John Lam rocks

So this week, .NET rocks had an interview with John Lam of Iron Ruby fame. It was a good show, but for me, the single best part was a comment John made in the last 5 minutes of the show. He said:

Rails is the Visual Foxpro of the 21st century.

I just thought that was great. It really appealed to the contrarian in me. With people touting Ruby on Rails as the future of web development, it's nice to see it compared to the has-been languages of yesterday.

Of course, I'm taking that quote out of context. John wasn't actually trying to put down Rails, but was simply making the point that it's a tool that appeals to pragmatists, in that it allows you to quickly and easily create simple applications that interact with databases. Which is exactly what Visual Foxpro did too.

For the record, I'm not a Ruby on Rails fan. I don't dislike it, though - I haven't used it enough to form a strong opinion. However, the few times I've played with it, I found it nice, but not compelling. I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it enough to put in the effort of learning both Rails and Ruby. Though, truth be told, from what I've seen, I like Ruby a lot better than I like Rails.

Likewise, I am not a fan of Visual FoxPro either. Of course, I've never actually used Visual Foxpro, but at my last job I did have to maintain and rewrite some old FoxPro 2.6 (for DOS) applications. Maybe my opinion was influenced by the apps I was working on (they were written by a clerk who "knew FoxPro" and was trying to help out), but I found it to have all the elegance and sophistication of VBA in Microsoft Access. And for those who aren't familiar with Access VBA, it has all the grace and subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The thing is, FoxPro actually worked pretty well. Granted, it was ugly and promoted antipatterns, but it was pretty easy to create a simple desktop database application. I don't know if it was simpler than Rails, but it was probably in the same league. Same thing with Visual Basic - just drag and drop a few controls on a form and, voila! Working database app!

I think that's one of the things that turns me off about Rails a bit - the examples and hype around it smack of VB6 demos from the 1990's. Whenever I see a demo that says something like "Create <impressive sounding thing> in 15 mintes," I'm automatically skeptical. I'm skeptical because I've seen the same thing done in VB6. It's same reason I get turned off whenever I see someone extol the virtues of programming language X over language Y by pointing to how much shorter a "Hello, World," program is in X, or some other such inane metric. It's just not a useful or meaningful comparison.

Getting something up and running fast is all well and good. Nobody wants to spend 3 months on infrastructure just to spend a week building the actual application. But the name of the game is maintainability. It doesn't matter how fast you get up and running if you have to go back and tear out half the application when your requirements change. Likewise, your productivity gains start to evaporate when you need to spend 3 days coming up with a work-around because your environment forces you to do things in a particular way that doesn't really work in your case.

Bottom line: there's always a catch. And if you think there isn't a catch, then you just don't have enough experience to know what the catch is yet. No technology is perfect, whether it's ActiveRecord, data-bound controls, or whatever other new miracle library came up in your RSS reader today. There's always something that will get you if you're not careful. The trick is to know what it is before it's too late to account for it.

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