It’s always something; if only it were something new.
Stever sounds off about ASPs

Inc. Magazine, April 2000, Alessandra Bianchi declares on page 29, “The entire software industry is about to be turned upside down [by ASPs].” ASPs, for those of you who don’t know, are Application Service Providers. They provide central services on their computer, which you run from your machine, usually through a web browser.

Hi, Alessandra. You must be young, unfamiliar with the computer industry, and
probably didn‘t think to talk to anyone over 23 while researching your story. Yawn. I continually wonder whether I was as myopic and self-absorbed in my 20s as the current generation of 20-somethings seem to be (at least in the Internet start-up world)? Probably not. But I’m working on becoming that myopic and self-absorbed now. Better late than never.

So, Alessandra, come and sit upon my wizened knee. Let me share with you a bit of perspective from 23 years in the high tech industry. No, really. Come on. There’s a good little reporter. Please just humor an old fogey for a moment…

The idea of running software on a central machine and having it delivered to distant desktops has existed for decades.

In the 70s, it was called time-sharing, and featured “dumb terminal” (text-only) distant desktops.

In the 80s, it was called client-server, and featured “smart” distant desktops (entire computers).

In the 90s, it is being called ASP, and features stupider distant desktops (entire computers whose processing power is ignored except for one poorly-written Web browser).

There’s a lot to celebrate about the last three decades of computer science, but the idea that we have a new model for software services distribution isn’t one of them.

There are lots of good reasons to run a program on a central server:

  • You only need to upgrade the server, and all the users get the change.
  • For a big ole application, only your server needs to be huge. Your client machines can be dinky, inexpensive doo-hickeys.
  • Any data stored centrally on a server can be backed up by the server’s staff.
  • You can pay-as-you-go, so for expensive programs you rarely use (e.g. the non-professional designer who uses Photoshop once a year), it saves you money.
  • The server can collect tons and tons of personal data on you by watching everything you do with that application, and the ASP providers can sell that information to marketers and terrorists so … um, whoops. That’s not a reason to use a central server. Never mind.
  • … and that’s about it.

There are lots of good reasons to run a program on your desktop:

  • You get to control upgrades, so some stupid unanticipated upgrade doesn‘t tank your machine and your productivity as you desperately try to untangle the unwelcome new interface, or the mush that a bug in the new upgrade has made in your locally stored data.
  • You don’t have a single point of failure. If you use an ASP for a mission-critical application and it crashes (or anything along the path between you and it crashes), your work stops until the breakdown is fixed. If your entire company uses a centralized server, a break in the network or the server can stop your entire company for a day. That costs more than just the cost to fix the system; it’s essentially your entire company’s output for the time it takes to fix the breakdown! (See The Goal for details about that last one…)
  • It runs faster. Period. The Internet, especially, is dog-slow. And the slowness can happen anywhere along the path between you and your host. With a desktop, you know how to speed it up: buy a new disk and processor. With a network-based program, there may be no way to speed it up.
  • It’s pay-once, so for programs you use often, you don’t have to worry about being reamed by deceptive pay-as-you-go fees that seem cheap until you realize that over the next two years, you will spend ten times more on the software rental than you ever would on a piece of shrink-wrapped software.
  • You can backup your data yourself, so when the central database server has a disk-destroying crash and it turns out that the support staff wasn’t actually making those backups they had promised, you won‘t lose a decade’s work.

Once, and only once, I used Yahoo calendar for a week. My ISP was having connectivity troubles right as I had to rush out to a meeting and had forgotten where to go. Alas, my Yahoo Calendar didn’t leave me yelling “Yahoo”—it left me yelling “G*d f**king damnit!” Which wasn’t nearly as much fun.

If you like the whole ASP model, however, then please indulge. You feel like you’re out of control technologically, now? Just wait. Hee, hee, hee. And please—send me your now-useless PC, since I really need one to use as a print server…

Update in mid-2010: Now we have “software as a service (SAAS)” and “cloud computing.” Guess what? Same stuff, different day. Everything old is new again, only “old” in this case means two years old, not two decades old.

Stever's flame on why ASPs, Web 2.0, and ever…

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