Ode to the Beginning

January 31, 2020

I first got into technology in the 1990s. I started out by writing Windows games in BASIC and C++, which helped me start building a sense for what goes into making software.

Then, everything changed. The web overturned the software world. Many of the most important companies and apps of the era were washed away in the sea change. Excited by the huge new opportunities, I dove into designing and developing web apps.

Then, everything changed. Mobile overturned the software world. Again much was washed away, and entire new categories of software business became possible. Excited by the huge new opportunities, I dove into designing and developing mobile apps.

The more I saw the progress of technology, the clearer it became that this is a fundamental process in the software industry. As long as there have been computers, there has been a generational pattern, where waves of new companies sweep in to build the newly possible. Periods of creative destruction, with new paradigms blowing away the old, have created awesome opportunities every decade or so since the 1960s. It seems everything old will soon be new again.

As I’ve built a career in software – and Steamclock’s business – I’ve taken pride in expecting the unexpected. I’ve tried not to get too comfortable in the now, avoided bets that things will stay the same, and tried not to depend too much to the platforms of today, since prophecy tells us all will soon be destroyed by the next Great Reset.

It would seem, today, that a reset is nigh. Mobile platforms have aged and become remarkably stable, and the big tech companies have slowed and matured. It feels like the next big thing is due on set imminently. Honestly, it’s felt like that for years now. Is it chatbots? No. Blockchain? No. AR? I don’t know, but it has to be something. Right?

Ben Thompson, prolific writer of thought-provoking perspectives on the technology industry, recently wrote a thought-provoking perspective on the technology industry titled The End of the Beginning. In it, he argues that no, it doesn’t have to be something:

There may not be a significant paradigm shift on the horizon, nor the associated generational change that goes with it. And, to the extent there are evolutions, it really does seem like the incumbents have insurmountable advantages: the hyperscalers in the cloud are best placed to handle the torrent of data from the Internet of Things, while new I/O devices like augmented reality, wearables, or voice are natural extensions of the phone.

In other words, today’s cloud and mobile companies — Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google — may very well be the GM, Ford, and Chrysler of the 21st century. The beginning era of technology, where new challengers were started every year, has come to an end…

My initial instinct is that this has to be wrong. There has to be something fundamental about technology and software that will continue to drive change, and sustain the “continual beginning” that makes our industry so interesting. Right?

Although there’s always reason to be skeptical of any argument of the form “this time is different,” Ben’s theory is unsettlingly plausible. Over the last decade, more and more of the product ideas and problems we see in technology are problems that would be 100x easier for Apple, Google, or Amazon to fix in their existing products than for a new business to try and address. Maybe today’s giants are the GM and Ford of our industry – the final survivors of an early period of chaos.

While there is something sad about this, if true, I must admit there is some appeal to the idea that I might not wake up one day to find that mobile apps have become irrelevant. I don’t relish the idea that our expertise building on Apple’s and Google’s ecosystems may soon be unceremoniously demoted to “experience with legacy platforms”.

And it has been helpful to consider such a world. When the beginning does end in technology – when what we build today is liable to still matter in 25 or 50 years – how would we think differently about our work? What does it mean if you can no longer count on generational change eventually sweeping away your technical debt or other weaknesses in your company and product?

It seems then that longer term thinking might become more established, driving more full-hearted investment in teams and teaching and documenting and various nice things companies know are important in theory, but can feel quaint in an environment where everything is blown up every sixteen minutes. It wouldn’t be all bad.

It also seems that in a tech industry where the beginning ends – where waves of technical change no longer drive renewal – the onus would fall on us to make the new beginnings we want to see, both in our teams, our companies, and our work.

All that said though, it would be nice if Ben is wrong. It would be cool if there was still at least one more revolution left, something that would completely reshape how we think about technology and how we write software forever.

You know, for old times’ sake.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.