Is Thinking Small The Future Of Software?

By | April 1, 2004

Is there a future for small, niche software?

Clay Shirky thinks so, based on his work at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he found that students were ignoring the idea of writing big, scaleable, software for the world (the ‘Web School’) they were developing small, very specific programs — ‘situated software’, as Clay calls it — which is ”designed for use by a specific social group, rather than for a generic set of ‘users’.”

Among the programs they wrote: one to describe and rate professors, one to coordinate group restaurant orders, another to coordinate group purchases of items where discounts could be obtained for bulk orders. Sounds parochial? You bet. That’s the idea.

“This, strangely, is a kind of progress, not because situated software will replace other kinds of applications, but because it mostly won’t. For all the value we get out of the current software ecosystem, it doesn’t include getting an application built for a handful of users to use for a few months. Now, though, I think we’re starting to see a new software niche, where communities get form-fit tools for very particular needs, tools that fail most previous test of design quality or success, but which nevertheless function well, because they are so well situated in the community that uses them.”

I don’t know enough to be able to say whether this is a broader trend, but I’d like to think it is. There’s a dozen things I wish my computer could do, from building chronologies to providing a ‘treemap’-style zoomworld of all the data I’ve collected over the years — which I’m sure very few other people would be interested in, but which would be of great use to a narrow few into that kind of thing. In the future, I’m sure, someone in my position would just sit down and code such programs myself in the evenings, maybe selling a few copies, maybe giving away a few.

Sadly I’m not smart enough to do that, but perhaps the future, as Clay suggests, will be a world full of people who program, rather than programmers, and the software ecosystem will be far, far more diverse than it is now. I hope so.

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