What’s the next big thing? AJAX? Ruby on Rails? PC Virtualization? Open-Source Software? Data Security? Open Office File Formats? Windows Vista? Windows Live? Apple’s iWhatever? Yeah, all those things will get lots of hype, but the next big thing is something we’ve had access to all along:
Are my thoughts revolutionary? Nah, I’ve been reading about it at places like Information Week and the other usual suspects. Even Bill Gates at Microsoft gets it, through Ozzie at least (though execution will be the key.) But unlike all that gets hyped, simplicity as a concept that is for real.
Let’s look at two of the best known examples:
- Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.
- Really Simple Syndication.
Over the years, the world’s Internet email infrastructure evolved from that simple little mail transfer protocol (spam and all!) And RSS exploded as a method to syndicate blog posts in a very short order instead of one of the many complex content syndication concepts most of us never even heard of.
To most people the Internet came out of nowhere ten (10) years ago yet it evolved for at least twenty (20) years prior. The Internet’s foundation protocol TCP/IP isn’t exactly simple, but once the simple protocols HTTP and HTML were layered on top, Internet use exploded because implementing websites was simple (by comparison.)
But it’s not just simple technologies, its also simple to install and simple to use applications: ASCII text editors (i.e. Notepad), web browsers, email clients (w/apps like Outlook Express), instant messenger clients, wikis, blogging apps, online forum apps, and QuickBooks (simple is relative; accounting is required yet QuickBooks doesn’t really require accounting expertise.)
And to many people this simplicity makes sense. Scott Cook (founder of Intuit) got it. The founders of the original Instant Messenger (ICQ) got it. Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay) got it. Google gets it. The original author of PHP Ramus Lerdorf gets it. And a lesser known group also gets it; the developers of Basecamp (although 37 Signals could also be the poster child for when a group elevates a concept to an ideology, and like all ideologists, becomes blind and misinterprets the concept. But I digress…)
Okay this is all obvious, and well, it’s simple. So what’s the big deal? People recognize that simple is important but without a simple roadmap, most don’t know how (pun intended.) I don’t know that I can provide that roadmap, but at least I can get you started.
First, just for grins, let’s look at some counter examples:
- MS-Access – Have you ever tried to develop an app is MS-Access? Yeah right.Access it pretty easy in where it allows you as a user to point and click, but once you hit its brick wall of end user functionality, you’ve got to be an Access guru to do anything more with it.
- VB.NET – Thank god for the My namespace in VB 2005, albeit five years late, but VB.NET is still too damn difficult to use productively without weeks of learning.Don’t get me wrong, I love the power of VB.NET language, but it has very little transitionality.
- ASP.NET – I know its blasphemy, but let’s be real: VIEWSTATE, __doPostBack(), Server Controls, @Register, @Import, WebForms, DataGrid, etc. etc. There’s so much complexity there, where does one start? It’s no wonder so many people still use ASP & VBScript.
- Exchange Server – Oh my god! How complex a beast can you get? Most POP3/SMTP servers use files and directories; Exchange using some bastardization of an Access/Jet database that corrupts whenever the power fluctuates. And have you ever tried implementing server events?
- SharePoint – I can’t even figure out SharePoint as a user, let alone as a developer. What was Microsoft thinking?
- Active Directory – Need I say more?!?
I’ve bashed on Microsoft thus far, but let me not give them all the credit:
- XML, though itself simple, has been complicated with namespaces which I’ve studying for literally years I but still can’t figure out how to use.
- SOAP – Okay, Microsoft was heavily involved here. But why did they have to make web services so hard?I mean, what was wrong with HTTP POST?
- J2EE – There’s a reason J2EE developers get paid the really big bucks.
- Oracle – Have you ever tried to tune an Oracle database application?
- Content Management Systems – Is there anything out that can pass for simple? I’ve been using DotNetNuke on one of my sites for a while and I can tell you, it isn’t.
This brings me to my key point. Aside from being intuitively obvious, what’s so great about simple?
The Benefits of "simple" are, quite simply:
- For the User: Productivity
- For the Platform Provider: Rapid and Widespread Adoption
But you say that all of my counter examples have widespread adoption?
Do not underestimate the institutional will of large organizations to implement tremendously complex technology, because they can.
On the other hand, departmental users, users in small businesses, college students, home users and more can’t deal with complex technology. If it’s too difficult, they don’t or can’t use it. And there are many, many more of them than there are large organizations. What’s more, large organizations are effectively made up of these small groups and individuals. Simple technologies benefit all.
Microsoft, with its Windows monopoly has been able to get away with complexity and consequent low user productivity and low platform adoption with many of its products for a long time. But with the new challenges from Google, SalesForce, et. al. they better get pragmatic religion, and they better get it fast.
And that roadmap to which I referred? To quote Albert Einstein:
As simple as possible, but not simpler