In Silicon Valley, Software Uses You

April 20, 2017

Microsoft announced recently that it would be shutting down Wunderlist, a popular todo app it acquired just two years ago. Millions of users who have depended on the intricacies of Wunderlist to go about their daily lives will now have to import all their trimmed-down data to the new Microsoft-centric experience. Is this ok?

It depends on how you define software.

When using software, who’s using who? I am using it of course, you might be inclined to believe. But in Soviet Valley, software uses you. One might naturally deduce that paying customers are the ends of any product, but in today’s startup environment, paying customers are only a means to an end — typically, an abrupt and fatal end.

Software is something you buy and expect to use for an extended period of time. But unlike say a car, which will last as long as you make it last, software puts you at the mercy of application developers who may or may not be incentivized to keep maintaining the app. Because the majority of applications are closed-source, as the application’s developers vanish or move on, so too does the app.

One solution to this cycle-of-death is open by default. When you’re dealing with relatively trivial technology like to-do or note apps, your source code is hardly your most valuable asset. Typically, it’s small touches that matter, whether that’s your brand or thoughtful but simple-to-implement features. This attracts a user base which over time becomes your most valuable asset. So why the reservation to make software open by default? I’ve been building Standard Notes for the last year, and while there are what I believe relatively impressive technologies behind the app, like extensions and sync adapters, nothing compares to the marketing efforts involved in spreading the product and attracting users. Gaining momentous adoption would be largely attributed to marketing toils and not source code.

Given that a startup’s acquisition more often than not means the end of dependability, why is our first reaction to acquisition news always songs of “Congratulations! So happy for you!” or “They’ve worked so hard and totally deserve this.” What exactly are we celebrating? Riches, fame, and glory, evidently. In most of these transactions, the users are always left mourning after the founders take off on their private jet.

This might be ok for ephemeral applications that don’t harbor our most important data, like Snapchat or your favorite weather app. But for applications that store our life’s work, like notes, tasks, and documents, ought we not to aim for a higher standard of longevity and responsibility? Throughout history, journals and other written or drawn forms of art have always been preserved and maintained, yet at the rate of modern-startup, today’s work will not live to see the next decade. Lost and corrupt will be the journal of the 21st century’s Da Vinci.

We are building now the equivalent of the Snapchat of software — ephemeral pieces of code meant to last no longer than five years. It’s no wonder I can’t seem to locate my data from ten years ago — dozens of apps have went and gone by the dollar, or by careless preservation practices.

This sort of cultural misappropriation can be adjusted through many practical steps, but users can do their part by beginning to treat acquisitions like the funerals they are, a death of a soul that never had the chance of paradise, and will instead suffer in eternal purgatory.

We were promised an open web, federated information, and utility to save humanity. Instead we have become a culture of lottery and glory, of celebration of buyouts and capital, of obsession with numbers like millions and billions. But I don’t think it’s too late. Our lives today are mostly digital, and if we want to maintain our digital mind’s health and memory as we age, we can reward software that follow principles of sustainability and longevity, and celebrate software with proper data practices and user privacy protections.

In theory, just follow these five words, arranged in this order: use software that you use. That seems to make sense.

Thanks for reading

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