The term “get” is a journalism (remember that?) term for getting hard-to-get interviews. And so we’re jealous once more about one of RedMonk/Michael Cote’s latest gets, Grady Booch at last month’s Rational Software Conference.
In a rambling discussion, Booch made an interesting point during his sitdown about software being an abundant resource and how that jibes with the current economic slowdown. Although his eventual conclusion – that it pays to invest in software because it can help you deal with a downturn more effectively (and derive competitive edge) – was not surprising, the rationale was.
It’s that Booch calls software an abundant resource. Using his terms, it’s fungible, flexible; there’s lots of it and lots of developers around; and better yet, it’s not a natural extractive resource subject to zero-sum economics. That’s for the most part true although, unless you’re getting your power off solar, some resource must be consumed to provide the juice to your computer.
Booch referred to Clay Shirkey’s concept that a cognitive surplus now exists as a result of the leisure time freed up by the industrial revolution. He contends that highly accessible, dispersed computing networks have started to harness this cumulative cognitive resource. Exhibit A was his and Martin Wattenberg of IBM’s back of the envelope calculation that Wikipedia alone has provided an outlet for 100 million cumulative hours of collected human thought. That’s a lot of volunteer contribution to what, depending on your viewpoint, is contribution to or organization of human wisdom. Of course other examples are the open source software that floats in the wild like the airborne yeasts that magically transform grains into marvelous Belgian Lambics.
Booch implied that software has become an abundant resource, although he deftly avoided the trap of calling it “free” as that term brings with it plenty of baggage. As pioneers of today’s software industry discovered back in the 1980s, the fact that software come delivered on cheap media (followed today by cheap bandwidth) concealed the human capital value that was represented by it. There are many arguments of what the value of software is today – is it proprietary logic, peace of mind, or is the value of technical support? Regardless of what it is, there is value in software, and it is value that, unlike material goods, is not always directly related to supply and demand.
But of course there is a question as to the supply of software, or more specifically, the supply of minds. Globally this is a non-issue, but in the US the matter of whether there remains a shortage of computer science grads or a shortage of jobs for the few that are coming out of computer science schools is still up for debate.
There are a couple other factors to add to the equation of software abundance.
The first is “free” software; OK, Grady didn’t fall into that rat hole but we will. You can use free stuff like Google Docs to save money on the cost of Microsoft Office, or you can use an open source platform like Linux to avoid the overhead of Windows. Both have their value, but their value is not going to make or break the business fortunes of the company. By nature, free software will be commodity software because everybody can get it, so it confers no strategic advantage to the user.
The second is the cloud. It makes software that is around more readily accessible because, if you’ve got the bandwidth, we’ve got the beer. Your company can implement new software with less of the usual pain because it doesn’t have to do the installation and maintenance itself. Well not totally – it depends on whether your provider is using the SaaS model where they handle all the plumbing or whether you’re using a raw cloud where installation and management is a la carte. But assuming your company is using a SaaS provider or somebody that mediates the ugly cloud, software to respond to your business need is more accessible than ever. As with free or open source, the fact that this is widely available means that the software will be commodity; however, if your company is consuming a business application such as ERP, CRM, MRO, or supply chain management, competitive edge will come in how you configure, integrate and consume that software. That effort will be anything but free.
The bottom line is that Abundant Software is not about the laws of supply and demand. There is plenty and not enough software and software developers to go around. Software is abundant, but not always the right software, or if it is right, it takes effort to make it righter. Similarly, being abundant doesn’t mean that the software that is going to get your company out of the recession is going to be cheap.
UPDATE — Google Docs is no longer free.