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Monday, April 24, 2006

The Software Out There

This news article appeared in TOI/Mumbai.6th April,2006.
The news clearly shows power of collaborating efforts.
The Software Out There
By John Markoff

The internet is entering its Lego era. Indeed, blocks of interchangeable software components are proliferating on the web and developers are joining them together to create a potentially infinite array of useful new programs. This new software represents a marked departure from the inflexible, at times unwieldy, programs of the past, which were designed to run on individual computers. As a result, computer industry innovation is rapidly becoming decentralised. In the place of large, intricate and self-contained programs like Microsoft Word, written and maintained by armies of programmers, smaller companies, with just a handful of developers, are now producing pioneering software and web-based services. These new services can be delivered directly to PCs or even to cellphones. Bigger companies are taking note. For example, Google last month bought Writely, a webbased word-processing program created by three Silicon Valley programmers. Eric Schmidt, the Google chief executive, said that Google did not buy the program to compete against Microsoft Word. Rather, he said, it viewed Writely as a key component in hundreds of products it is now developing. These days, there are inexpensive or free software components speeding the process. Amazon recently introduced an online storage service called S3, which offers data storage for a monthly fee of 15 cents a gigabyte. That frees a programmer building a new application or service on the internet from having to create a potentially costly data storage system. Google now offers eight programmable components—elements that other programmers can turn into new web services—including web search, maps, chat and advertising. Yahoo! offers a competing lineup of programmable services, including financial information and photo storage. Microsoft has followed quickly with its own offerings through its new Windows Live Web service. Smaller companies are also beginning to share their technology with outside programmers to leverage their competitive positions. Salesforce.com, a fast-growing company that until recently simply offered a web-based support application for sales personnel, published standards for interconnecting to its software not too long ago. That made it possible for developers inside and outside the company to add powerful abilities to its core products and create new ones from scratch. One result is that sales representatives using Salesforce’s customer relationship management software to organise their workday can now make telephone calls using Skype, the popular internet service, without leaving the Salesforce software. The idea of modular software, where standard components can be easily linked together to build more elaborate systems, first emerged in Europe during the 1960s and spread to Silicon Valley in the 70s. Despite its promise, however, modular software has generally been limited by corporate strategies that have held customers and other programmers hostage to proprietary systems. Those limitations have eased almost overnight, mostly because of the open-source software movement, which promotes making information available to everyone. The shift toward sharing, which in its grandest conception has been termed Web 2.0, has touched off a frenzy of software design and startup activity not seen since the demise of the dot-com era six years ago. “These tools are changing the basic core economics of software development,” said Tim Bray, director of web technologies at Sun Microsystems and one of the designers of a powerful set of internet conventions known as Extensible Markup Language, or XML, which make it simple and efficient to exchange digital data over the Internet. By lowering the cost of software development and thus the barriers to entering both existing and new markets, modular software is putting tremendous pressure on the corporations that have dominated the software industry. It is also affecting Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists. Start-ups have begun to bypass the venture capital firms, relying instead on individual investors, called “angels,” or out-ofpocket financing, largely because new ventures are not as expensive. In many cases, the start-ups do not even require the traditional Silicon Valley garage. The new companies are “virtual,” and programmers work from home, relying on nothing more than a personal computer and a broadband Internet connection. Early examples of the trend were tiny companies with significant ideas, like the consumer internet software start-ups Flickr, a web-based photo-sharing site, and Del.icio.us, which makes it possible for web surfers to categorise and share things they find on the internet. Both were acquired last year by Yahoo. For some, the new era of lightweight, lightning-fast software design is akin to a guerrilla movement rattling the walls of stodgy corporate development organisations. “They stole our revolution and now we’re stealing it back and selling it to Yahoo,” said Bruce Sterling, an internet commentator.
NYT News Service

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