In his recent article for TechCrunch, salesforce.com CEO and chairman Marc Benioff frames the web 1.0 revolution as “Anyone can transact” with great 1-to-many online transactional applications like Google and Amazon. The 2.0 revolution was “Anyone can participate” with a host of many-to-many online applications like LiveJournal, Flickr, and YouTube that really put the focus on user-generated content.He introduces the idea that web 3.0 is going to be “Anyone can innovate,” where people begin building their own applications that are built, stored, and run in “the cloud,” i.e., Internet services. His point is that, freed from the capital constraints of infrastructure, the barrier to entry is lowered even further for the development of more web 1.0 or web 2.0 applications.
He’s kind of sales-y about it (and why not, he’s pimping their force.com offering) but he’s right about the fact that it will put more software-as-a-service power into the hands of more people worldwide, with less gatekeeping by VC firms and faster delivery time to market.
But let me cast a bit of gloom onto his rosy forecast. We’ve seen this software-power-to-the-people thing once before with the late 1980s desktop publishing revolution. Before then, if you wanted a poster to announce your band’s upcoming tour, you’d have to work with a printer and a graphic designer to get the thing made. Both of these people would have been trained in their respective professions and have some sense of what made for quality design and printing. But when the world got Microsoft Word and color printers, we suddenly got 8.5 x 11 posters with clip art and 3D letters announcing the tour in, say Comic Sans. Aesthetically, it was a turn for the worse. The gatekeeping, for all its negatives, let the gatekeepers become experts at what they were doing. Now, aesthetics isn’t the only measurement good graphic design, and there’s much to be said for the fact that the lower barriers to entry let more bands find an audience.
But software is a different thing.
Excluding entertainment titles, there’s a tangible cost to poorly designed software. Wasted time is an obvious cost, but the canonical example of the Therac-25 should remind us that bad software can, in fact, cost lives. Are we ready for the global SaaS equivalent of Comic Sans? If Benioff is right and a new wave of globally-scalable folk-ware is coming, let’s hope that the market itself will preserve some sense of quality.