Indicators of the Ruby on Rails trend

Here’s a fascinating market indicator. I was looking for a Ruby book on Amazon, something for lightweight coders, perhaps a beginner’s guide to Ruby on Rails. What did I find? I found a total of 23 books. 9 of them are hitting the shelves within weeks. All of the others were published within the last 6 months.

Here’s a sampling of what’s coming out soon:

The blogosphere saw the Ruby on Rails thing coming a while back. Now the book publishers see it, too, and they’re all racing to get a piece of the action.

There are other interesting indicators like the fact that Dreamhost offers it preinstalled as part of its hosting package. And you can’t ignore the recent adoption of Agile project management which feeds nicely into the Rails approach, even sharing language and concepts at the same level of abstraction.

Yesterday, I asked Jeremy Zawodny how his experiments with Ruby on Rails are going, so far. He replied,

“It’s frighteningly productive.”

I wonder if the venture and acquisition machines out there will learn how to plug into this market architecture. In 1999, startups did the Sand Hill march using PowerPoint as their weapon of choice. The right buzzwords in the right order and charts pointing high and to the right put many on the IPO course before engineers had been hired.

Investors today are looking for working ideas with real customers.

There’s a perfect storm forming.

Write and hear your own presidential speech

I’m not much for browsing the web for the sake of browsing, but the recent coverage of StumbleUpon inspired me to try it again. It paid off immediately. My second click took me to this site.

Watch how I put together several audio snippets to write a 90-second speech for President Bush:

Scaffolding web sites with Ruby on Rails

I started messing around with Ruby on Rails for the first time on Sunday. This was after spending all day Saturday tearing down kitchen cupboards, tiled sinks and entire walls for a friend who is remodeling his house, so I got my fill of building last weekend whether real or virtual.

Photo: bruce grant

Trying to figure out how Ruby on Rails worked, I felt like I was remodeling my brain. It was as if I walked into Ikea with just a basic idea of what I wanted my new kitchen to look like and then walked out with design schematics and new appliances an hour later. I suddenly had confidence that I could create a really nice web site with a lot of functionality that was basically inaccessible to me before because of my limited programming background.

The “Ah hah!” moment came for me when I added two words to one of the scripts: “scaffold mydatabase”. When I refreshed my web site, I was adding, editing and deleting data in my database via a web interface. It all automatically just worked. Then literally 15 minutes later I had 2 databases talking to eachother.

It’s mindblowing how much power this environment gives to people who aren’t true coders.

I have a feeling I’ll get stuck and frustrated with what I’m trying to build. But I’m very hopeful Ruby on Rails will get me closer than I could with open source PHP tools. If nothing else, I’ll get a sense for this new trend.

Programming seems to have about a 3 year fashion cycle that also intersects with influxes of new ideas for web applications and a full cycle of students coming out of university. Now we’re at the early stages of a creative explosion on the Internet enabled by things like Rails, open APIs, storage solutions like S3, and JSON. And you can also wrap an idea in any number of different business models in even less time than it takes to build the product itself.

Maybe instead of LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP), we now have RASH (Rails, APIs, S3, Hosted).

There must be similar reactions to breakthroughs in the construction industry when things like cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) hit the market. Of course, construction suffers from bad naming as much as any other trade. Not everything can be as cool as a sawzall or funny pipe.

The strategic role of high quality editorial

Quality editorial is not a growth position for a media company. It may be a competitive advantage. And it will surely be a brand differentiator. But it won’t by nature expand audience or increase revenues. It’s not necessarily even a loyalty control.

Of the many great things the Internet has done for media, it has failed to value trustworthiness enough. Instead, it values speed, plasticity, and access. Information is rewarded when it is first to appear, maleable and distributable in numerous ways, and available through multiple channels — links, feeds, indeces — and through other people.

How is a niche publisher to compete? First, catalyze relationships with and amongst people. Second, leverage the value chain as it is to your advantage. Paying more per word for content that is slow, static and hard to get to is a recipe for failure online.

This is the strategic play that makes the MySpace acquisition seem even smarter than I think Fox was aware of at the time. YouTube has adopted a few of the social aspects that make MySpace successful, but I wonder if it will be able to catalyze those relationships into something more meaningful than a one-upsmanship JackAss competition.

What publishers do understand well is the role a media brand can play in facilitating meaningful activity in a community. The nature of the relationships with and amongst the community members have clearly changed. And high quality editorial is a piece of that relationship, one that reinforces trust and understanding, particularly in niche publishing where it’s harder to find good information.

The easy mistake to make is believing that because you have good information people will come. They might, and they’ll just as quickly leave if you don’t give them a reason to create a relationship with you or other members of your community.

Blind optimism and paranoia in online media

About two years ago now, from my seat as the business owner of an online b-to-b publication, I started freaking out about becoming irrelevant. I don’t mean me personally, though the people still working there may disagree. I mean the idea of being a business that creates content and distributes it.

The key ingredients to success at the time were page views and being important. There was no design you could apply to your web site to remedy the page view problem. Anybody who could think could also publish globally. RSS was increasing the speed of and improving access to information.

Where would it end? Was our island of high quality editorial a strong enough position to grow from?

I’m sure I wasn’t alone then in being afraid of the future, nor am I alone now in being insanely jealous of the YouTube guys.

A startup that didn’t even exist two years ago now pockets well over $1 billion dollars. I can’t even fathom what that means. I have some friends who have done well for themselves in the dotcom gold hunt, but that kind of money is just beyond what I can comprehend.

The good news is that people are much less focused on being afraid today and much more open to pursuing ideas that have an unknown upside. There’s no harm in trying a new idea and seeing if it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s easy to try something else. People everywhere seem excited to explore and do things differently, to empower people, to explore new revenue models, to try new technologies.

It turns out that nobody is relevant everywhere, so the playing field is flat. I like the way Chris Anderson defines the new media model:

“The old model was that if you wanted to be a filmmaker, you had to go to the Hollywood studios. If you wanted to be a musician and get heard, you would go through the label system. If you wanted to be a published author, you needed to get signed by a publisher.

The new model is, “Just go and do it.” Everyone can get out there directly without going through these gatekeepers, and most of what is created is junk, but some of it isn’t.”

This is true of business, too.

Of course, what worries me now is that the high-priced acquisition craze will bring back the bad ideas that made the Internet such an ugly place in 2000. Unfortunately, money motivates people so well that somebody might actually pull off one of my silly ideas or, even worse, sell it for millions and mock me all the way to the grave.

I suppose there’s always something to be paranoid about.

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Your favorite band

How we made the BBAuth screencast

The news that seemed to get overlooked by the amazingness that became Hack Day was the release of a login API, BBAuth, or Browser-based Authentication. This new service allows any web site or web application to identify a user who has a Yahoo! ID with the user’s consent. Dan Theurer explains it on his blog:

…instead of creating your own sign-up flow, which requires users to pick yet another username and password, you can let them sign in with their existing Yahoo! account.

My mind keeps spinning thinking of the implications of this…more on that in a later post.

It was immediately obvious to me when I heard about it that this concept was going to be hard to fully grok without some visuals to explain it. So I sat with Dan yesterday to create a video walk-through that might help people digest it (myself included). Here is a 5 minute screencast talking about what it is and an example of it in action (also available on the YDN blog and on Yahoo! Video):

The screencast itself took only a few minutes in total to produce. Here’s how it went down:

  1. I closed all my applications on my laptop other than my browser (or so I thought) and launched Camtasia
  2. We spent 5 minutes discussing what we were going to say.
  3. I clicked ‘record’.
  4. We talked for 5 minutes.
  5. I clicked ‘stop’.
  6. I selected the output settings and it then produced a video file for me.
  7. DONE. That part took about 20 minutes.

The next part, posting to a video sharing site, got a little sticky, but here’s what I learned:

  • I tried Yahoo! Video, JumpCut and YouTube.
  • Outputting my screencast in 320×240 resolution saves a lot of time for the video sharing sites
  • Yahoo! Video liked the MPEG4 format most. YouTube claims the same, though it wasn’t obvious after trying a few formats which one it liked most.
  • JumpCut was a snap to use, but the output quality was a little fuzzier
  • Titles…I forgot the damn titles, and it just looked too weak without some kind of intro and outro. Camtasia gives you a couple of very simple options. I added an intro title in less than 5 minutes.
  • Logo! Ugh. After encoding it about 8 times to get the right format I realized the logo really needed to be in there:
    1. I took a quick Snag-It screenshot of the YDN web site, played with it a bit and made a simple title screen.
    2. Saved it as a jpeg
    3. Imported into my Camtasia screencast
    4. Inserted the title image in the beginning and a variation of the same at the end
    5. Dropped a transition between the title frames and the video
    6. Titles DONE. That took less than 30 minutes…could have taken 2 seconds if I was prepared.
  • Wait…the screen wasn’t big enough. You couldn’t see the graphic that Dan points to in his explanation because it’s too small. Not a problem. Camtasia includes a simple zoom tool:
    1. I played the screencast again and found where I needed to zoom.
    2. Inserted opening zoom marker
    3. Selected zoom size. Clicked done.
    4. Found the end of the segment where I wanted to zoom out.
    5. Inserted another zoom marker.
    6. Opened zoom window back up to full size.
    7. DONE. Maybe 15 minutes to do that.
  • Output one last time
  • Upload.
  • DONE

Then all I had to do was write a blog post and embed the video in that post. That took about 10 minutes.

All in all, I probably spent close to 2 hours beginning to end producing this screencast, but most of that was learning a few tricks. Next time I do this, I bet I can complete the whole thing from launching Camtasia to posting on a blog in 45 minutes, possibly less.

The new confidence of Yahoo!

Let’s call it YAB, Yahoo! After Beck. Or maybe it should be the Hack Day Revolution. Whatever it is, something transformative happened at Yahoo! last week.

Photo: Yodel Anecdotal

If a year ago someone told me that Yahoo! would support an event where several hundred coders would be invited to sleep in tents on our lawn and get a free concert from a big time musician that people actually care about I would have laughed. Asking these coders to hack away on our APIs (most of which didn’t exist 12 months ago) to build something just for the fun of it would have seemed totally out of character.

But something changed.

It probably started with the Flickr acquisition, and then it advanced with the internal Hack Day program. And finally, Friday night at 9:30pm, this change reached some kind of conclusion or rather blasted off from the launchpad when the Beck video began rolling.

Bradley Horowitz observed in his keynote that hacking is like jamming with a band. The experience of playing together, trying new variations on things, learning from eachother, creating art purely for the sake of creating is what it’s all about. You don’t have to produce songs to enjoy creating music.

Watching Beck and his band muck around on stage mocking themselves and all of us was a pleasure. They are experimental for the sake of experimenting. They reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously.

When I saw the Beck Hack Day video posted on the corporate blog the next day, I realized that something profoundly new and important happened. I’m not sure I fully understand what that is, but it’s very different and very important.

Maybe everyone here is riffing on the idea that Yahoo! is about people not algorithms. Maybe openness is the new voice we’re all singing with. Maybe everyone stopped worrying about the rhythm of the stock price.

My guess is that it’s all those things and much more. Yahoo! finally has the self-confidence it deserves.

The participants of the Hack Day event gave us a mirror to see how this new face fits, and it seems to fit well. There are some nice quotes here:
I think the best thing that describes Yahoo! is family — Yahoo is an amazing, close family that was gracious enough to open themselves up to over 450 outsiders (including myself) over the last two days from the lowest levels to the very top.
All in all, a good time. I am exhausted, and I did not even stay up all night, as some people did (many camped out on the lawn). I met some good people. And I got to hack on computers, a thing I’ve been enjoying a lot more of lately.
This event was absolutely beyond any of my expectations. I was expecting a Mashup Camp-style event with a hundred or so people. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the event. Heck, I knew very little about the event before showing up.
And you could take all that metadata and gas receipts and empty Protein Bar wrappers and bar codes and SD drives and extra batteries and Amazon upsells and proprietary Newsgator synchronization APIs and long tails and short walks of long piers, and still not come up with the simplicity of the gesture Chad and Yahoo and Beck and Doc and Dave and we all give when we wave our hands in the air and thank whoever we damn please for the life we are breathing. That’s the critical mass I’m saying.
Reflecting back (and from the inside), I don’t think that Yahoo! Open Hack Day could have gone any better. It blew past my personal best-case expectations. The biggest problem is where to take it from here. But that’s one of those good problems. 🙂

It’s a good question. Where do we go from here? The best part is that nobody really knows, yet. That in itself is as emblematic of the transformation as anything…not knowing the answer yet confident that we are moving in the right direction.