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[This is a Summary by Larry Blakeley]
I think that a lot of the next generation of software will be written on this model (Application Service Provider/Web Services).
When you own a desktop computer, you end up learning a lot more than you wanted to know about what's happening inside it.
There's something wrong when a sixty-five year old woman who wants to use a computer for email and accounts has to think about installing new operating sytems. Ordinary users shouldn't even know the words "operating system," much less "device driver" or "patch."
There is now another way to deliver software that will save users from becoming system administrators. Web-based applications are programs that run on Web servers and use Web pages as the user interface. For the average user this new kind of software will be easier, cheaper, more mobile, more reliable, and often more powerful than desktop software.
With Web-based software, most users won't have to think about anything except the applications they use. All the messy, changing stuff will be sitting on a server somewhere, maintained by the kind of people who are good at that kind of thing. And so you won't ordinarily need a computer, per se, to use software. All you'll need will be something with a keyboard, a screen, and a Web browser. Maybe it will have wireless Internet access. Maybe it will also be your cell phone. Whatever it is, it will be consumer electronics: something that costs about $200, and that people choose mostly based on how the case looks. You'll pay more for Internet services than you do for the hardware, just as you do now with telephones.
The Win for Users
To use a purely Web-based application, all you need is a browser connected to the Internet. So you can use a Web-based application anywhere. When you install software on your desktop computer, you can only use it on that computer. Worse still, your files are trapped on that computer. The inconvenience of this model becomes more and more evident as people get used to networks.
The whole idea of "your computer" is going away, and being replaced with "your data." You should be able to get at your data from any computer. Or rather, any client, and a client doesn't have to be a computer.
Clients shouldn't store data; they should be like telephones. In fact they may become telephones, or vice versa. And as clients get smaller, you have another reason not to keep your data on them: something you carry around with you can be lost or stolen. Leaving your PDA in a taxi is like a disk crash, except that your data is handed to someone else instead of being vaporized.
With purely Web-based software, neither your data nor the applications are kept on the client. So you don't have to install anything to use it. And when there's no installation, you don't have to worry about installation going wrong. There can't be incompatibilities between the application and your operating system, because the software doesn't run on your operating system.
When you use a Web-based application, your data will be safer.
Finally, Web-based software should be less vulnerable to viruses. If the client doesn't run anything except a browser, there's less chance of running viruses, and no data locally to damage.
City of Code
To developers, the most conspicuous difference between Web-based and desktop software is that a Web-based application is not a single piece of code. It will be a collection of programs of different types rather than a single big binary.
Because the software in a Web-based application will be a collection of programs rather than a single binary, it can be written in any number of different languages.
With server-based software, most of the change is small and incremental. That in itself is less likely to introduce bugs. It also means you know what to test most carefully when you're about to release software: the last thing you changed. You end up with a much firmer grip on the code. As a general rule, you do know what's happening inside it. You don't have the source code memorized, of course, but when you read the source you do it like a pilot scanning the instrument panel, not like a detective trying to unravel some mystery.
With Web-based software, you never have to release software before it works, and you can release it as soon as it does work.
The other major technical advantage of Web-based software is that you can reproduce most bugs. You have the users' data right there on your disk. If someone breaks your software, you don't have to try to guess what's going on, as you would with desktop software: you should be able to reproduce the error while they're on the phone with you.
Web-based software gets used round the clock, so everything you do is immediately put through the wringer. Bugs turn up quickly.
Fixing fresh bugs is easier than fixing old ones.
Being able to release software immediately is a big motivator. Often as I was walking to work I would think of some change I wanted to make to the software, and do it that day.
If I'd had to wait a year for the next release, I would have shelved most of these ideas, for a while at least.
Brooks in Reverse
With Web-based software, all you need (at most) are the 13 people, because there are no releases, ports, and so on.
When you can write software with fewer programmers, it saves you more than money. As Fred Brooks pointed out in The Mythical Man-Month, adding people to a project tends to slow it down. The number of possible connections between developers grows exponentially with the size of the group. The larger the group, the more time they'll spend in meetings negotiating how their software will work together, and the more bugs they'll get from unforseen interactions. Fortunately, this process also works in reverse: as groups get smaller, software development gets exponentially more efficient.
Efficiency matters for server-based software, because you're paying for the hardware. The number of users you can support per server is the divisor of your capital cost, so if you can make your software very efficient you can undersell competitors and still make a profit. Hardware is free now, if your software is reasonably efficient.
In the early 1990s I read an article in which someone said that software was a subscription business. At first this seemed a very cynical statement. But later I realized that it reflects reality: software development is an ongoing process. I think it's cleaner if you openly charge subscription fees, instead of forcing people to keep buying and installing new versions so that they'll keep paying you. And fortunately, subscriptions are the natural way to bill for Web-based applications.
Hosting applications is an area where companies will play a role that is not likely to be filled by freeware. Hosting applications is a lot of stress, and has real expenses. No one is going to want to do it for free.
For companies, Web-based applications are an ideal source of revenue. Instead of starting each quarter with a blank slate, you have a recurring revenue stream. Because your software evolves gradually, you don't have to worry that a new model will flop; there never need be a new model, per se, and if you do something to the software that users hate, you'll know right away. You have no trouble with uncollectable bills; if someone won't pay you can just turn off the service. And there is no possibility of piracy.
Web-based software sells well, especially in comparison to desktop software, because it's easy to buy. Web-based software is just about the easiest thing in the world to buy, especially if you have just done an online demo. Users should not have to do much more than enter a credit card number. (Make them do more at your peril.)
Sometimes Web-based software is offered through ISPs acting as resellers. This is a bad idea. You have to be administering the servers, because you need to be constantly improving both hardware and software. If you give up direct control of the servers, you give up most of the advantages of developing Web-based applications.
Who will the customers be? At Viaweb they were initially individuals and smaller companies, and I think this will be the rule with Web-based applications. These are the users who are ready to try new things, partly because they're more flexible, and partly because they want the lower costs of new technology.
Web-based applications will often be the best thing for big companies too (though they'll be slow to realize it). The best intranet is the Internet. If a company uses true Web-based applications, the software will work better, the servers will be better administered, and employees will have access to the system from anywhere.
The argument against this approach usually hinges on security: if access is easier for employees, it will be for bad guys too. Some larger merchants were reluctant to use Viaweb because they thought customers' credit card information would be safer on their own servers. It was not easy to make this point diplomatically, but in fact the data was almost certainly safer in our hands than theirs. Who can hire better people to manage security, a technology startup whose whole business is running servers, or a clothing retailer? Not only did we have better people worrying about security, we worried more about it.
If you want to keep your money safe, do you keep it under your mattress at home, or put it in a bank? This argument applies to every aspect of server administration: not just security, but uptime, bandwidth, load management, backups, etc. Our existence depended on doing these things right.
So Web-based applications will ordinarily be the right answer for big companies too. They will be the last to realize it, however, just as they were with desktop computers. And partly for the same reason: it will be worth a lot of money to convince big companies that they need something more expensive.
There is always a tendency for rich customers to buy expensive solutions, even when cheap solutions are better, because the people offering expensive solutions can spend more to sell them. At Viaweb we were always up against this. We lost several high-end merchants to Web consulting firms who convinced them they'd be better off if they paid half a million dollars for a custom-made online store on their own server. They were, as a rule, not better off, as more than one discovered when Christmas shopping season came around and loads rose on their server. Viaweb was a lot more sophisticated than what most of these merchants got, but we couldn't afford to tell them. At $300 a month, we couldn't afford to send a team of well-dressed and authoritative-sounding people to make presentations to customers.
A large part of what big companies pay extra for is the cost of selling expensive things to them. (If the Defense Department pays a thousand dollars for toilet seats, it's partly because it costs a lot to sell toilet seats for a thousand dollars.) And this is one reason intranet software will continue to thrive, even though it is probably a bad idea. It's simply more expensive. There is nothing you can do about this conundrum, so the best plan is to go for the smaller customers first. The rest will come in time.
Son of Server
Running software on the server is nothing new. In fact it's the old model: mainframe applications are all server-based. If server-based software is such a good idea, why did it lose last time? Why did desktop computers eclipse mainframes?
Why did desktop computers take over? I think it was because they had better software. And I think the reason microcomputer software was better was that it could be written by small companies.
I don't think many people realize how fragile and tentative startups are in the earliest stage. Many startups begin almost by accident-- as a couple guys, either with day jobs or in school, writing a prototype of something that might, if it looks promising, turn into a company. At this larval stage, any significant obstacle will stop the startup dead in its tracks. Writing mainframe software required too much commitment up front. Development machines were expensive, and because the customers would be big companies, you'd need an impressive-looking sales force to sell it to them. Starting a startup to write mainframe software would be a much more serious undertaking than just hacking something together on your Apple II in the evenings. And so you didn't get a lot of startups writing mainframe applications.
The arrival of desktop computers inspired a lot of new software, because writing applications for them seemed an attainable goal to larval startups. Development was cheap, and the customers would be individual people that you could reach through computer stores or even by mail-order.
The application that pushed desktop computers out into the mainstream was VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet. It was written by two guys working in an attic, and yet did things no mainframe software could do.
It looks as if server-based software will be good this time around, because startups will write it. Computers are so cheap now that you can get started, as we did, using a desktop computer as a server. Inexpensive processors have eaten the workstation market (you rarely even hear the word now) and are most of the way through the server market; Yahoo's servers, which deal with loads as high as any on the Internet, all have the same inexpensive Intel processors that you have in your desktop machine. And once you've written the software, all you need to sell it is a Web site. Nearly all our users came direct to our site through word of mouth and references in the press.
There is all the more reason for startups to write Web-based software now, because writing desktop software has become a lot less fun. If you want to write desktop software now you do it on Microsoft's terms, calling their APIs and working around their buggy OS. And if you manage to write something that takes off, you may find that you were merely doing market research for Microsoft.
If a company wants to make a platform that startups will build on, they have to make it something that hackers themselves will want to use. That means it has to be inexpensive and well-designed. The Mac was popular with hackers when it first came out, and a lot of them wrote software for it. You see this less with Windows, because hackers don't use it. The kind of people who are good at writing software tend to be running Linux or FreeBSD now.
I don't think we would have started a startup to write desktop software, because desktop software has to run on Windows, and before we could write software for Windows we'd have to use it. The Web let us do an end-run around Windows, and deliver software running on Unix direct to users through the browser. That is a liberating prospect, a lot like the arrival of PCs twenty-five years ago.
I mentioned earlier that my mother doesn't really need a desktop computer. Most users probably don't. That's a problem for Microsoft, and they know it. If applications run on remote servers, no one needs Windows. What will Microsoft do? Will they be able to use their control of the desktop to prevent, or constrain, this new generation of software?
My guess is that Microsoft will develop some kind of server/desktop hybrid, where the operating system works together with servers they control. At a minimum, files will be centrally available for users who want that. I don't expect Microsoft to go all the way to the extreme of doing the computations on the server, with only a browser for a client, if they can avoid it. If you only need a browser for a client, you don't need Microsoft on the client, and if Microsoft doesn't control the client, they can't push users towards their server-based applications.
In a world of Web-based applications, there is no automatic place for Microsoft. They may succeed in making themselves a place, but I don't think they'll dominate this new world as they did the world of desktop applications.
The same single-mindedness that has brought them this far will now be working against them. IBM was in exactly the same situation, and they could not master it. IBM made a late and half-hearted entry into the microcomputer business because they were ambivalent about threatening their cash cow, mainframe computing. Microsoft will likewise be hampered by wanting to save the desktop. A cash cow can be a damned heavy monkey on your back.
Startups but More So
The classic startup is fast and informal, with few people and little money. Those few people work very hard, and technology magnifies the effect of the decisions they make. If they win, they win big.
In a startup writing Web-based applications, everything you associate with startups is taken to an extreme. You can write and launch a product with even fewer people and even less money. You have to be even faster, and you can get away with being more informal. You can literally launch your product as three guys sitting in the living room of an apartment, and a server collocated at an ISP. We did.
Web-based software never ships. You can work 16-hour days for as long as you want to. And because you can, and your competitors can, you tend to be forced to. You can, so you must. It's Parkinson's Law running in reverse.
The worst thing is not the hours but the responsibility. Programmers and system administrators traditionally each have their own separate worries. Programmers have to worry about bugs, and system administrators have to worry about infrastructure. Programmers may spend a long day up to their elbows in source code, but at some point they get to go home and forget about it. System administrators never quite leave the job behind, but when they do get paged at 4:00 AM, they don't usually have to do anything very complicated. With Web-based applications, these two kinds of stress get combined. The programmers become system administrators, but without the sharply defined limits that ordinarily make the job bearable.
Desktop software forces users to become system administrators. Web-based software forces programmers to.
Just Good Enough
Of course, server-based applications don't have to be Web-based. You could have some other kind of client. But I'm pretty sure that's a bad idea. It would be very convenient if you could assume that everyone would install your client-- so convenient that you could easily convince yourself that they all would-- but if they don't, you're hosed. Because Web-based software assumes nothing about the client, it will work anywhere the Web works. That's a big advantage already, and the advantage will grow as new Web devices proliferate. Users will like you because your software just works, and your life will be easier because you won't have to tweak it for every new client.
How will it all play out? I don't know. And you don't have to know if you bet on Web-based applications. No one can break that without breaking browsing. The Web may not be the only way to deliver software, but it's one that works now and will continue to work for a long time. Web-based applications are cheap to develop, and easy for even the smallest startup to deliver. They're a lot of work, and of a particularly stressful kind, but that only makes the odds better for startups.
Fortunately, it can be very cheap to launch a Web-based application. We launched on under $10,000, and it would be even cheaper today. We had to spend thousands on a server, and thousands more to get SSL. (The only company selling SSL software at the time was Netscape.) Now you can rent a much more powerful server, with SSL included, for less than we paid for bandwidth alone. You could launch a Web-based application now for less than the cost of a fancy office chair.
Use your software yourself, all the time. Don't listen to marketing people or designers or product managers just because of their job titles. If they have good ideas, use them, but it's up to you to decide; software has to be designed by hackers who understand design, not designers who know a little about software. If you can't design software as well as implement it, don't start a startup.
It's a lot easier for a couple of hackers to figure out how to rent office space or hire sales people than it is for a company of any size to get software written. I've been on both sides, and I know.
You don't have to ask anyone's permission to develop Web-based applications. You don't have to do licensing deals, or get shelf space in retail stores, or grovel to have your application bundled with the OS. You can deliver software right to the browser, and no one can get between you and potential users without preventing them from browsing the Web. - "The Other Road Ahead", Paul Graham, September 2001 http://www.paulgraham.com/road.html