Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dave Pollar writes: The Atomization of Software

Reader Bill Burcham talks about one Open Source phenomenon that had not occurred to me: Just as business is likely to atomize into a World of Ends--
many small specialized, networked businesses each doing one or two things really well, self-organized collaboratively with their customers to produce integrated, customized, even Peer-Produced goods and services perfectly attuned to each customer's need--

it is very conceivable that software offerings could atomize into a World of 'Microapplication' Ends --

many small networked software developers, each designing small pieces of code that add useful functionality that can be plugged into existing Open Source applications.

There is no reason why these microapplications couldn't also be Peer-Produced -- co-designed by the customers who need them.

So, for example, it would be nice to have a microapplication that would add wiki functionality, or maybe podcasting functionality, to blogs. The wiki 'plug-in' to a blog would produce what is called a bliki. It would allow any reader of the blog to add his two cents to an article right in the body of the post (instead of in the comments thread below it) -- to become in effect a co-author of the article. The miniapplication would have to allow the original author some simple control e.g. the ability to tag readers' additions and changes and 'inline' comments in another colour, or to display them only as pop-ups or scroll-overs, or to remove them if she thinks they detract rather than add to the article.

This opportunity to create atomized software only arises as a result of (a) open access to the code of existing applications so that designers can add in or plug in in a simple, modular way, and (b) emerging standards and protocols like Ajax that make modular design simple, so add-on/plug-in miniapplications need not be tweaked for each similar application they are adapted to. For example, a wiki miniapplication for one blog tool would ideally work for all blog tools without the need for additional coding.

This would require that the basic functionality of core applications (like blogs) evolve quickly to a single, simple set of standards with a stripped-down or modularized set of functionalities. This probably won't appeal to designers who like to design an elegant and complete product, and it will essentially destroy 'brand', but it offers the promise of immensely more value and flexibility to customers.

Rather than imposing such standards using some ISO-type oversight organization, I'd like to believe these standards could evolve naturally using methods to capture the Wisdom of Crowds. Customers would first have to realize they have the power to demand such standards. They, we, need not settle for sloppily designed, bloated, buggy, over-engineered, proprietary, memory- and processor-hogging applications.

If we could achieve such standards, incorporating modularity, flexibility, openness and organic design in the software domain, this might serve as a model for the future design of physical objects, like cars and houses. Instead of cars being designed to discourage 'non-factory' improvements, wouldn't it be great if we could design (intentionally create) our own car, by simply selecting a chassis and engine from a standard set, and then adding whatever additional functionality we need, from a million choices offered by a million lean, adaptable entrepreneurial companies? And then when our needs changed, wouldn't it be great if we could simply 'pop out' and resell the modules we no longer require, and add new ones that meet our new needs?

It's all possible.We just need to flex our ingenuity and our consumer and voter muscle to make it happen. The Internet, a freed market and the imaginative possibility of Open Space Business will look after the rest.

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