Books are great and I just finished another one that I wish I had read years ago: Alfred D. Chandler Jr. and James W. Cortada: A Nation Transformed by Information. How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 (Google Books). The fact that the leading historians on business (Chandler) and computing (Cortada) edit a book together is a setup for great things and the book does not disappoint. Their concluding chapter proved to be particularly stimulating especially the couple of pages in a section called “The Case for Software” (p.290f). Here, the authors argue that while there have been many continuities in the development of IT over the last two centuries, software represents a major discontinuity because of 1) what it is, 2) how it came into the economy, and 3) how it was sold. There is quite a list of arguments the authors present, but two stand out:
First, software is diagnosed as being the “least capital-intensive and most knowledge-intensive of all information technologies to emerge” (p.290) which lead to low barriers to market-entry and immense opportunities for start-ups. Second, the fact that IBM chose to market the IBM-PC as an open hardware platform and Windows’ dominance as a standardized platform for application development created a gigantic market where even niche products could find a considerable audience. For Chandler and Cortada, the “story” of software is not so much the epic battle between operating systems that we love to dwell on but the development of applications. Their story goes like this:
Although software development is very much a knowledge business, the personal commitment required to learn enough to write software is far less than is needed by a computer scientist who is developing either hardware or the next generation of computer chips. The teenager or college student who writes software and ultimately finds a distributor has far less training in the field than the engineer working on Intel’s future product line. Yet both arrive at the same point: they create a marketable product. Thus, in economic terms, software so far has required less intellectual capital, hence offering fewer knowledge barriers to new entrants. Will that change? Perhaps, but what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s is that the barriers to entry remained far lower than for any previous form of information technology and products. (p.296f)
So far so good. This account has been echoed repeatedly (my colleague Mirko Schäfer and I have been amongst the many) but Chandler and Cortada weave a pretty dense and economically sound argument. What is interesting though is the historical backdrop against which the emergence of software unfolds:
In the electronic-based industries on which the Information Age rests, opportunities for individual entrepreneurs to build long-term competitive enterprises also came primarily with the introduction of a new technology. But these opportunities only occurred three times. The first was in the early 1920s with the coming of broadcasting. The second opportunity occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after the introduction of IBM’s System 360 and Digital’s PDP series greatly expanded computerized data processing for commercial activities. The third took place in the first half of the 1950s with the sudden and unexpected coming of the multi-billion-dollar microcomputer industry. Since the mid-1950s opportunities for entrepreneurial start-ups in hardware arose primarily in the production of specialized niche products or for providers of supplies and services to the large established core companies. So if history is any guide, a small number of large complex enterprises, particularly those experienced in building systems, will continue to lead in commercializing the hardware for today’s Information Age.
For the authors, software is different, for the reasons given above. Now, what seems to have happened over the last three years is something that is bringing software incrementally back to the “normal” course of history: the app store and the cloud. To provide a cloud based service, a little coding skill is obviously no longer enough – building a datacenter is not that easy and even cloud hosting services that scale well do not eliminate the need for handing the software logistics of a large user base and huge amounts of data. Mastering synchronization between cloud and client, handling different versions of data points, providing clients to various different (mobile) platforms, etc. requires pretty neat skills and a team of experts. In short, the cloud makes software service development much more capital-intensive (Chandler and Cortada’s first argument) and quickly raises barriers to market entry. Just look at how many billions Mircosoft dumped into search technology for some scraps of the market.
The app store story is a little more complex because – just like Windows – the iPhone SDK and store combo has created a market that is standardized and quite large, affording a new business model for many a developer. But with all the technical limitations (since I got an Android phone the fact that I don’t have a common file storage area on the iPad just feels very, very weird) and the filtering, I would argue that the logic of the app store (at least in its Apple version, but Google also has its kill switch) is halfway between the classic logic of operating systems and the television market where independent studios and production companies sell content to the all powerful networks. The independent journalist that sells copy to newspapers and magazines also comes to mind.
While the software market – despite the long-standing existence of software giants – continues to be a pretty diverse playing field, the process of commodification of software via the cloud and the app store may very well be a step away from software as usual, a kind of historic “normalization” to a situation where a limited number of companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft?) dominate or shape a large portion of the market for software.