280 North’s ability to turn a profit is also of concern to Paul Graham of the venture capital group Y Combinator, which has provided both early funding and mentorship. Graham has written books on Lisp, and he co-founded Viaweb, which was later sold to Yahoo! When he first heard about 280 North, the tip-off was not so much the technology as the group’s raw programming talent. “This is a lot of how Silicon Valley works: there is a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter. You hear: ‘Hey, these guys are good.’ That was the case with 280 North: they seemed not only to be good programmers, but have other qualities that are really useful in a startup. They had really good sense of design, and they were extremely determined, which is important. To be a good founder you need to keep your morale up in tough situations. We also liked that they were bold enough hackers that they were not just writing applications, but building an application platform.”Like 280 North, Y Combinator is an example of America’s ever-evolving technology culture. The venture capital firm migrates like a bird, spending the summer months in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the winter in the Silicon Valley. Newly funded companies are expected to work out of either location for three months: the New York Times called Y Combinator “a hatchery for replicant hackers.” The firm funds companies in the earliest stages, rarely investing more than $20,000 for a small stake of the company. “We’re like first gear,” Graham says.
The rivalry seems friendly enough, and ultimately, Cappuccino and SproutCore may both attract separate followings who are each pursuing the same goals. Ryan Carson of the UK’s Carsonified wrote that Cappuccino and SproutCore collectively represent a shift away from the client-server model, enabling asynchronous, offline, web applications to be launched right inside the browser, yet can work online or off. “And even more interesting is this: if you use Cappuccino, those apps will automatically look and behave like OS X native desktop apps－with zero learning curve on the developer’s side.” Developers can concentrate on building applications “instead of trying to re-invent basic UI functionality every single time. You might be saying ‘Duh. You can already do this with [Adobe] AIR or Silverlight. What’s the big deal?’” The answer, Carson says, is that these technologies are open source. “I think this is very important as it ensures the ideas aren’t directed by one specific company or organization (and their financial goals).”
As for Graham, he has no illusions that all software will eventually be built on top of Cappuccino. “But pretty much all software will be built on top of something like Cappuccino. Even Microsoft is gradually and grudgingly moving their applications to Web-based versions. All software data is going to live on servers and you’ll have some kind of application that is dynamically updated, and sort of runs on your computer and sort of runs on the server.”
That’s what 280 North’s three partners－Ross Boucher, Francisco Tolmasky and Tom Robinson－have in mind for Cappuccino: a framework for building applications that use the client and server to best advantage without relying completely on either one. Boucher, who graduated the University of Southern California in 2006, worked for Apple on back-end server technology for iTunes. Tolmasky graduated USC a year later and worked on iPhone development. Tom Robinson, who graduated in January 2008, went straight from college to entrepreneurship.
Robinson spoke with me by phone:
- How did 280 North get started?
- We all met at USC as undergraduates, all majoring in computer science. After graduating, my colleagues, Francisco Tolmasky and Ross Boucher, worked at Apple for a short time. I just finished school last year. But we actually began the business while we were in college with the idea of making it easier to write Web applications. Our background was mostly in building desktop applications running on Macs OS X. But when we tried to do similar things on the Web, we found it a lot harder to create real applications in HTML and CSS. It’s easy to make dynamic Web pages, but when you try to go beyond that, the model breaks down.
t this already a crowded space?
- You wrote Cappuccino in your own language: Objective-J. How did that project come about?
- How does that work?
- How close is Objective-C to Objective-J?
- For some developers, the steepest part of the learning curve will be the Cappuccino framework, which is a re-implementation of the Cocoa APIs built with Objective-J. Those APIs began with Nextstep and OpenStep－which became Cocoa when Apple bought NeXT. But there are also some other implementations of the Cocoa APIs, such as the open source GNUstep. There’s also Cocoatron, which is essentially Cocoa on Windows. Cappuccino is Cocoa on the Web. It provides developers with a solid foundation of technologies to develop very rich web applications. It gives you features like undo, copy/
paste, document management and better graphics, together with a rich set of UI widgets.
- Cappuccino has been mostly compared with SproutCore. Are you saying Cappuccino’
s advantage is in a faster learning curve?
- Are you suggesting that SproutCore and Cappuccino are really for two different types of developers with different kinds of background?
- Yes－they both have similar ideas and goals. SproutCore still uses HTML and CSS, whereas when you write a Cappuccino application you never touch HTML or CSS. That’s an advantage for a lot of people, but if you are used to HTML and CSS, you might prefer SproutCore.
- Whereas if you have an Apple development background, Cappuccino sounds like it might be a better fit.
- Definitely. Even if you don’t, we still think the benefits of it are worth learning it if you are trying to make the sorts of applications that Cappuccino is useful for.
- When did you decide to make Cappuccino open source?
- We always knew we wanted to go open source, but we just weren’t sure when to do it. We only licensed the framework under the LGPL [GNU Lesser General Public License] in late summer. This is a very young open source project.
- Is there an open source development community forming around the project?
- Yes. There’s a pretty significant sized IRC chat room and mailing list that we are always hanging out in and helping people out with their problems. It gets pretty decent traffic.
- Our overhead is fairly minimal, but it’s always great for us to have faster engines－our applications will run faster for free. Anybody who uses the new browsers gets a speed boost for free. The latest versions of Firefox and Safari are our recommended browsers.
- Have you seen any boost in Google’
s Chrome browser?
- Chrome is also very fast, but is not, that we’ve seen, significantly faster than Safari or Firefox.
- Besides 280 Slides from you, I’
ve haven’ t seen any other applications developed under Cappuccino. What’ s in development?
- There are not a lot of other applications out there right now, just because this is such a young project. But there are a few people in the open source community that are beginning to share what they are working on. We’ve seen a media player similar to iTunes, a Twitter client, and a dashboard-type home screen with a bunch of widgets. If you are doing something very simple, the overhead of Cappuccino is probably not worth it. The application needs to be sufficiently complex in order to benefit.
- What about porting apps to the iPhone?
- In principle, that should work because the iPhone’s browser is based on the Webkit open source browser engine. We’re still working on optimizing Cappuccino for that very limited memory, but there is definitely potential for Cappuccino on iPhone applications.
s the revenue model for 280 North? Do you plan to make money by developing more apps?
- We’ve got several things in progress that I can’t talk about, other than to say that we think 280 Slides, which is free, has the potential for a premium, fee-based version. There are a lot of features we could add and charge for. That’s one option. Another is in building a business around Cappuccino.
- You and your colleagues are part of the newest generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. What’
s that like?
- It’s a lot of fun and a lot of hard work－but its great being here. Pretty much every week we’re going to some sort of event, whether it’s an entrepreneur meet-up or a technical talk or parties with different start-ups. Silicon Valley definitely seems like the place to be for start-ups, especially young start-ups. Y Combinator also provided a great network of people doing interesting stuff.