David Heinemeier Hansson is a Danish programmer and the creator of the Ruby on Rails open source web development framework. He is also a partner with Jason Fried at the web-based software development firm 37signals. In 2005 he was given with the Hacker of the Year by Google and O'Reilly award for his creation of Ruby on Rails. He and Fried have also co-authored the New York Times bestseller "Rework," which reveals their secrets for boosting business productivity in the Internet age.
Question: What do you make of Apple’s mandate that all apps for iOS devices be written in specific languages?
David Hansson: Apple really let me down, personally. I take personal offense when they started mandating that there are only certain languages and certain platforms that you can use to develop iPhone and iPad apps. It just seemed like such a—and I am overstating this and I know that that's sort of not helpful for the debate, but I can't help it—fascist move. It seemed entirely unnecessary to exert that level of control. To force people into that. Because the fact is, they're winning on their merits. Control and heavy-handed operations like that is something you do when you're desperate. That's something somebody backed into a corner would do. That's something, we used to think that was the stuff that Microsoft pulled and everybody was up in arms about that. We already love Apple! We love Apple on their merits, because they produce superior hardware and software. Why can't they just be confident that we'll continue to do that and if their tools are so wonderful and so magical, of course, people will use them. I find it just absolutely offensive that they would want to dictate, to enter the Magic Apple Kingdom, you can only speak German, no Frenchmen allowed here. Like that just seems—why?
I mean, I read the supposed reasons for why this would happen, oh, if we allowed cross-platformed tools then only shitty applications will be made, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Have you so little faith in the marketplace? Have you so little faith in the great native applications winning? Why can't you just see what happens, so if people create cross-platform applications and put them out and they're shitty, nobody will use them, nobody will buy them. It just seems like such an insecure move. And I also think it's incredibly ironic when you look at what Apple does themselves. When they released iTunes for Windows, did they follow all the Microsoft standards, did they use Microsoft development tools? No they didn't. They brought over their cross-platform stuff and they made iTunes work on Windows because of that. And sometimes that's what you do. Apple probably wouldn't have done iTunes, or I don't know, maybe they wouldn't have done it as fast if they had to build it from scratch, even though that from scratch would've been better because iTunes on Windows is supposedly sort of a shitty experience.
And there are plenty of other examples of applications that are great cross-platform applications. Firefox, for example, the majority of the code basis is cross-platform and it's a wonderful application. LightRoom from Adobe is a great application, it works great on multiple platforms. So if great applications can be created, then why would you shut those out just because it's also possible to create shitty stuff?
And now, sort of, I don't know, third or the fourth point against this, the app store is already full of shitty software. There are 200 or 300,000 applications in there. Do you think that they are all creampuffs? That they're all wonderful pieces of unique, beautiful software? No, they're not. Tons of them are just shitty crap. So the argument that Apple is doing this to increase the quality of the app store just falls flat when you look at all the junk that's already in the app store. This is not a carefully selected gallery, this is just a warehouse of shit. So don't give me that.
I think what happens here is power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And just as well, market share corrupts, and absolute market share corrupts absolutely. Apple enjoys incredible market share of smart phones with the iPhone. So they can do stupid shit without it costing them everything and they can perceive that because we can, because we're able to force people to work this way, that's a good thing. That's a very short-sighted approach to things. Remember, that's how Apple came into be. The Apple camp is full of Microsoft refugees, people who were tired of being haunted by Microsoft, tired of being forced and controlled into certain ways of working.
It might work in the short term, but it doesn't seem like a long-term play to me. And again, it seems like such an unnecessary thing to do! When you already have the greatest stuff in the world, you don't need to do this stuff. So it was just a massive let down from a company I otherwise love. Which is why it stings double. If it was just somebody I didn't care about, didn't give a shit about, then who cares? This is Apple. This is the same Apple where I frequently cherish their products so much. Like, I really love so much of the stuff that they're putting out that it hurts double bad when they're doing stupid things like this.
Question: Do you see this and the iPhone 4 antenna fiasco as chinks in Apple’s armor?
David Hansson: I think that Apple currently is so good at what it does, so good at the hardware design, so good at the vertical integration of making everything just work, that they will survive this. Unfortunately, because I think that that's sort of the, it's the pros and the cons of this. Like on the one hand, they create so much wonderful stuff, that when they screw up in these minor ways, it doesn't hurt them enough for them to take the true lessons away from this. I don't think that Apple really thinks any differently of mandating these tools to people, say, you have to develop iPhone and iPad applications in these ways. This sting that came from the uproar of developers saying, "This is bullshit, we are walking out," is just not big enough, which is a damn shame.
Which is also way, sort of related to that, the whole iPhone 4 antenna-gate thing, was very interesting to watch. For a long time, they just didn’t give a damn. Bloggers would claim, like shout about it, or other publications would shout about it, nah, nah, nah, it's all isolated case, and then boom! Something hit them really hard, that Consumer Reports thing. And then all of a sudden, oh, wait, maybe it did matter, maybe we should address this. And it didn't even matter for the marriage, because for the marriage, I think there's not a big issue. The iPhone 4 antenna is just fine and I'll take the trade off of sort of better reception and then I can't hold it in a certain way. In some ways, that's exactly what I love about Apple. I love that Apple is willing to make controversial trade offs, because they're willing to say, "All right, fine, we'll increase the reception of this phone, if you just don't hold it in this one way." I actually find that's awesome! I just would've found it slightly more awesome if they would've owned up to it and just said, "Damn, that's how it is, because that's how it works."
Just like with the, I remember with the Macbook error when that came out. No internal CD drive? How is this possible? How can I use a computer that doesn't have that? Well, it's a trade-off. If you want a computer that's so slim that it almost looks like a piece of paper, then you have to give up stuff. I love that. I love those controversial trade-offs. I just don't, I don't love how they went about the iPhone thing, just seemed very PR-driven in the negative sense of that word, and I certainly don't like the way they went about the iPhone developer kit. But none of these things are going to kill Apple. If they continue to rock as they are now, nothing is going to catch them any time soon. And I think that's a shame, I would wish that Apple had better competition. Even the Android stuff now, which is getting pretty good on a lot of levels, is still nasty in so many levels. It's still so poorly designed as a coherent experience. They have these peaks of glory, but the whole package is just, I wouldn't want that phone. And I'm kind of sad about that. I wish Apple had more credible competition that would prevent them from doing the stupid shit that they're doing.
Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by Peter Hopkins