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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Is Ruby Doomed?

How's that for a sensational title, huh? I really am worried about Ruby, though, so let me walk you through the train of thought.

To begin with, I really like Ruby. Not just "Ruby as the Basis of Rails," but Ruby itself. It's a very nice, very fun language. Likewise, some cool stuff is coming out of Web 2.0. Unlike the Internet bubble of the 90s, this time the web really does seem to have developed into a platform instead of just a gee whiz novelty, with Ruby and Rails as two of its most visible components. And therein lies my concern:
Once upon a time there was a great language with enormous power, simplicity, and accessibility, and lots of cutting edge development was being done in it. One of the areas where it was most popular was an exciting new frontier, one which promised to change the way people thought about computers and the world, and this language became synonymous with that area.
The language and area above aren't Ruby and Web 2.0, they're Lisp and AI, but the similarities are obvious, and I'm afraid the story doesn't have a happy ending. After the decline everyone's great AI expectations in the late 80s, there wasn't a sudden crash, just a gradual descent into disillusionment and frustration that may have developed an edge of cynicism in some quarters.

Maybe AI had it coming to some extent, that's beside the point. The real tragedy is that AI took Lisp down with it. Even though Lisp had a 20 year history before AI really latched onto it, and even though it was well-established as a viable (if not particularly widespread) general purpose language, it became widely known as "that AI language." It became so inexorably linked with AI that when AI fell out of favor, Lisp became tainted by association.

My fear is that Ruby is in danger of becoming the Lisp of Web 2.0. Ruby isn't the only thing being used for web development, nor is web development the only thing Ruby is being used for, but they are perhaps the most visible examples in both domains. What happens to Ruby when the bloom is off the Web 2.0 rose, though?

I'm not saying I think we're heading for another Internet crash, but I do think it's likely that the New Web, like the Old AI, will reach a progress plateau where new advances are no longer explosive, Earth-shaking revolutions. Instead, progress will slow to a gradual, evolutionary (and less exciting) pace, at least until the next paradigm shift, which will probably be associated with a new "in" language, one seemingly better suited for the new problems.

So, will Ruby be able to escape Lisp's fate? Is that even a realistic danger? I honestly don't know. My first guesses are maybe and yes, but those are just gut feelings, and may indicate some degree of wishful thinking. I certainly hope Web 2.0 doesn't take Ruby down with it, but that may be a hard trap to avoid. As great as Ruby is, I'm afraid the perception may be that it has an awful lot riding on one horse...and as with Lisp, perception may mean more than reality.

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