In the Days of Old, Software Giants Walked the Earth

Gather around the virtual campfire, young software engineers and hear the tale of the coders of yore. We do not know why the world changed, but the order of agile product managers tells us it started with the forging of the great three ring binders of power. Three were given to the military industrial complex, the fairest of the elder patrons with the patience to fund research projects. Five were given to the telephony firms, digging in the earth for relevance in a networked world. Nine binders of power were given to Industry, who above all else crave EPS growth.

Contained within the three ring binders was the will to control the product development life-cycle. But they were all of them deceived; the dark lord forged another binder in secret. Bound to the one three ring binder was the power to wield the freemium business model.

"One Ringtone to rule them all. One network to find them, One platform to bring them all, and to the service contract bind them."

In the lands of dot com a great battle waged for the soul of consumer culture. A vast alliance of salesmen and open source hackers made war against the regressive forces of crappy software products and proprietary networks. In the darkest night when IBM appeared to consume the soul of the once great Apple, Lord Steve of Cupertino emerged to defeat the dark lord of business process.

"Think Different," was his battle cry. A great victory was won under his banner, and Lord Steve had one chance to cast the binder of power into the silicon foundries of doom and destroy its power forever.

But this is not his story. This is the story of the most unassuming creature of all: the early 1980s Independent Software Vendor (ISV.)

Before the Ancient and Justified Book of Face or the Great Numbered One, Sovereign of Mountain View, software warriors rode 8-bit micros into battle. Against the forces of chaos and evil, great coders of old wielded the powerful but primitive weapons: the front panel, the assembler and the text editor.

Great armies of young squires carried BASIC interpreters into the field. Many were cut down in the great Consumer Software Revolt of the early '80s; a few survived, defending their business processes with VisiCalc, Lotus and Excel. A select few continued the direct assault with the tools of the great Borland Weapon-Smiths.

Before the great networking when cowboys cruised cyberspace with 56k modems, bands of adventurers sought fortune in the data processing marketplace. Before we thought of computers as communication stones, we wove complicated "decision support" spells; our mountain cousins concerned themselves with "industrial control" incantations.

The spells of the great programmers of yore were simple, but direct. Written in arcane and ancient dialects, few mastered their true power. Their patrons were the merchant princes of Osgiliath and Bree and Dallas. Many code wizards lived a solitary existence, seeking mastery of their craft. When they worked with others, they worked closely with a salesman (a master of relieving people of their money), a product manager (who battled the forces of chaos with the sword of clarity) and a system administrator (the cleric whose prayers turned the hard disk platters.)

Adventurers would move from opportunity to opportunity, deftly building value for their customers. Designs would be proposed, markets evaluated and leads qualified. The ISVs of old developed products whose value was manifold and apparent; the great merchant princes found value in them and paid handsomely for them.

But the dark one spread discord among the merchant princes, singing the sweet song of quarterly earnings growth through the freemium business model. "We will monetize our synergy..." the song went, "...and reap the limitless rewards of unlocked customer value."

The ISVs products could no longer compete with the free, yet never quite completely functionally complete products of the dark one. And this is why they have passed away into dust. No matter how good your product is, you cannot compete with free. And after all the ISVs were interred in their tombs, the armies of the ad revenue modelers attacked.

And this is how we have come to where we are. A million dazzling apps which promise productivity, but deliver advertising impressions. An industry that depends on "innovation" and "bold new features" to entice us into the next, best product. Software developers working on "live" releases, where user features are delivered without road-map, schedule or even design.

What will the future hold? Only time will tell.