The Cost of Doing Internet Business

Screenshot of Netscape Navigator browser

A couple decades ago the costs of putting up a website seemed really reasonable–especially as compared to pre-Internet media like books, newspapers, and encyclopedias. A lone webmaster toiling away in the wee hours of the night could get a site up and running with HTML and CGI by the break of dawn. Pages were static, served directly from a server’s hard disk, and JavaScript and CSS non-existent.

iOS 6 TableViewController example app

Mobile apps were in a similar state a decade ago. The costs were small as compared to full featured desktop and web applications and there wasn’t much a mobile app could do that a simple table view controller couldn’t do. A lone mobile dev toiling away in the wee hours of the night could get almost any app ready for release to any app store in a few weeks. Back then most mobile apps were under the constraints of low-powered processors, limited memory, and ephemeral battery life. These constraints required mobile apps to be more like single-purpose widgets than multifunction applications.

Today it’s a more complex world for web and mobile apps. We have seriously sophisticated tech stacks that include the Cloud, HTML5, and advanced mobile operating systems that target screens of every size and devices without any screens at all. We don’t create websites or apps, we build multi-sided networks with so many features that vast teams of developers, scrum masters, product managers, designers, data scientists, and service reliability engineers are required.

In the modern world of 2019 no developer works alone in the wee hours of the night.

This hit home to me when I met a talented Google Doodle developer with amazing JavaScript skills. This dev explained that thier code was not allowed to go into production without a dozen teams looking it over, testing it, and beating it up. Because, you know, scale, performance, and security. By time the Google Doodler’s code appeared on the Google Search home page it was unrecognizable.

In my own work as a software developer and software development leader I’ve seen the rise in complexity and cost hit web and mobile development hard. GDPR, PII, COPA, OWASP, and other standards have added hundreds of dollars of cost to the development of iOS and Android apps. So has the proliferation in diversity of mobile devices. Are these pocket super computers with super high-resolution screens, prosumer cameras, always-hot microphones, machine learning chips, GPS, motion sensors, and unlimited cloud storage still phones? I don’t think so. Some are as big as coffee table books and others can be strapped to a wrist. When they start folding up into intelligent origami I don’t think we can call them phones anymore.

If you are not a developer, imagine trying to writing a book for new kind of paper that can change its shape, size, and orientation at a reader’s whim. Sometimes this paper has no visual existence and the user can choose to listen to your writing instead of reading. This protean piece of paper has all sorts of sensors so you, as the author, can know in real time where you reader is and what your reader is doing (if your reader accepted the EULA). How do you write a book for paper like this? It refuses to be any one thing and requires you, as the author, to image every possible configuration and situation. This is what software development is like today!

With 5G, Blockchain, AR/VR, and AI just around the corner the business of web and mobile development will become an even more unconstrained hot mess.

As developers we have gone from being lone wolves working independently to two-pizza teams collaborating in agile to multiple feature teams networked globally. It’s all we can do to just keep up with advances in hardware, software, operating systems, communications, and regulations.

We, as an industry, have not recognized the costs of software eating the world.

The hidden costs and ignored costs of crafting software for consumption on the Internet has grown non-linearly and I don’t think it’s stopping anytime soon. These costs are disrupting almost everybody everywhere. It’s gotten so bad that the generally favorable view of the Internet has soured.

So there are a few things we need to do!

Hold honest conversations about the costs of open and connected Internet software. We can’t keep throwing apps out into the wild and expect them to be safe and reliable. Cloud computing has solved this problem for the backend services as we now accept that servers are not pets and because we aggregate the costs and leverage expertise of giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

While we have learned to treat servers like machines, we still treat apps like pets, grooming them and agonizing over their look and feel while ignore our duty to make sure these apps are not vectors for malware and malcontents.

We need new software development tools and services that give cloud-like benefits to the mobile side. I’d love to have a CodePen or a Glitch for native mobile apps that aggregate costs and expertise required for responsible mobile app development. Apple and Google should not only give developers open SDKs and dev kits but something like a Swift Playground that we can release enterprise and consumer apps on top of. Yes, I’m asking Apple and Google to be gatekeepers, but we’re too irresponsible to abandon gatekeepers.

Finally, I would like to see a return to physical books, newspapers, and encyclopedias (insert your favorite old-school media product here) for the public mainstream use case. Digital-only isn’t yet the best way to communicate and express ideas for the commonweal. A paper publisher can at the very least assure us media experiences without any Momo Challenges inserted between the pages. Even more importantly a paper publisher has a name, an address, a phone number, and a way for us to legally hold them responsible.

We shouldn’t put the digital genie back in the pre-Internet bottle. We should be extremely realistic about the costs and responsibilities of developing software applications that users must depend on and trust.