#LoveBombs for Thimble: Saying Goodbye to Teacher, Mentor, Friend

Published by J. Gregory McVerry on

An ode to Thimble and a look to the future

In every teacher's career they need to say goodbye. Our friends, teachers, and mentors leave this world. For any long time contributor to the Mozilla Foundation these goodbyes can often be towards software applications we came to know, love ,and often helped build.

I will mourn the loss of Thimble, Mozilla Foundation's online code editor. Yet I also look back over the past seven years of using Thimble with such love and gratitude. I owe everything to Thimble. Everything. I can find the file where I first started to mess with CSS. I can find evidence where I became a more committed Mozillian.

The lessons I learned through Thimble taught me so much more than code. In fact I am a successful #edtech entrepreneur because contributing to Thimble taught me how to do product management. I learned how remote teams worked. I learned to do commits and pull requests.

So as Mozillians from across the globe gather at #Mozlando2018 I wanted to take the time and say goodbye to an old friend. We will miss you Thimble.

History of Thimble

Thimble's roots run as deep as mine. It feels like we had the tool throughout the Mozilla Learning experience (we did, onluy x-ray Goggles and badges are older). When we first started MozLearn was Hackasaurus, and it began with x-ray Goggles, a tool by Atul Varma and Jess Klein that they built with New York and Chicago Public Libraries. Thimble began as a #LoveBombfor the web. Atul and Jess then launched a single file editor, called Thimble, and a tool to build apps called Appmaker. Someone built Popcorn, still the coolest HTML5 remix machine to date. At some point during the journey hackasaurus became the webmaker project.

Then in 2013, webmaker would become (a now defunct Android app) Goggles, Popcorn, Thimble, and Appmaker would "sunset." The community got upset. We relied on these tools, and meanwhile behind the scenes David Humphry pushed an open source fork of Brackets as an update to Thimble. X-Ray Goggles also lived on. Webmaker became (Mozilla Learning or Mozilla Learning Network...or something....not sure we ever settled on a name before the entire program was shuttered) and a newer better Thimble took life with the work of humph and the awesome design of Luke Pacholski

What made Thimble Great?

In 2014-2015 tools for young developers and designers did not exist. Sure you could try GitHub, but at the time you needed Terminal and could not use the web itnerface. An impossible task for y learners. Furthermore engineers find it difficult to grok the difference between tutorials and documentation. Pointing someone to a does not lead to learning. We added tools to Thimble that worked in the classrooom because it was developed in the classroom. My classroom. Thimble got learning right. We:

  • Added tutorial files
  • Embraced remix
  • Included links to shortcuts
  • Had live preview of code changes
  • Created a community to develop curriuclum
  • Onboarded open source development

The spread of Thimble across the globe amazes me. Projects got remixed tens of thousands of times. I watched the real time analytics. The number of unique and returning visitors astounded me. The "Welcome Back to School" javascript kits last year got remixed close to 30,000 times in one week. One week.

Why must Thimble Go?

Priorities. Mozilla Foundation has stopped all development of on the ground learning materials and events. No clubs, no web literacy map, no apps.This includes Thimble. Luke has moved on and the project has stagnated in "maintenance mode." While this move is painful it makes sense. Mozilla Foundation does not have a stellar record of supporting apps. Everything that gets launched gets shuttered.

Maybe MoFo should not be in the software development business. Not when you depend on so much soft money for funding. Implementation and development of a product is only 10-20%% of it's total cost. The other 80% is everything else that comes along for the ride. When the MacArthur Foundation pulled back on their digital learning initiatives the team disbanded and the house of cards crumbled. MoFo also has a tendancy to assign one developer to every project. As a nonp[rofit resources are not unlimited. Yet this leads to single mantainers of open source and when the employee moves on projects often fold. I am so happy MoFo supported Thimble for two more years but sadly that day has come to say goodbye to my friend, mentor, and teacher.

Moving Forward with Glitch

Mozillians care and MoFo has put together a great partnership with Glitch to help export all our wonderful projects. In fact I have already ported many of the Classic Thimble projects like the movie poster, mememaker, and others. Glitch will not be an exact replacement of Thimble, instead a tool will exist to help us transition to a platform that I hope to see succeed and grow.

Can I trust Glitch?

I know many Mozillians maybe weary of an open source project from a non-profit being handed over to a for-profit company using proprietary software. I know I was. So I went to learn more about Glitch. As a platform it offers so much more than Thimble. You can build and launch apps, Sync with GitHub, build websites. A code playground. yet I also trust the company. Lead by CEO Anil Dash, I believe the company has a vision for humane tech, and they utlize enough open protocols and standards that meet my requirements for data portability.

We need public and private partnerships if we want to take back the web from the forces who seek to drive us into data sucking silos. The Glitch MoFo partnership makes sense. In fact I believe the Mozilla Foundation works best as a Philanthropic Entrepreunerial Activism Engine. Incubate rather than sunset. Many in the community want to do good but make a good buck doing it. I know this may not appease the FLOSS diehard, I was not easily convinced.

So I decided to hop on a train, head into Manhattan and ask Anil Dash and Meg Tobin, partnership director, myself. At a Glitch launch event I got to speak to many team members about their role in the transition. I came back knowing the Glitch team felt honored and a deep responsibility to take this project over from Mozilla. More importantly they have the resources to help the project scale. MoFo never had this capacity. So I left I left Glitch headquarters, and got immersed into a maze of down subway lines which left me plenty of time to reflect. When I finally made a train back to Connecticut I plopped into my seat and though, "Glitch will help open the world to code."

I don't believe in the model of the single developer. Auto-didatic learning, teaching yourself, is a lie. This model of some lonely dude sitting in his basement pushing code through Git commits is not one that is sustainable or equitable. Collaborative coding in the cloud, not your local dev environment, is the future. Glitch better than anyone else understands this. They have launched a new Team feature learning communities will love and invest just as much into community as code. TLDR, you can trust Glitch.

What's Next for Glitch and Learning?

When Glitch launched the target audience seemed to need some development skills. That is changing. Like Thimble you get live previews of changes (in a different window). You also get a large chunk of storage. I have never been given a warning and have over fifty projects. There is also a strong community. We do have some work left to do for Thimble parity in terms of learning tools and I can't wait for you to help us.

One of the great features of Thimble was the tutorial files and accompanying lesson plans. I have ported many of these features to Glitch (you can do that with human readable HTML quite easily) but we need dedicated tutorials and lesson plans. I also liked the code highlighting on elements. My students could not say, "Something is wrong with my image element." They would point to their screen and say, "My picture is broken." Developers call this the inspect tool. We need to scaffold it's use. All these features can be built into Glitch over time. In fact if you have the skills you can help us out now.

Glitch also has great features we could only dream of with Thimble. Teachers will love the asking for help feature. You raise your hand and then people in the community can come to help. The cognitive scientist in me is excited about the machine learning and automation features that could some day be possible, but having a supportive community, no bot will ever replace this. Glitch also has a Rewind feature that I depend on. Since this summer I have been learning CSS Grid....I hit rewind a ot.

We will also have to take a wait and see how Glitch treats community contributors. So far I have been impressed, but donating labor to a for-profit proprietary platform is different than Mozilla. Educators and coders often get exploited by companies. They turn into shills for the promise of swag or free access codes. We give away hours of free labor to bring tools to learners across the globe. Keep your hats and honor our work. As stated so far I have found Glitch's commitment to the community strong and I get as much value back as I put in.

Get Involved

If you loved Thimble as much as I we implore you to get involved and help make the transition smooth for people. Join us on Glitch and start sharing and remixing projects. Find a project and write a tutorial file. Create curriculum and learning plans. All of the activities we used to do for MoFo we will still need to do for Glitch, because it was never for MoFoor a company or a profit, but for the learners. Often our local kin but also people we never met. We #teachtheweb from a place of passion and principle and I believe Glitch can drive change as a platform. I believe it will be the coding platform of all the major coder clubs, of schools, of universities. You can rest assured, while Glitch isn't a non-profit, you maintain full ownership of all your content. You choose the license and you sync with your GitHub repo.


I believe we #teachtheweb because we want to change the world. I believe we #teachtheweb because we do not want to repeat the horrible inequities of the past. I believe we #teachtheweb because we are the web, and I know Glitch shares this vision. I am happy to see the legacy of Thimble live on using the power of the Glitch platform. The world needs more #Lovebombs.