Saturday, November 03, 2007

Monopolies, Cartels and Developer Choice

This recent article on the serverside has got me thinking (yet again) about the state of the software industry as a whole. The article is about a blog entry that asks Why are Sun and Microsoft now clambering onto the Ruby bandwagon? And can Ruby be the next Visual Basic?

These questions expose some interesting assumptions: A) That there is a gap (or perhaps a gulf) in the Software Development market left by VB6 that still needs filling. B) That this gap can only be filled by a language that is backed by a major vendor like Sun or Microsoft. The last of these assumptions appear to be true when you look at the demise of Dolphin Smalltalk. Dolphin Smalltalk was an ideal OO replacement for VB6. Yet it perished. Why?

Thinking about these questions raised an interesting thought. I have long concluded that Managers/Strategist and Architects make technology purchase decisions not programmers. Managers are of course risk adverse and like to stay near to the technology herd. This makes sense given that they often know little about technology themselves. Like the saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. So vendors have learnt over the years how best to sell to Managers and decision makers. As for Programmers, well they are an easier proposition. If the Managers have bought into a given technology and the herd is clearly moving in a given direction then the programmers will clamber to get the "new" technology on to their resumes.

These cultural patterns have traditionally led to monopolies such as with IBM and then Microsoft. With the rise of Java and J2EE we have witnessed yet another phenomena, that of the cartel. In response to Microsoft's near monopoly, a group of companies decided to gang together to form a cartel. On the face of it J2EE is standards based, but until very recently it has been the cartel (Sun, IBM, Oracle, BEA etc) that have dictated the overall direction. In so doing mainstream developers are left choosing between either Java/J2EE or C#/.Net. This boils down to practically no choice at all.

So how will things be in the future? Well the cartel have split up the J2EE cake amongst themselves along database lines. But it is not just the J2EE market that is split this way. the whole serverside cake seems to be split along database lines. The thought that came to me is that Oracle and DB2 shops tend to use Java/J2EE and Microsoft SQL Server shops tend to use .Net.

So the key to sales seems to be the database. This makes sense, because from a management perspective, "the database" is the companies most important technology asset. Well actually the important asset is the corporate data not the database server, but people seldom seem to make this distinction :^). So after spending almost eight years contracting and 17 years in the industry what have I witnessed? Well the database salesman comes in and sells the managers a database. On top of that they then convince the managers of the need for middle ware. If the database is DB2 then the natural choice is Websphere, Oracle then OAS, SQLServer then .Net etc. They then convince them that it is a good thing to mandate a single technology stack for everything, because having a "corporate strategy" is important. So all teams end up using DB2 and Websphere whether the application requirements and timescales merit it or not.

Into this mix has landed open source. Some parts of the open source community are aping this traditional vendor behavior. So JBoss and Red Hat Linux see themselves as a traditional server side technology company. Others are just programmers interested in programming, and sharing tools and languages that help them become more effective at delivering. But wait a minute, how can programmer centric technology succeed if it is the managers who get to make all the decisions?

Well if the managers are themselves Programmers then this approach works very nicely. Paul Graham has been blogging on this very topic for quite some time, and the Agile community worked this one out some time ago too. Everything we do needs to be programmer centric, because at the end of the day it is the quality of the code and the productivity of programmers that counts the most. Organisations that take this approach are massively productive when compared to traditional software development organizations.

So it seems to me that I need to find work with people that realise the importance of programming and understand that they don't need Oracle (Or IBM or Microsoft) to look after their precious data. Freed from management ignorance, I'll get to choose the best tools for the job, and who knows programming could even become fun again :^). It sounds like I need to be looking for work with a startup!

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