Software is dead, long live software

The software industry is a dynamic industry. Even the definition of software is dynamic. The software that we know today is different from the software of 15 years ago. In the past years a number of events happened that have changed the industry, like the definitive fall of Windows PC software, open source software, and the cloud. It is my opinion that these events have lead us, software developers, to the start of a very prosperous time.

Software on the Windows PC is dead

At the start of my programming career in 1997, I developed software that runs on a desktop PC. Needless to say that Microsoft dominated that market, and as such I quickly became part of the Microsoft eco system. My alignment with Microsoft did not last long. Towards the end of the millennium, everyone who could, moved to the internet, as fast as their legs could carry them. Java was the coolest kid on the block, and almost unavoidably I got sucked into the slipstream as well. The dot-com bubble ended the internet party too soon. But one prediction was clear: Windows PC software would become a thing of the past. There was only one problem. No one had a viable alternative to Windows, yet.

Unbelievably, it would take another seven years before the Windows PC got it’s final blow. In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone. Soon after, different companies jumped in and created smart phones and tablet in all forms and sizes. Being fed up with Microsoft Windows, these companies developed their own operating systems, most notably iOS and Android. The new operating systems on tablets and smart phones clearly mark the end of the Windows PC monopoly.

Microsoft’s stubborn belief in the PC is illustrated by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer who could not refrain from making snarly remarks on the now wildly popular iPhone. Microsoft maybe arrogant, and slow, but I would never call them stupid. They too realize that the days of the Windows PC are over.

Nowadays even Microsoft, the archetype software company, is moving away from software to products and services. The Windows PC may never die, but Microsoft’s move is a clear statement. Locally installed software, the kind that I started with, the kind that traditionally comes to mind when thinking of ‘software’, is dead.

Open source hype has halted

After the dot-com bubble I skeptically witnessed the rise of open source software. This is software created by developers who, upon completion, freely share the software’s source code. By doing so they reduce the monetary value of the software to zero. As a result, open source business models completely rely on the sales of complementary services, like installation and support.

Open source software was hyped and demanded until (roughly) 2009, when the popularity rather abruptly halted. Again, it was the smart phone that changed the landscape.

Apple’s introduction of the iPhone and the AppStore was revolutionary. People camped in front of Apple’s store for days, literally. As amazing as these product are, there is one caveat. The iPhone and AppStore exist in an extremely closed eco system, but no one cared. Open source was no longer everyone’s darling, apps were the next big thing.

Apart from a decline in demand for open source software, the economic recession did not help the open source movement. In less prosperous times, developers seem less altruistic and less willing to spend time for free. It is also hard to find enthusiastic programmers to develop software for a particular niche market. Open source is great for developing platforms or libraries that other developers can use, but fails to deliver specific value to end users.

Open source software will always remain relevant, but the hype is over.

Long live software in the cloud

The future of software is neither the Windows PC nor open source. As concluded during the dot-com bubble, the future of software is in the internet. SalesForce was one of the first software companies that successfully offered their product exclusively via the internet, in the cloud. Their slogan ‘No software’ summarizes the proposition brilliantly. No installation, no updates, no management and no worries. This new era in software is extremely good news for software vendors.

Software is delivered in a web browser and via apps on multiple devices. Vendors are no longer locked into a certain eco system, like I started with Windows in the 90’s. Even better, with the decline of Windows, the file system has disappeared. This means that the user’s data is stored (and sometimes even owned) by the vendor. Software vendors are in an excellent position to bind users to their eco systems. As a side note: the irony of this particular vendor lock in is absolutely not lost on me.

The role of open source software has also changed. Software vendors, who create software for a particular niche, have no incentive to make their software open source. Open source is no longer a threat, but actually useful. Underlying platforms are all open source, meaning free to use however anyone wants without any costs.

Last but not least, vendors finally have a way to immediately stops software piracy. They can tightly regulate who can and cannot use their software. This allows for a fair and steady stream of subscription revenue.

Users as well as businesses don’t mind, they love it.