Two issues facing software in the 2020s

I have been thinking about the problems in software a bit lately. As I see it we have 2 core issues, the first is the diseconomies of scale in software. The more and bigger the software, the more it costs to develop. The second issue is software security and maintenance. 

Diseconomies of scale are an issue because we keep writing more software. And the expectations of that software continue to rise. Smartphones started out with phone calls, texting, and surfing the web. Now your smartphone tracks your exercise, interacts with your smart home devices, does payments and more. As the smartphone becomes your main connection to the digital its complexity increases, and at the same time the expectations for everything else increase. 

I have four potted plants in my apartment. I could have smart water meters in each pot that track when I need to water those plants. In the past no one would have expected your plants to be smart. Today it is an obvious next step for people who’s plants always die. 

Since your smartphone is in many ways you, long term I expect things like door locks to transition from keys to phones. Cars have already made this transition. My car unlocks via a button press. Using the actual key requires me to first remove it from the dongle. 

Now a serious question is, “Why do you need a dongle to start your car?” Your phone has all the capabilities of the dongle. You don’t use the key anyway, what is the point of the dongle? Extend that question to everything in your life. 

Why not have a way to check on your phone if you left the oven on? 

Why not have your water heater hooked up to your phone so you know if your kids left you any hot water?

Why not have a GPS dog collar hooked up to your phone so you always know where your dog is?

Gradually everything moves to your phone, and as more things move to your phone you will begin to ask “Why isn’t this on my phone yet?” 

The phone ends up as an incredibly complex, absolutely essential part of your life. And as it does so it pushes everything else to connect to it. 

We are on a trajectory that yields an incredible amount of computerization. Who is going to write all that code? It is going to be incredibly expensive with today’s linear coders. 

Software maintenance is the second big issue. We keep building more and more software, but we aren’t getting any better at maintaining it. Software is a weird animal because it is never ‘done’. You can reach a point where software is feature complete and seems perfect. But not really, hackers could discover a vulnerability you must patch at any time going forward. If that happens you need to have people who can update your software quickly. But if you reached feature complete 10 years ago and laid off all the programmers, your project is now poisonous. No one can use it until you hire and train people to update that software. 

Software seems like it can be completed, but that is a trap. Security is not the only risk. Operating System updates are another problem. Microsoft and Apple constantly update their systems and API requirements. Customer expectations change as the software marketplace changes. 

The final trap is what happens when you get off the treadmill. Say your software is complete, it works perfectly and has no vulnerabilities. So you let it sit with minimal updates, a skeleton crew to keep it running. Well, ten years from now no one will be willing or able to modify that software. Maybe it’s Cobol, or Java 8 or Typescript, but the tech is now old. Any programmer who works on it will have to spend time learning technology that is worthless long term.