15 June 2014

An Artist's Creative Response to Just Criticism

In a comment to "Apps Uber Alles" in one of its myriad incarnations, ONL remarked "And the IT industry is the least labor intensive industry ever -- in the history of mankind." I further commented that this was, sorta kinda, true but that it depends. And would require (or I wanted to do) another post.

This is that post.

In my memory, it was Paul Graham who set the leverage standard nearly two decades ago. Fact is, though, most software hasn't been developed that way (LISP and the innterTubes). While WhatsApp and Uber are designed for smartphones, they actually do very little, from a systems' point of view. The valuations paid are due mostly to the expectation that each will become the de facto advert platform of preference; thus sucking up advert dollars from other platforms. It's a zero sum game in the web/app world. In due time, web app developers will be making advert platforms blurbing other advert platforms. And yet another level soon thereafter.

Most other IT development is geared toward corporate apps, both internal to the corporation and external to the customers. Such apps rely on reliably storing massive amounts of financial data (and personal data, etc.) both securely and forevermore. These apps take tens of thousands of man-hours just to maintain. Few new are being built, since most of the functions have been computerized since at least the IBM S/360 (aka, the 1960s). The revenge of COBOL and VSAM. Been there, done that. The Ninth Circle of Hell.

On the third side of productivity, is office automation, i.e. making the users of IT's spawn more productive. Not so much. Studies over the years have found that word processing, speadsheets, and desktop databases in cubicles has done little to nothing to improve productivity. Which is not surprising, since most of what goes on in those apps is increasingly (certainly since the GUI/Windows/Mac versions) aimed at the sizzle rather than the steak.

Of the fourth side is games. Nothing I've ever done, but following the publicly traded companies in the space, it seems clear that a game requires many thousands of man-hours, if not man-years, and only a few break even. Publishers die or are acquired for pennies on the dollar.

On the whole then, IT has been where excess man-hours got sucked up. All those callow young men eager to get into software (hardware requires real engineering, e.g. EE, and that's too tough a curriculum) and get rich very quick. Whether that will continue to be true is an open question. If applications going forward amount to novel advert platforms on the web, then IT's ability to absorb excess labor ends. There's not much functionality in any one such app, so there's not much effort to make such. What matters is the novelty of the application. Think: toy. As six year olds' attention span for a toy can be measured in days or even hours, one might expect these sorts of IT efforts to face similar fates. We'll see.

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