Addicted to adrenaline

Software has lived a playboy's existence in its short lifetime - big money, lots of glamour, and daredevil rides at breakneck speed through unmapped mountain passes in vehicles of exceedingly questionable reliability.

"And they're coming down the back straight, but Chewing Gum is stuck to the rails." Remember that old song? No, you probably don't, do you; you're probably far too young.

Anyway, like Chewing Gum, the software industry seems to have an over-adhesion problem at present - it's stuck in its ways. Software has lived a playboy's existence in its short lifetime - big money, lots of glamour, and daredevil rides at breakneck speed through unmapped mountain passes in vehicles of exceedingly questionable reliability.

Unfortunately, while the players within the industry have become addicted to this exhilarating lifestyle, end users have found it increasingly galling.

Software companies live for innovation - it's all they've ever known, and as a result they are pitifully ill-equipped to deal with a user community that has grown tired of incessant change, that would simply like to catch its breath and consolidate a little.

Users would much sooner that their word processor printed the document the way it looked on the screen than have the choice of four different talking paperclips giving them the wrong advice at annoying times. Yet software manufacturers don't seem to be able to come to terms with this disappointing lack of derring-do on the part of their users.

The frenzy of overzealous creation by software companies seems to have been getting increasingly desperate of late as they struggle to find new gimmicks they can patent and promote; this apparent drive towards triviality makes me wonder how long it will be until we see the following ad campaign:

"Bordello Software is proud to announce its new market-leading software package, Satyriasis for Water Coolers v1.0. Link your water coolers across the internet to ensure consistent temperature, colour and taste! And, with our optional industry-standard Philtre extension plug-in module, you can be sure that your water will be clear of harmful bugs and viruses. Satyriasis for Water Coolers - every inch the product you need."

Software has a serious problem, and it's going to have to deal with it soon: put simply, there probably aren't any major new products left to develop within the limits of the technology available. The qualification is important, of course - clearly there are areas like AI, nanonics and voice recognition that will inevitably be the future of computing, but realistically we're still a number of years away from having those technologies as functional realities.

The question is how software developers are going to fill the intervening years. Combine this with a palpable growing resistance to change for its own sake within the user community, and you can see the ghastly spectre of the industry's most feared and dreaded nightmare - stagnation.

Other industries have experienced this problem - most obviously the automotive industry, where there hasn't been a genuinely major innovation in over thirty years. I presume that remedies like those that have kept the car industry alive are going to be needed in the software industry - most significantly a move away from innovation towards refinement and increased concentration on things cosmetic.

Alas, with that paradigmatic shift comes the demise of the small company, for small companies simply cannot compete with large companies an a retrenched environment. When the small companies die, so does much of the excitement and interest in the industry.

John Sculley, the former chief executive of Apple Computer, had a saying I've always liked: "The pioneers get the arrows, and the settlers get the land." The software outback has been thoroughly charted in recent years, and it's pretty clear that the settlers have taken over for now.

Myself, I feel the software industry has become stale and will only get more so for the next little while. While I worry that this kind of retrenchment inevitably brings with it a heightened resistance to change, on the other hand the commoditisation of the software industry - the transition from hot stuff to ho-hum - should finally mean that consumers will start getting the stability they so evidently desire. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

For the next few years, we will see a process of consolidation in the industry - it will be that long, I do not doubt it. But after that - just as there has always been - there will be a revolution, and THAT will be an exciting time...

Believe me, I'll be standing right at the front of that queue for my set of neural nanonic implants just as soon as they're available (and debugged, of course).

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet email software Pegasus Mail. Email him at david.harris@pmail.gen.nz.

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