Olly Headey

November 7, 2023

Rails is niche. Good!

Is Rails dead? Is it on death’s door, terminally ill or being slowly asphyxiated by Python?

No. It’s just niche.

Rails is not cool, it’s not the zeitgeist. Not at the moment. Maybe never again. Rails had its moment back in the noughts when it was fresh and an undeniable game-changer. It was the platform that some enormous companies were built on and people loved it. They still do. 

Trends come and go, especially in tech, but you’ll notice the good things tend to stick around. They’re just not so hot any more. Vinyl was first proclaimed dead in the late 80s when CDs got popular. Sales plummeted but there was still a thriving underground scene. Plenty of people had turntables and they didn’t all dump their record collections on the Oxfam doorstep. The dance music scene blew up in the early 90s and CDJs didn’t exist so it was all about 12” vinyl, white labels, test pressings and Technics 1200s (🫶). If your world revolved around Woolworths and HMV you might have thought vinyl was extinct, but it wasn’t. It was thriving under the radar.

In the 2000s the iPod, iPhone and Spotify did the same damage to CDs, which left dusty old vinyl two generations of tech behind, even closer to death’s door. DJs started to go digital because the new tech was incredible and traditional vinyl record shops were virtually non-existent. Then the hipsters landed, retro was cool, the ‘80s were back, and vinyl became popular again. The vinyl revival. Why?

There was a counterculture element at play, no doubt, but vinyl offers a different way of listening to music. Some might say more intentional. There are no “Top Tracks”, no playlists, no AI. You can’t fast forward and skipping is annoying, so you have to sit there and, you know, listen. People forgot (or were too young to remember) how enjoyable that could be and they rediscovered it. It's not for everyone, only a minority, which makes it a niche. People who are into it absolutely love it. This is great!

Rails isn’t for everyone either, and it offers a different way of building products. When you decide to build something in Rails you’re embracing a different way of working. You’re going to build a majestic monolith. You’re going to send HTML over the wire. That’s what’s on the menu. You’re choosing to say fuck microservices, fuck JSON, fuck GraphQL. You’re saying get all those confusing, shape-shifting tech choices out of my face and just let me build dammit.

One day your product might be successful beyond your wildest dreams. You’ll have to hire 200 engineers and then you’ll realise you have to split your front- and back-ends. You’ll need satellite services, maybe even microservices. You’ll end up down this path and then you'll have to eat your words.

Sure. While you’re having your cake and eating it because you’ll have already won. Thanks Rails!

Rails is not for everyone, but it's not dead. It's just a niche. People who are into it absolutely love it. This is great!

Embracing a niche means being part of a small, healthy, creative community. Like Rails, or digging in the vinyl crates, or medium format film photography. You get to feel a warm glow with people in the know. These small communities understand that to keep them alive you need to be kind to each other, keep contributing, and keep spreading the good word to get new people involved. It takes effort but you do it for the love of it because you know it's a special thing. 

Monocultures are a total drag. Embrace those niches and keep them thriving under the radar. 

You can listen to some of my vinyl mixes from the 90s if you like over at https://www.mixcloud.com/ollyh 😊🕺

About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.