On HexaPDF and Releasing Early

Why it depends on the situation whether releasing early is good

After my lightning talk about HexaPDF at Euruko 2016 I was asked why I haven’t released the source code to HexaPDF, yet. I have my reasons and in this post I will shed some light on them.

Why Releasing Early is Good

Many open source developers put their code online at very early stages of development in the hope that others are interested and contribute in one way or another. For example, this was done by Linus Torvalds when he announced the Linux kernel on a mailing list and many people got interested very fast.

It totally makes sense to do this in many cases, for example, when you are not sure about the overall design of your library or application and need input from others, or when you are basically finished with the “core” and need input for more features.

Releasing early often brings a new set of ideas to the table on how things could be done because there isn’t so much code and changing it is easier.

Whether people are interested in your code depends, naturally, on what the code does but if you put the code on Github or a similar service, announce it on appropriate websites, forums, mailings lists, etc., you will nearly always get some response and discussions.

… Except When it is Not

So how could this be a bad thing?

If you release code at very early stages where many things already work but documentation is sparse and some things are still broken, you will inevitably find yourself answering questions on how to do certain things, responding to issues, commenting on pull requests…

These tasks, while valueable to your project, take time away from actually developing your project. And what if you don’t have much time for your project in the first place?

You may suddenly find yourself in a situation where your project demands much more attention than you are able to give it which may lead to frustration on your side but will also frustrate people interested in the project.

So What About HexaPDF?

A couple of years ago I needed to convert kramdown documents to PDF. First I used wkhtmltopdf and then Prawn for this task. However, while implementing the Prawn solution I found that Prawn lacked some features I liked to have.

After first investigating whether patching Prawn would do the trick, I decided to look at the PDF specification to see what it would take to implement a PDF library from scratch. And so the idea for HexaPDF was born about three years ago.

Since I didn’t have the time to start development, I read the PDF specification and looked at many existing PDF libraries to see what features they had and how the libraries were designed. This gave me many ideas on how I wanted to design HexaPDF.

About a year later, in September 2014, I started implementing HexaPDF. Since I knew the order in which I wanted to implement the various parts of the library and for most parts how I wanted to implement them, there was no need to release the code early to get feedback. So that bonus of releasing early wasn’t really a bonus for me.

Another reason why I didn’t release the code was that I did all the development in my spare time. This meant for me that I could code whenever I wanted (or had time) and I didn’t need to concern myself with what other people wanted or expected from me or the code. There were times in the last two years when I didn’t write a single line of code for months and just pondered the design.

I don’t know yet whether HexaPDF will garner much interest in the Ruby community but since there are really only two libraries for working with PDFs, Prawn and pdf-reader (both of which implement not nearly all aspects of the PDF specification), I guess it will.

Lastly, I hadn’t decided on a license for HexaPDF and releasing the code without a license doesn’t make much sense.

So here they are, my reasons for not releasing the code to HexaPDF at an early stage. I know that many probably won’t agree with my reasons but for me it provided me with the time and space to really enjoy working on HexaPDF and the challenges that came with it.

One question still remains: When will HexaPDF be released? The code itself will be released soon, but the HexaPDF website containing example scripts and their resulting PDF output as well as the API documentation is available now.