David Heinemeier Hansson

January 6, 2024

Happiness is never having to ask for permission

If there’s one value Jason and I put above all else in business, it's independence. The freedom to make our own choices, good or bad, without ever having to ask anyone for permission. Not from investors, not from naysayers, not from platform gatekeepers. It’s why we’ve built our business on the web. The greatest, freest computing platform to ever see mass adoption.

But after turning the world of software upside down in it’s glory run from 1994 (launch of Netscape) to 2008 (launch of the Apple App Store), the web has had a much harder time in the 2010s and early 2020s. At least for developers.

As the most important computers for most people migrated from the desk to the pocket, life for many software makers regressed. Suddenly, you simply had to develop for the walled gardens of Apple and Google to be competitive. Just having a web application was no longer enough for most.

That’s not to say that the explosion in pocket computers hasn’t had its benefits too. Of course it has. The market for software is much larger than it was, at least on the consumer side of things. And these glass rectangles are incredible feats of engineering. You can’t love computers and not be impressed.

But in terms of the freedom afforded developers and software companies, it’s undoubtedly a regression compared to the web. The most risky part of running a software business is no longer just in making something people want, but making something the app store bureaucrats won’t reject. The wisdom of the market has been supplanted by the idiocy of the reviewer.

Maybe that wouldn’t have tasted so bitter if that was the only world you knew. Apple is keen to promote how much more benevolent a ruler they are than the telcos of old. But comparing the kindness of kings is myopic in contrast to the distinction between free markets and even the fairest sovereign.

That’s what we’ve lost: The free market. The mechanism where software makers will sink or float squarely on account of whether independent actors choose to buy or not. And we’ve had that replaced by an erratic majesty operating as they would before Magna Carta. The rules of commerce aren’t even rules, they’re “guidelines”, and they’re as vague as they are shifty. A fig leaf covering absolute power, wielded with absolute impunity.

But I like my iPhone, you cry! Yeah, me too. But do you hold your ability to pick the software it runs in such low regard that you’re scared of doing so without a master like Apple telling you what’s permissible? Imagine if your access to the Internet was governed by the same principle. If you could only visit sites pre-approved by AOL or Yahoo? Only buy from online stores that paid a percentage to Verizon or AT&T?

It would be intolerable because you’ve had a chance to taste the fruits of the free web. In all its messy, chaotic glory. Very few people would actually want to give that up in favor of some curated AOL-like walled garden.

But when it comes to our pocket computers, most people have never known or imagined life outside the compound. So they’re easily frightened by stories of bandits and scoundrels. Easily intimidated by the uncertainty of change. I get it. That’s human nature.

This is why reminding people of what freedom feels like on the web or with their personal computer is so important. We do have parallels. We have seen the value of open markets. We’ve had faith in our own ability to decide whether to buy, install, visit or not.

But it’s hard for people to imagine what they don’t have. Hard to mourn all the innovative applications that don’t exist because the business model wouldn’t work with a 30% tax. Hard to sympathize with all the entrepreneurs who gave up on making apps because it was just too frustrating to deal with the app store bureaucracies.

That’s just reality. We have to accept that, and then have we to find a way to route around the damage. That’s what the internet does so very well. It treats gatekeepers as a bug and finds a way around them. Whether it be censorship or monopolies.

So that’s what animates me today. Finding a route around these intolerable restrictions on free software markets. And with progressive web application (PWA) technology rapidly improving, perhaps we finally have such a way. It’s not as well-paved, it’s not quite as comfortable, but maybe it’s where the flowers of tomorrow will grow.

I mean, that's a speculative prediction, not a statement of fact. Maybe the fidelity still isn’t actually good enough for most people or the friction around installation is still too high. But we have to try. It’s our best chance yet, baring any real breakthrough on monopoly enforcement in Europe and the US. And I've stopped holding my breath for that.

We’re going to try with ONCE. It’s not only a play to liberate people from recurring subscriptions on commodity software services, but we’ve also built it from the ground up around a PWA strategy. There are no native ONCE apps, it’s all PWA, and, dare I say it, rather good!

Not 10/10 good, just yet. Mobile apps still have an easier path to getting that final bit of polish right on touch-based interfaces. The web still betrays its mouse-and-keyboard origins in many places. But we’re getting closer and closer, and I don’t think we’ve even come close to maximizing what’s possible with what we got today.

It reminds me of how the first games on a new console generation are always miles off from those at the end of an era. If you compare the first titles for the 32-bit era with the last, it’s night and day. Even though the underlying capabilities of the platform were the same all along. Developers learn the tricks, they compress the complexity, and they raise the bar.

We need to do that for PWAs. Really dig in to get the most out of what’s already in the platform today, while continuing to cheer and push for the standards and their implementations to improve. And I know we can do that. Developers have done that since the dawn of computing.

Have you seen the kind of demos that are made for the Commodore 64 these days? On a 1mhz CPU with 64kb of RAM from 1982? Don’t tell me we’ve maximized what’s doable with HTML, JavaScript, and CSS on chips ten orders of magnitude faster in 2024.

Let’s get to it. Roll up your sleeves. Help shrink the fidelity gap. Let’s get those delicious native swipes replicated on the web in an easily reusable form. Let’s get all the nice little animations too. We can absolutely do this. It’s my main objective for Rails 8, but regardless of your stack, if you’re working for the open web, we’re in it together.

We can put peak native apps in the rearview mirror in 2024. So pack your bags and come along for the ride!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.