To eat or be eaten?

What's interesting isn't software as a thing in itself, but software as a component of some larger system.

One of Marc Andreessen’s many accomplishments was the seminal essay “Why Software is Eating the World.” In it, the creator of Mosaic and Netscape argues for his investment thesis: everything is becoming software. Music and movies led the way, Skype makes the phone company obsolete, and even companies like Fedex and Walmart are all about software: their core competitive advantage isn’t driving trucks or hiring part-time employees, it’s the software they’ve developed for managing their logistics.

I’m not going to argue (much) with Marc, because he’s mostly right. But I’ve also been wondering why, when I look at the software world, I get bored fairly quickly. Yeah, yeah, another language that compiles to the JVM. Yeah, yeah, the Javascript framework of the day. Yeah, yeah, another new component in the Hadoop ecosystem. Seen it. Been there. Done that. In the past 20 years, haven’t we gained more than the ability to use sophisticated JavaScript to display ads based on a real-time prediction of the user’s next purchase?

When I look at what excites me, I see a much bigger world than just software. I’ve already argued that biology is in the process of exploding, and the biological revolution could be even bigger than the computer revolution. I’m increasingly interested in hardware and gadgetry, which I used to ignore almost completely. And we’re following the “Internet of Things” (and in particular, the “Internet of Very Big Things”) very closely. I’m not saying that software is irrelevant or uninteresting. I firmly believe that software will be a component of every (well, almost every) important new technology. But what grabs me these days isn’t software as a thing in itself, but software as a component of some larger system. The software may be what makes it work, but it’s not about the software.

A dozen or so years ago, people were talking about Internet-enabled refrigerators, a trend which (perhaps fortunately) never caught on. But it led to an interesting exercise: thinking of the dumbest device in your home, and imagine what could happen if it was intelligent and network-enabled. My furnace, for example: shortly after buying our house, we had the furnace repairman over 7 times during the month of November. And rather than waiting for me to notice that the house was getting cold at 2AM, it would have been nice for a “smart furnace” to notify the repairman, say “I’m broken, and here’s what’s probably wrong.” (The Nest doesn’t do that, but with a software update it probably could.)

The combination of low-cost, small-footprint computing (the BeagleBone, Raspberry Pi, and the Arduino), along with simple manufacturing (3D printing and CNC machines), and inexpensive sensors (for $150, the Kinect packages a set of sensors that until recently would easily have cost $10,000) means that it’s possible to build smart devices that are much smaller and more capable than anything we could have built back when we were talking about smart refrigerators. We’ve seen Internet-enabled scales, robotic vacuum cleaners, and more is on the way.

At the other end of the scale, GE’s “Unleashing the Industrial Internet” event had a fully instrumented network-capable jet engine on stage, with dozens of sensors delivering realtime data about the engine’s performance. That data can be used for everything from performance optimization to detecting problems. In a panel, Tim O’Reilly asked Matt Reilly of Accenture “do you want more Silicon Valley on your turf?” and his immediate reply was “absolutely.”

Even in biology: synthetic biology is basically nothing more than programming with DNA, using a programming language that we don’t yet understand and for which there is still no “definitive guide.” We’re only beginning to get to the point where we can reliably program and build “living software,” but we are certainly going to get there. And the consequences will be profound, as George Church has pointed out.

I’m not convinced that software is going to eat everything. I don’t see us living in a completely virtual world, mediated completely by browsers and dashboards. But I do see everything eating software: software will be a component of everything we do or buy, from our clothing to our food. Why is the FitBit a separate device? Why not integrate it into your shoes? Can we imagine cookies that incorporate proteins that have been engineered to become unappealing when we’ve eaten too much? Yes, we can, though we may not be happy about that. Seriously, I’ve had discussions about genetically engineered food that would diagnose diseases and turn different colors in your digestive track to indicate cancer and other conditions. (You can guess how you read the results).

Andreessen is certainly right in his fundamental argument that software has disrupted, and will continue to disrupt, just about every industry on the planet. He pointed to health care and education as the next industries to be disrupted; and we’re certainly seeing that, with Coursera and Udacity in education, and conferences like StrataRx in health care. We just need to push his conclusion farther. Is a robotic car a case of software eating the driver, or of the automobile eating software? You tell me. At the Industrial Internet event, Andreessen was quoted as saying “We only invest in hardware/software hybrids that would collapse if you pulled the software out.” Is an autonomous car something that would collapse if you pulled the software out? The car is still drivable. In any case, my “what’s the dumbest device in the house” exercise is way too limiting. When are we going to build something that we can’t now imagine, that isn’t simply an upgrade of what we already have? What would it mean for our walls and floors, or our plumbing, to be intelligent? At the other extreme, when will we build devices where we don’t even notice that they’ve “eaten” software? Again, Matt Reilly: “It will be about flights that are on time, luggage that doesn’t get lost.”

In the last few months, I’ve seen a number of articles on the future of venture investment. Some argue that it’s too easy and inexpensive to look for “the next Netscape,” and as a consequence, big ambitious projects are being starved. It’s hard for me to accept that. Yes, there’s a certain amount of herd thinking in venture capital, but investors also know that when everyone is doing the same thing, they aren’t going to make any money. Fred Wilson has argued that momentum is moving from consumer Internet to enterprise software, certainly a market that is ripe for disruption. But as much as I’d like to see Oracle disrupted, that still isn’t ambitious enough.

Innovation will find the funds that it needs (and it isn’t supposed to be easy). With both SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk has proven that it’s possible for the right entrepreneur to take insane risks and make headway. Of course, neither has “succeeded,” in the sense of a lucrative IPO or buyout. That’s not the point either, since being an entrepreneur is all about risking failure. Neither SpaceX nor Tesla are Facebook-like “consumer web” startups, nor even enterprise software startups or education startups. They’re not “software” at all, though they’ve both certainly eaten a lot of software to get where they are. And that leads to the most important question:

What’s the next big thing that’s going to eat software?


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  • Mike, I agree that at some point “biological computing”, be it at the genetic level or leveraging living tissue (e.g. the brain) as a data analysis system, will have a profound effect on the world, and will “eat software”. I attended a Churchill Club event this week with Jeff Hawkins of Numenta on that very topic. For now, they’re doing the inverse – using currently available technologies to emulate biological processes – but it seems natural to eliminate that abstraction if possible. With regards to the internet of things, my company, ThingWorx, has developed a software platform focused specifically on the unique challenges of connected applications. My experience is that software, more specifically, the application layer, will be the value creator in the internet of things. Sensors, plumbing, and communications are being rapidly commoditized and are not a differentiator. I’m delighted to see this topic on your writing agenda as well as Jon Bruner’s. Let me know if I can help your research in the area in any way.

    Rick Bullotta

  • A system, with the help of intelligent software, that could bring complete transparency in government, completely eradicate corruption and unequal wealth distribution.

  • Bruce Long

    I submit that in the eat or be eaten race software is at the top of the food chain. As more and more things are virtualized there are fewer physical objects that we want. You mentioned food and clothing. There is also housing and house-items like refrigerators, furniture, etc. Other categories are transportation, tools, musical instruments, decorations, travel/camping. The list is pretty finite and shrinking.

    I spent several days cataloging types of item for sale in a wide variety of online stores. There are surprisingly few that cannot eventually become lunch at a convergence picnic. Imagine in fifteen to twenty years that we have sufficiently light materials and battery energy density that we can create full-body, climate-controlled, light-as-a-feather wing-suits. Perhaps they would have a video skin for updating fashions on the fly. If we flew around playing and exploring with our tribe all day ala the ‘new generation’ in the Mars Trilogy, then slept in a friend-heap when tired, even the clothing, housing, transportation, travel/camping items would succumb to the appetite of the virtual. In fact, I can imagine a life where all I need is a fly-suit/computer-device, custom nutrients, waste-disposal and friends. Here’s to 20 years from now!

  • Pete

    The point of “who eats whom” will become clear if you think about companies – if driverless cars become reality, it will not mean car companies and taxi companies eating software; it will most likely mean a software company turning car companies and taxi companies useless and irrelevant – or becoming a “taxi company” where 1% of value is in taxi-stuff and 99% of value is their softwre.
    A driverless car (not a current prototype, but what it aims to be) will be able to throw away everything it doesn’t need – things like a steering wheel, for example. Don’t think “X, but with software”. Instead of a robot-driven car, think of a device that brings you from point A to point B in a magical way – the passenger part of a limo, without the front part where driver and driving used to happen. Instead of a “smart fridge”, think of cooking ingredients or cooked food that gets delivered just as you need it. Etc.

    • informatimago

      Ah, but that’s exactly the point of this “revolution”!

      Why aren’t taxi companies employing software developers to do the R&D to develop robotic cars?

      Why isn’t DHL employing software and robotics engineers to develop packet delivering drones?

      And so on.

      If you leave technological advancement to others, then you must expect to be “eaten” by them.

      • stevenally

        “If you leave technological advancement to others, then you must expect to be “eaten” by them.”

        Exactly. That’s what will happen. I would not be completely surprised to see Amazon developing delivery drones in 5 yrs.

  • “But what grabs me these days isn’t software as a thing in itself, but software as a component of some larger system.”
    – Exactly what I was thinking and to be honest not only me. There are a whole bunch of industries and a domain of software (the so-called Embedded Software, which has somehow lost its sheen in recent years) which has thought in this line (and still does).

    I work for one big German engineering company for as an embedded SW engineer (we still don’t like the word developer or programmer !). Previously in automotive software (things which goes under the hood and control fuel injectors etc) and recently in household/industrial appliances (self-navigating lawnmowers anyone?). In this part of the world it is common and accepted knowledge that you can not just sell the software. What you ultimately provide is a whole system where SW is a vital component. Of course, it is becoming more and more vital and increasingly the differentiator, but still only a part, not the whole.

    I agree with Rick (@RickBullotta), that finally it will be SW that will create/add value and sensors etc will become commoditized, but that’s the electronic/hardware side. The underlying system still matters and will matter. The refrigerator should be good refrigerator, connected or not. And software is and will be important to make it a good refrigerator.

    • Amy

      This, precisely. The underlying system does matter and always will.

      It seems to be common to choose a topic or technology (or software) and talk about it as taking over the world– when really perhaps it’s just trending or changing things in a certain way. Complex things are complex– it’s possible to correctly talk about how important software is without ignoring the fact that it’s not the only factor out there.

  • Agung Cacanet
  • As Pete mentioned it does seem to be clear that, at least from a human jobs perspective, software is eating everything else and not vice versa. When was the last time software created jobs (other than more software jobs)?

    • SixSixSix

      Cell phone vendors, drone pilots, bloggers, game designers, etc.

  • gblack

    There won’t be any biological revolution without the help of software, Prince of Boring. Two minutes of my life were wasted reading your article.

    • SixSixSix

      Get over the words software and biological and realizing the game is all about transmitting and adapting/mutating knowledge forward in time.

  • Jason

    I, for one, would love to see internet fridges. With some fancy technology, maybe it could sync with my phone and automatically tell me when to buy milk/chicken (and for the overly ambitious, new recipes)!

  • Ajancnc

    Grate Post! Thank you for sharing this valuable blog keep updating on this.

  • SixSixSix

    Just a few thoughts. Being an entrepreneur is not all about risking failure. That’s a gambler. It also the standard ideological argument for why the rich should get richer despite the fact that they de facto take the least risk of all in society. Be that that as may, being an entrepreneur is all about pushing boundaries into what did not exist before. Risk is just part of the ride, not necessarily even a desirable one in itself. There is an area that cries out for innovation that rather than eating software might be said with greater metaphorical effect to be shooting it – so call smart guns. There are all kinds of desirable things to be done to done both with both positive and negative controls in the technical sense of the word – better functioning and discouraging unwanted usage.