marketing, so just ignore if you have no interest in the area.

Here’s the summary:

  • Programming languages/frameworks are like marketplaces – they have network effects
  • Rails, PHP, and Visual Basic were all successful because they made it easy to build form-based applications
  • Form-based apps are a popular/dominant design pattern
  • The web is moving to products with real-time updates, but building real-time apps hard
  • Node.js could become a popular framework by making it dead simple to create modern, real-time form-based apps
  • Node.js will be niche if it continues to emphasize Javascript purity or high-scalability

The longer argument below:

Large communities of novice/intermediate programmers are important
One of the biggest technology decisions for building a new product is the choice of development language and framework. Right now for web products, the most popular choice is Ruby on Rails – it’s used to build some of the most popular websites in the world, including Github, Scribd, Groupon, and Basecamp.

Programming languages are like marketplaces – you need a large functional community of people both demanding and contributing code, documentation, libraries, consulting dollars, and more. It’s critical that these marketplaces have scale – it needs to appeal to the large ecosystem of novices, freelancers and consultants that constitute the vast majority of programmers in the world. It turns out, just because a small # of Stanford-trained Silicon Valley expert engineers use something doesn’t guarantee success.

Before Rails, the most popular language for the web was PHP, which had a similar value proposition – it was easy to build websites really fast, and it was used by a large group of novice/intermediate programmers as well. This includes a 19-yo Mark Zuckerberg to build the initial version of Facebook. Although PHP gained the reputation of churning out spaghetti code, the ability for people to start by writing HTML and then start adding application logic all in one file made it extremely convenient for development.

And even before Rails and PHP, it was Visual Basic that engaged this same development community. It appealed to novice programmers who could quickly set up an application by dragging-and-dropping controls, write application logic with BASIC, etc.

I think there’s a unifying pattern that explains much of the success of these three frameworks.

The power of form-based applications
The biggest “killer app” for all of these languages is how easy it is to build the most common application that mainstream novice-to-intermediate programmers are paid to build: Basic form-based applications.

These kinds of apps let you do a some basic variation of:

  • Give the user a form for data-entry
  • Store this content in a database
  • Edit, view, and delete entries from this database

It turns out that this describes a very high % of useful applications, particularly in business contexts including addressbooks, medical records, event-management, but also consumer applications like blogs, photo-sharing, Q&A, etc. Because of the importance of products in this format, it’s no surprise one of Visual Basic’s strongest value props was a visual form building tool.

Similarly, what drove a lot of the buzz behind Rails’s initial was a screencast below:

How to build a blog engine in 15 min with Rails (presented in 2005)

Even if you haven’t done any programming, it’s worthwhile to watch the above video to get a sense for how magical it is to get a basic form-based application up and running in Rails. You can get the basics up super quickly. The biggest advantages in using Rails are the built-in data validation and how easy it is to create usable forms that create/update/delete entries in a database.

Different languages/frameworks have different advantages – but easy form-based apps are key
The point is, every new language/framework that gets buzz has some kind of advantage over others- but sometimes these advantages are esoteric and sometimes they tap into a huge market of developers who are all trying to solve the same problem. In my opinion, if a new language primarily helps solve scalability problems, but is inferior in most other respects, then it will fail to attract a mainstream audience. This is because most products don’t have to deal with scalability issues, though there’s no end to programmers who pick technologies dedicated to scale just in case! But much more often than not, it’s all just aspirational.

Contrast this to a language lets you develop on iOS and reach its huge audience – no matter how horrible it is, people will flock to it.

Thus, my big prediction is:

The next dominant web framework will be the one that allows you to build form-based apps that are better and easier than Rails

Let’s compare this idea with one of the most recent frameworks/languages that has gotten a ton of buzz is node.js. I’ve been reading a bit about it but haven’t used it much – so let me caveat everything in the second half with my post with that. Anyway, based on what I’ve seen there’s a bunch of different value props ascribed to its use:

  • Build server-side applications with Javascript, so you don’t need two languages in the backend and frontend
  • High-performance/scalability
  • Allows for easier event-driven applications

A lot of the demo applications that are built seem to revolve around chat, which is easy to build in node but harder to build in Rails. Ultimately though, in its current form, there’s a lot missing from what would be required for node.js to hit the same level of popularity as Rails, PHP, or Visual Basic for that. I’d argue that the first thing that the node.js community has to do is to drive towards a framework that makes modern form-based applications dead simple to build.

What would make a framework based on node.js more mainstream?
Right now, modern webapps like Quora, Asana, Google Docs, Facebook, Twitter, and others are setting the bar high for sites that can reflect changes in data across multiple users in real-time. However, building a site like this in Rails is extremely cumbersome in many ways that the node.js community may be able to solve more fundamentally.

That’s why I’d love to see a “Build a blog engine in 15 minutes with node.js” that proves that node could become the best way to build modern form-based applications in the future. In order to do this, I think you’d have to show:

  • Baseline functionality around scaffolding that makes it as easy as Rails
  • Real-time updates for comment counts, title changes, etc that automatically show across any viewers of the blog
  • Collaborative editing of a single blog post
  • Dead simple implementation of a real-time feed driving the site’s homepage

All of the above features are super annoying to implement in Rails, yet could be easy to do in node. It would be a huge improvement.

Until then, I think people will still continue to mostly build in Rails with a large contingent going to iOS – the latter not due to the superiority of the development platform, but rather because that’s what is needed to access iOS users.

UPDATE: I just saw Meteor on Hacker News which looks promising. Very cool.

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