In Favor of Unpopular Technologies

This post ties together a train of thought that I started in "The Worst Technologies Always Win" and "Who Wants to be a PHP Developer" with the ideas in the "Ease and the Stack" post. Basically, I've been thinking about why the unpopular technologies, or even unpopular modes of using technologies are so appealing and seem to (disproportionately) capture my attention and imagination.

I guess it would first be useful to outline a number of core values that seems to guide my taste in technologies:

  • Understandable

Though I'm not really a programmer, so in a lot of ways it's not feasible to expect that I'd be able to expand or enhance the tools I use. At the same time, I feel like even for complex tasks, I prefer using tools that I can have a chance of understanding how they work. I'm not sure if this creates value in the practical sense, however, I tend to think that I'm able to make better use of technologies that I understand the fundamental underpinnings of how they work.

  • Openness and Standard

I think open and standardized technologies are more useful, in a way that flows from "understandable," I find open source and standardized technology to be more useful. Not in the sense that open source technology is inherently more useful because source code is available (though sometimes that's true), but more in the sense that software developed in the open tends to have a lot of the features and values that I find important. And of course, knowing that my data and work is stored in a format that isn't locked into a specific vendor, allows me to relax a bit about the technology.

  • Simple

Simpler technologies are easier to understand and easier--for someone with my skill set--to customize and adopt. This is a good thing. Fundamentally most of what I do with a computer is pretty simple, so there's not a lot of reason to use overly complicated tools.

  • Task Oriented

I'm a writer. I spend a lot of time on the computer, but nearly everything I do with the computer is related to writing. Taking notes, organizing tasks, reading articles, manipulating texts for publication, communicating with people about various things that I'm working on. The software I use supports this, and the most useful software in my experience focuses on helping me accomplish these tasks. This is opposed to programs that are feature or function oriented. I don't need software that could do a bunch of things that I might need to do, I need tools that do exactly what I need. If they do other additional things, that's nearly irrelevant.

The problem with this, is that although they seem like fine ideals and values for software development, they are, fundamentally unprofitable. Who makes money selling simple, easy to understand, software with limited niche-targeted feature sets? No one. The problem is that this kind of software and technology makes a lot of sense, and so we keep seeing technologies that have these values that seem like they could beat the odd and become dominant, and then they don't. Either they drop task orientation for a wider feature set, or something with more money behind it comes along, or the engineers get board and build something that's more complex, and the unpopular technologies shrivel up.

What to do about it?

  • Learn more about the technologies you use. Even, and epically if you're not a programmer.
  • Develop simple tools and share them with your friends.
  • Work toward task oriented computing, and away from feature orientation.
comments powered by Disqus