by Esther Schindler

The Strange Case of the Ruby Development Community

Oct 14, 20085 mins
Developer sees an increase in Ruby code searches as a sign of the scripting language’s growing popularity. But is that what it means? Esther Schindler isn’t so sure.

Black Duck Software just released data from its search engine, and reports that “more users are searching for Ruby code than ever before.” According to their analysis, Ruby is now the fourth most requested language on, after Java, C/C+ and C#. “The number of Ruby searches has increased by more than 20 times since 2004 and has surpassed alternatives, such as PHP, Python and Perl,” the company says. (If you aren’t familiar with the company: as they point out, “Tens of thousands of software developers use Black Duck’s daily to find open source code and other downloadable code.”)

That’s interesting. But I’m not sure that I’d agree with the company’s conclusions that Ruby use is significantly on the rise. The thing is… I’m not sure I’d disagree, either. Because the Ruby community is a little strange.

I’m not speaking of the relative virtues of the Ruby language or Ruby on Rails; rather, I’m thinking of the behavior of its developers. Because—speaking as someone who has carefully watched pageviews for software development articles for several years—I know that anything I publish related to Ruby will always get plenty of attention from the Ruby community. (You’re reading this, aren’t you? See?) The whisper of a paen to Ruby (or even more exciting, any criticsm) attracts more Ruby devotees faster than black flies find a picnic in Maine.

But that doesn’t mean Ruby is popular; it only means that it’s an active and interested developer community. That speaks well (most of the time) for the passion of its users. But a party doesn’t have to be large to generate a lot of noise; it just needs a big set of speakers and a loud rock and roll band.

The contrasting statistic is this: Ruby use really isn’t all that much. According to Evans Data, which asks developers twice a year about their favored programming languages, only eleven percent of North American developers use Ruby today, for any part of their work. (It probably goes without saying that most developers use more than one language; this statistic reflects those who spend any of their time programming in Ruby.) About two thirds use JavaScript in any guise, just for comparison, but somehow that doesn’t generate the same kind of passion.

Language search comparison
Black Duck’s Comparison of Language Searches

According to the folks at Black Duck, JavaScript has gone from 3 percent of all Koders language-specific searches in 2004 to 4 percent recently. Ruby is 5 percent. “There are 1.3 Ruby searches for every JavaScript search. JavaScript has moved up over time and is also ahead of PHP, Python and Perl,” I was told. The graph they provided shows Perl, Python, Ruby, PHP and JavaScript searches and how they have fared relative to each other over time.

I am reminded of a message posted in a PC Magazine CompuServe forum in the late 1980s or early 1990s by the magazine’s then-editor Bill Machrone. PC Magazine had just done its first, huge customer satisfaction research study, saying straight-up which PC brands were great and which were crap (in the eyes of the purchasers). If I recall correctly, they had something like 25,000 responses; it was a huge number, anyway.

As Machrone pointed out, at first glance it looked as though the best company from which to buy a PC was Northgate, because the company far-and-away had the best rankings on technical support. But (demonstrating one reason why I have long admired the guy), Machrone also highlighted the very high percentage of Northgate owners who had had reason to call the tech support lines. “Northgate has the best customer support,” Machrone wrote (as I recall). “And you will need it.” In contrast, he pointed out, of the 2,500 survey respondents who said they owned a Hewlett-Packard PC, only something like 17 of them had any experience with the customer’s tech support. The best quality tech support, presumably, is the support you never need, because the computer just works.

I wonder whether these are related. An uptick in searches for Ruby might indeed mean that more developers are using it. But it also might mean that Ruby developers need more help than others do (i.e. “and you’ll need the tech support”), whether because the existing software is hard to understand or because their shops don’t have a lot of existing in-house expertise. It might mean that there’s so much easily-found JavaScript open-source code that they don’t need to head to a dedicated search engine for it. Maybe, in their enthusiasm for all things Ruby, they just like to look at code examples. Those are only a few alternate reasons; I’m sure there are others.

What’s your explanation? Why is the noise of the Ruby community so much louder than its size implies?