Developers Are The New Mainframes

This is another one of those rambling braindump posts. I may come back for some fierce editing later, but in the meantime, here’s some light weekend lunacy. Good luck getting through it. I believe in you.

I said that thing in the title with a straight face the other day, and not without reason. Maybe not good reasons? I like the word “reason”, I like the little sleight-of-hand it does by conflating “I did this on purpose” and “I thought about this beforehand”. It may not surprise you to learn that in my life at least those two things are not the same at all. In any case this post by Moxie Marlinspike was rattling around in the back of my head when somebody asked me on IRC why it’s hard-and-probably-impossible to make a change to a website in-browser and send a meaningful diff back to the site’s author, so I rambled for a bit and ended up here.

This is something I’ve asked for in the past myself: something like dom-diff and dom-merge, so site users could share changes back with creators. All the “web frameworks” I’ve ever seen are meant to make development easier and more manageable but at the end of the day what goes over the wire is a pile of minified angle-bracket hamburger that has almost no connection the site “at rest” on the filesystem. The only way share a usable change with a site author, if it can be done at all, is to stand up a containerized version of the entire site and edit that. This disconnect between the scale of the change and the work needed to make it is, to put it mildly, a huge barrier to somebody who wants to correct a typo, tweak a color or add some alt-text to an image.

I ranted about this for a while, about how JavaScript has made classic View Source obsolete and how even if you had dom-diff and dom-merge you’d need a carefully designed JS framework underneath designed specifically to support them, and how it makes me sad that I don’t have the skill set or free time to make that happen. But I think that if you dig a little deeper, there are some cold economics underneath that whole state of affairs that are worth thinking about.

I think that the basic problem here is the misconception that federation is a feature of distributed systems. I’m pretty confident that it’s not; specifically, I believe that federated systems are a byproduct of computational scarcity.

Building and deploying federated systems has a bunch of hard tradeoffs around development, control and speed of iteration that people are stuck with when computation is so expensive that no single organization can have or do enough of it to give a service global reach. Usenet, XMPP, email and so forth were products of this mainframe-and-minicomputer era; the Web is the last and best of them.

Protocol consensus is hard, but not as hard or expensive as a room full of $40,000 or $4,000,000 computers, so you do that work and accept the fact that what you gain in distributed stability you lose in iteration speed and design flexibility. The nature of those costs means the pressure to get it pretty close to right on the first try is very high, because real opportunities to revisit will be rare and costly. You’re fighting your own established success at that point, and nothing in tech has more inertia than a status quo whose supporters think is good enough. (See also: how IPV6 has been “right around the corner” for 20 years.)

But that’s just not true anymore. If you need a few thousand more CPUs, you twiddle the dials on your S3 page and go back to unified deployment, rapid experimental iteration and trying to stay ahead of everyone else who’s doing the same. That’s how WhatsApp can deploy end to end encryption with one software update, just like that. It’s how Facebook can update a billion users’ experiences whenever they feel like it, and presumably how Twitter does whatever the hell Twitter’s doing this week. They don’t ask permission or seek consensus because they don’t have to; they deploy, test and iterate.

So the work that used to enable, support and improve federated systems now mostly exists where domain-computation is still scarce and expensive: the development process itself. Specifically the inside of developers heads, developers who stubbornly and despite our best efforts remain expensive, high-maintenance and relatively low-bandwidth, with lots of context and application-reasoning locked up in their heads and poorly distributed.

Which is to say: developers are the new mainframes.

Right now great majority of what they’re “connected” to from a development-on-device perspective are de-facto dumb terminals. Apps, iPads, Android phones. Web pages you can’t meaningfully modify for values of “meaningful” that involve upstreaming a diff. From a development perspective those are the endpoints of one-way transmissions, and there’s no way to duplex that line to receive development-effort back.

So, if that’s the trend – that is, if in general centralized-then-federated systems get reconsolidated in socially-oriented verticals, (and that’s what issue trackers are when compared to mailing lists) – then development as a practice is floating around the late middle step, but development as an end product – via cheap CPU and hackable IoT devices – that’s just getting warmed up. The obvious Next Thing in that space will be a resurgence of something like the Web, made of little things that make little decisions – effectively distributing, commodifying and democratizing programming as a product, duplexing development across those newly commodified development-nodes.

That’s the real revolution that’s coming, not the thousand-dollar juicers or the bluetooth nosehair trimmers, but the mess of tiny hackable devices that start to talk to each other via decentralized, ultracommodified feedback loops. We’re missing a few key components – bug trackers aren’t quite source-code-managers or social-ey, IoT build tools aren’t one-click-to-deploy and so forth, but eventually there will be a single standard for how these things communicate and run despite everyone’s ongoing efforts to force users into the current and very-mainframey vendor lock-in, the same way there were a bunch of proprietary transport protocols before TCP/IP settled the issue. Your smarter long-game players will be the ones betting on JavaScript to come out on top there, though it’s possible there will be other contenders.

The next step will be the social one, though “tribal” might be a better way of putting it – the eventual recentralization of this web of thing-code into cultural-preference islands making choices about how they speak to the world around them and the world speaks back. Basically a hardware scripting site with a social aspect built in, communities and trusted sources building social/subscriber model out for IoT agency. What the Web became and is still in a lot of ways becoming as we figure the hard part – the people at scale part, out. The Web of How Stuff Works.

Anyway, if you want to know what the next 15-20 years will look like, that’s the broad strokes. Probably more like 8-12, on reflection. Stuff moves pretty quick these days, but like I said, building consensus is hard. The hard part is always people. This is one of the reasons I think Mozilla’s mission is only going to get more important for the foreseeable future; the Web was the last and best of the federated systems, worth fighting for on those grounds alone, and we’re nowhere close to done learning everything it’s got to teach us about ourselves, each other and what it’s possible for us to become. It might be the last truly open, participatory system we get, ever. Consensus is hard and maybe not necessary anymore, so if we can’t keep the Web and the lessons we’ve learned and can still learn from it alive long enough to birth its descendants, we may never get a chance to build another system like it.

[minor edits since first publication. -mhoye]


  1. Posted May 28, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I’ve thought a lot about how we seem to be moving from centralized to distributed systems in all aspects of technology, but hadn’t considered how IoT really fit into that scenario. This gives my brain something to chew on. Thanks.

  2. J2
    Posted May 28, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Cool, I’m glad someone is thinking about this. Two immediate reactions:

    In the third paragraph you are missing a word in two sentences. (If only I could send a diff!) (perhaps deliberate?)

    DDWRT made commercial routers more useful by extending features to them. This inherently made them more valuable and the vendors didn’t pay for that work. I wish every device in my life was diffable and hackable. Just imagine how many people would learn to code/take control if that was the case!

    Will cogitate more.

  3. mhoye
    Posted May 28, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks for pointing those out! I’ve made some corrections. Too bad we can’t just send diffs, eh?