The End of Reusable Software

I wrote a post for the Cyborg Institute several weeks ago about the idea of "Reusable Software", and I've thought for a while that it deserved a bit more attention. The first time around, I concentrated a lot about the idea of reusable software in the context of the kinds of computing that people like you and me do on a day to day basis. I was trying to think about the way we interact with computers and how this has changed in the last 30 years (or so) and how we might expect for this to change soon.

Well that was the attempt at any rate. I'm not sure how close I got to that.

More recently, I've been thinking about the plight of reusable software in the context of "bigger scale" information technology. I'd say this fits into my larger series of technology futurism posts, except that this is very much a work of presentism. So be it.

To back up for a moment I think we can summarize the argument against reusable software, which boils down to a couple of points:

1. With widely reusable software, most of the people who use computers on a regular basis can pretty much avoid ever having to write software. While it's probably true most people end up doing a very small amount of programming without realizing it, gone are the days when using a computer meant that you had to know how to program it. While more people can slip into using computers than ever before, the argument is that people aren't as good at using computers because they don't know how they work as well.

Arguably this trend is one of the harbingers of the singularity, but that's an aside.

2. Widely reusable software is often less good software than the single-use, or single-purpose stuff. When software doesn't need to be reused, it only needs to do the exact things you need it to do well and can be optimized, tuned, and designed to fit into a single person's or organization's work-flow. When developers know that they're developing a reusable application, they have to take into account possible variances in the environments where it will be deployed, a host of possible supported and unsupported uses. They have to design a feature set for a normalized population, and the end result is simply lower quality software.

So with the above rattling around in my head, I've been asking:

  • Are web applications, which are deployed centrally and often only on one machine (or a small cluster of machines), the beginning of a return to single use applications? Particularly since the specific economic goals of the sponsoring organization/company is often quite tightly coupled with the code itself?
  • One of the leading reasons that people give for avoiding open source release is embarrassment at the code base. While many would argue that this is avoidance of one sort or another, and it might be, I think it's probably also true more often than not. I'm interested in thinking about what the impact of the open source movement's focus on source code has had on the development of single use code versus multi use code in the larger scope.
  • What do we see people doing with web application frameworks in terms of code reuse? For starters, the frameworks themselves are all about code reuse and bout providing some basic tools to prevent developers from recreating the wheel over and over again. But then, the applications are (within some basic limitations) wildly different from each other and highly un-reusable.

Having said that, Rails/Django/Drupal sites suffer from poor performance in particularly high-volume situations for two reasons: Firstly, it's possible to strangle yourself in database queries in the attempt to do something that you'd never do if you had to write the queries yourself. Secondly the frameworks are optimized to save developers time, rather than run blindingly fast on very little memory.

I suppose if I had the answers I wouldn't be writing this here blog, but I think the questions are more interesting anyways, and besides, I bet you all know what I think about this stuff. Do be in touch with your questions and answers.

Onwards and Upwards!

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