I don’t know anyone in Silicon Valley who can code and doesn’t fantasize about writing an accidental killer app. One that gets designed during a long layover in DEN and implemented in a rainy weekend (El Nino is my VC). One that was only supposed to meet the needs of a few friends and is used by half of the world a few months/years later.
I am not talking about seasoned entrepreneurs, who have a network, discipline, resources and enough experience to know that it takes a lot more than a cool idea. Rather, about programming hobbyists (who may of may not be programmers in their day jobs),
By definition, hobbyists only do things that are satisfying. In the rarefied air of Silicon Valley, it also helps if there is a conceivable “upside” to dream about. Platform as a Service (PaaS, e.g. Google App Engine) provides both to software-oriented hobbyist. And make it very cheap (borderline free), which doesn’t hurt.
In a well-crafted PaaS environment, the development process and the result are both satisfying. I am not a Google shrill, but GAE is a fair example. The barrier to entry is very low (the download is less than 10MB and contains all you need to get started). In an hour you have an application running locally. In an hour and 5 minutes you have it deployed and accessible on the web for all. And yet this ease of bootstrap does not come at the cost of too many longer-term limitations (now that the environment has gown a bit from the original limitations and provides scheduled and background jobs). Unlike Yahoo Pipes, for which the first impression is “nifty!” and the second is “gimme a textual representation of my pipe now!”.
Beyond the easy ramp-up, the main source of satisfaction developing in a PaaS environment is that you spend 99% of your time working on the application. Not the OS, not the firewall, not the application container, not the database. Not to mention having to deal with your co-lo provider or the leased line for the servers in the basement. If you are a hobbyist with only a few spare hours per week, that’s a make or break deal. It also means that you have a fighting chance of developing a secure application because you are responsible for a much smaller surface of attack.
Eons ago (in computing time), Visual Basic was the name of the game for these people. More recent was the rise of PHP. It dramatically lowered the barrier to adoption and provided a quick route to a working web application. I know several non-professional developers (e.g. web designers) who are scared of any “normal” programming language but happily write PHP (often of equivalent complexity BTW). Combine this with the wide availability of ISP-managed PHP environments and you get close to what GAE gives you. At the risk of adding to the annoying trend of retroactively cloudifying everything, I think of ISP-hosted PHP as the first generation of PaaS. But it is focused on “show what’s in the DB” scenarios rather than service-centric / mash-up / web 2.0 integration. And even for DB-centric scenarios, by and large PHP coders don’t want to think too much about model and queries (and it shows). I think Google decided to go with Python rather than the easy route of aping the hosted PHP environments in large part to avoid hitting such ceilings down the road. Not surprisingly, PHP support is currently the most requested GAE feature, ahead of Perl and Ruby. Lets see if Google tries to get the PHP community on board or prefers to stay clear of such PaaS legacy (already!).
Ready for success
In the unlikely event that your application catches fire and sees wide adoption (which is not impossible, especially if well integrated in a social network), what are you going to do about it? Keeping in mind two constraints: first, this is a part-time hobby of yours. Second, don’t dream of riches. We are talking about an influx of facebookers or twitterers here, with no intention to pay for anything. But click they will. If you were going to answer: “I get funding and hire a real IT staff” then think again. You most likely won’t get funding for your toy app without revenue potential. And even if you do, by the time you have it it’s too late and people have moved on because you were not there when the spotlight was on you.
With a PaaS-based application you have a fighting chance. If the spike is short enough, you may not even hit the limit of the free quota. If it does, you have the choice of whether you are willing to pay to support the extra traffic or not. No change in code required (though it may be advised anyway, if your app wasn’t architected for efficient scaling – PaaS doesn’t entirely take this off your hands).
That “sudden spike” story is a commonly-invoked use case for EC2. And it’s probably true for a start-up with an IT staff (of at least one full-time person). But despite Amazon’s efforts (and other providers such as RightScale) this type of scaling is something you have to architect for and putting it in place takes away from the time you spend coding application features. It also means that you are responsible for more infrastructure (OS and application container at least). Not to mention that IaaS providers don’t usually offer free resources for limited usage, the way Google does (I suspect 99% of GAE apps never get over this quota). Even if a small EC2 instance is not very expensive (though it adds up over time if you keep it up for that occasional user), the difference between “free” and “cheap” is significant. As an application provider you’d like for this not to be the case with your users, but as a consumer of infrastructure service you’re on the other side of the deal, aren’t you?
There is a reason why suburbia-bound SUVs are advertised crossing mountain streams. The “I could if I wanted to” line has appeal. For the software hobbyist, knowing that your application won’t crash if it happened to meet success (even if only for a couple of days, e.g. the Slashdot effect) is a good feeling (“I could if *they* wanted to”). In truth this occasion is rare (and likely to end up like this), but you are ready for the eventuality. And if there are enough such hobbyists, then statistically some will encounter it.
The provider’s upside
That last point brings the topic of the PaaS provider’s upside in this. I have read several critical comments arguing that no company will rewrite their application for GAE (true) and that no start-up will write their new code for it either because of the risk of lock-in (also true: “being bought by Google” is not a bad outcome but “has to be bought by Google” is a bad exit strategy). But I think this misses the point of casting such a wide nest and starting with creating a great tool for hobbyists.
After all, Google has made a great business monetizing millions of small sites none of which makes much money by itself. At the very least least this can grow the web and, symbiotically, Google. With two possible upsides:
- Some of these hobbyist applications may actually take off and Google becomes their natural partner/godfather (including managing their user accounts). For example, wouldn’t it be nice for Google if Craigslist or Twitter was running on GAE?
- The platform eventually evolves into something that makes sense for start-ups, SMBs and/or enterprises to use. Google works out the kinks with less demanding users first.
Two closing thoughts, which I’ll leave undeveloped for now:
- There is an especially good synergy between mobile apps and PaaS. Once you get past the restaurant tip calculators, many mobile apps need a server-hosted sidekick to do the heavy lifting of gathering/storing/transforming data. As a hobbyist, you want to spend most of your time making you mobile app cool. Which leaves even less time for administrating server components. On the server side, you are even less likely to want to deal with anything but application logic. PaaS is especially attractive in these scenarios. Google and Microsoft have to navigate these waters carefully but look for some synergy/integration stories around GAE + Android and Azure + Windows Mobile respectively. Not clear what Apple’s story is here or if they think they need one. If it surfaces as an issue then we have yet another reason to restart the “Apple buys Adobe” rumor. Or maybe Sanjiva will get a middle-of-the-night call from Steve Jobs…
- A platform to build/run your application is one thing. A way to reach users is another (arguably much more critical). Things like mobile app stores (especially Apple’s of course), Facebook and next generation app stores. But this goes beyond the scope of this post.
Just to be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that PaaS is only for hobbyists. I am just saying that right now it is a great tool for them, the best way for an individual programmer to have fun and have an impact. This doesn’t take away from the value that PaaS will eventually deliver to larger organizations.
[UPDATED 2009/10/4: Microsoft Azure apparently supports PHP.]
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