Monthly Archives: March 2009

Software, The Internet, and The One Man Show

Panic Software ProductsBefore the Internet, software companies plied their wares through brick-and-mortar stores, in handy little diskette drives the size of folded pocket-handkerchiefs. It was a smaller industry, back then – Microsoft was still getting a start in IBM’s god-forsaken armpit, Apple had yet to discover the GUI, and almost everyone was working with a command line interface. It was also a simpler time. It wasn’t too hard for a well-placed, lone programmer to whip up some fancy app and pass it on – via diskettes, perhaps, with a healthy dose of door-to-door spit – and land himself a nice contract at some new-fangled, pre-bubble Valley startup. And that was, for a few years, enough to live by.

But then time passed. The little software companies consolidated, grew bigger, and swallowed up all the lone hobby programmers. It was harder to find individuals writing software and passing around diskette drives – it was much easier, in fact, to buy software from the big companies, with their cubicles and identical workstations and well-oiled distribution channels. So when the Internet came along, and the individual hobby programmers came out of the woodwork to begin selling their software, just like old times, they found themselves going up against huge, established companies – giants like Microsoft and Adobe and Macromedia, with their advertising budgets and their PR people and their customer support floors, all of which – if the prospective hobby programmer stopped long enough to swallow – amounted to overwhelming, mind-boggling competition. You wouldn’t have liked the odds if you were an outside spectator when that happened, and I know that had I been a hobbyist, I would have thought twice before leaving my desk job to write code for myself.

But then something interesting happened. The hobby programmers didn’t die out. The small software companies – startups in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble – took to the Internet like so many ducks to water. They launched little websites, bought modest amounts of office space, and began competing with the corporations. And they did well.

Software and Books

It doesn’t take a genius, really, to see the parallels between the scenario I just described and what we’re trying to do here, with publishing our stories independently, and on the Interent. The small-time software writer had to compete against well-established,  financially richer competitors, in a market that didn’t make any disctinctions between geographical boundaries. Also, software and books are similar products, particularly in the context of the Internet – both are propietary, both suffer from piracy, both come from companies with a long history in marketing and distribution know-how. And so, assuming that the giants of both fields are going to start-off with an advantage, how do small content producers compete, survive, and eventually get ahead?

Before we go into specifics, let’s talk about the current bevy of independent software developers. I’m not sure what you call them – but for some time now I’ve been noticing these little sites, some of them powered by a 1 man team – selling software, primarily for the Mac. I suppose you can consider them boutique shops. Tuck away into little corners, with a bonsai next to the cash register and the velvet curtains; with only one or two kinds of product sitting on the shelves. They’re small, very focused, and they usually have cool, clever names like Panic or 2d boy or Potion Factory.

They’re also usually well designed. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between their aesthetics and their popularity, but most of the small software companies I’ve seen sell their software in very well-packaged, beautifully constructed sites. In a way, it makes sense – their main (and possibly only) selling point is the web, and it’s within their best interests to make sure you come away with a favourable first impression. 

The second thing you’ll notice about these little software producers is the kind of products they sell. They’re useful, and they come with snazzy icons, but you’ll realize that not many challenge the bigwigs in their own fields. Nobody has challenged Word, the same way nobody has really challenged Photoshop. They’re smart, in this aspect – beat the big companies in the little niche areas they don’t care about … business isn’t a zero sum game, after all. Ironically enough, there are app makers out there who are putting out e-books in the iPhone and the iPod Touch – for instance, see: Benjamin Button and the Classics App.

But I think the most surprising thing about these little software producers are that some of them are really, really successful. I think the one thing we can all take away from this is the inherent flexibility of the Internet’s marketplace. As long as your distribution channel is online, and you’re putting out reasonably good stuff, then you’re certain to enjoy the benefits of the Long Tail – people will find you, people will pay you attention, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make enough to buy a whole new HQ of your own.

The Ecologist Model Of Seeing The Future

To answer the question of why these little software companies matter to us, I turn to notable writer and speaker Steven Berlin Johnson, who gave a talk recently about the future of news (and newspapers) at South By Southwest. In it, he presented an idea that I now find myself constantly going to bed with. He says, and I quote:

… I think it’s much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism. When ecologists go into the field to research natural ecosystems, they seek out the old-growth forests, the places where nature has had the longest amount of time to evolve and diversify and interconnect. They don’t study the Brazilian rain forest by looking at a field that was clear cut two years ago.

That’s why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial. It is the old-growth forest of the web. It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve. The Web doesn’t have some kind intrinsic aptitude for covering technology better than other fields. It just has an intrinsic tendency to cover technology first, because the first people that used the web were far more interested in technology than they were in, say, school board meetings or the NFL. But that has changed, and is continuing to change.

Now let’s be clear on the distinctions, shall we? Johnson was talking about journalism – something completely different from book publishing – and he was looking through a prism of the current Tech sector. But if we append that idea, and we bend it to fit the current shift in book publishing, I think we’ll find it to be a first indicator of how a mature digital publishing industry would look like. On one hand you can have beautiful, standalone sites by independent writers, and on the other you have collective, publisher-managed projects, like the Tor supersite and Authonomy. 

In the end what I’m trying to say is that it’ll do for us to sometimes think like a small software producer. Face it: they’re making a name for themselves, by leveraging the Internet’s (small) economies of scale, by targeting areas the bigwigs don’t care for, and by presenting themselves in very careful, very beautiful packages. If they can establish themselves in an industry that is mostly known for their behemoths, and if we take this to be an indicator of how a mature digital book-future would look like, then I suppose that we can, too.