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One of These 37 Signals is Weak

David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails and partner in 37 signals, went nuclear on the official 37s blog in a profanity-titled post called You're not on a fucking plane (and if you are, it doesn't matter)! - (37signals). Now, I'm not a prude (feel free to search this blog or come out drinking with me), but leading a post on your corporate blog with the f-bomb is, what's the word, dumb.

But I'm not here to lament David's immature way of titling a post, but to take issue with the content of his post. Essentially, David argues that there's no need for offline components to web applications because connectivity is so ubiquitous. Which is true, if you live in a major metropolitan area, such as David does. But here in the uncharted backwaters of suburban Detroit (Ann Arbor), there's no such thing as ubiquitous WiFi. Sure, I could pay another $80 a month to get an EVDO card, but do I really need that? Not really, certainly not for business.

From a business standpoint, I know that my customers (professors and researchers) like to go to places that, ding, no one has been before. I wonder if they've laid lines that can handle 10mbps internet connections or cell tower that carry EVDO. I'm going to guess not. So, when I want my customers to interact with the web application we've built for them to get their research reviewed, how do they do that without an offline component? The answer now is paper, fax, and time.

So, why is 37 signals being so shortsighted? Apollo. Yep, that old chestnut called competition. Can't access your Basecamp account from the airplane? Build your own app that let's you update your project information offline and then synch that data when you do connect to the Internet. Sure, it's a stretch but the threat to 37 Signals and RoR is there.

As one of the commenters to the 37s post said, "Distortion field at work here, folks."

Comments

  1. David Heinemeier HanssonApril 3, 2007 at 7:54 AM

    First of all, I love the opening contradiction. "What's the word, dumb" and then following up with "But I’m not here to lament David’s immature way of titling a post". That's precious. But I'm not here to make fun of inconsistencies (how's that for recursive).

    What I am here to make fun of is the conspiracy theory. If we felt that offline access posed a grave threat to our business, there's a wide array of technologies we could start using. Including SlingShot, the package from Joyent that let's you build offline Rails applications.

    I personally made Instiki, a local wiki, a few years ago as a downloadable application much in the same vein as these new packages offer (albeit without the sync-to-the-sky piece). So it's not like we're looking at incredibly sophisticated technology. All the pieces have been here for quite a while.

    Maybe, just maybe, what I write is what I mean. I don't think offline access is going to be big. I may very well be wrong on that. And if a few years from now offline access turns out to be the greatest thing since sliced bread and all our customers are clamoring for it, I'll be more than happy to publicly reverse my position and bow to the will of the customer.

    I wonder how many proponents of "offline access is the next big thing" would be willing to do the same if their predictions turn out to be a fizzle. You know, like push technology or any of the many, many technologies currently resting in peace.

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  2. I don't doubt for a moment that you don't mean what you say. I also don't buy the "we're not threatened" line, but that's a matter of my opinion.

    Frankly, I think you're wrong. I don't think offline access is the "next big thing", it's the current thing we're losing. We are so entrenched and accustomed to the desktop world (and all the benefits, caveats, and limitations that entails) that changing over vast swaths of business to a completely online app is not just a difficult sale, but a real business risk. Melding online and offline apps into one seamless experience is very enticing, especially to my team.

    I also think you're wrong because ruling out mixed access apps out of hand is bordering on hubris. You seem to believe that you have the business needs of a super-majority of users pinned down (your caveat at the end of your post notwithstanding). Personally, I see a large segment of users who would "get" this type of app fairly well, mostly because they're doing it already. How many people off the grid prepare that presentation or fill out that form, only to wait to connect back to a network and actually send it on. Eliminating the need for them to remember to send, or actively seek out, that work product opens many, many doors.

    This isn't about airplanes; jebus knows I don't want to work anymore on a plane that I'm forced to. But, this is about some assumptions. The assumption that connectivity is ubiquitous, that whatever was designed took into account every scenario the first time, or that it's not even worth trying to sell this new way of what we're already doing.

    I could phenomenally wrong. The flip side is, so could you. My stake in this is that I get to play with technologies that allow me to do some seriously cool things for my customers, people who are off the grid by choice or by fortune.

    Your stake as a 37s partner is that you're staking a business segment on assumptions. I've tried your products and liked them a great deal. But they weren't the solution we were looking for most of the time, and one huge thing was requiring full-time connectivity. It's not a blame game, it's business, and your business is now moving along under the assumption that this segment won't grow because connectivity isn't an issue. It is for, what I believe is, a much large base than your counting on.

    Either way, best of luck. Time will tell and your welcome to come back here with a big fat "I told you so" if you were right.

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