The soon-to-be-disappeared Sun Microsystems had a knack for prescient slogans. “The network is the computer” has come true. And then there was “write once, run anywhere,” which heralded the age of universal software applications. Rather than tailoring their programs to run on a particular type of computer – an IBM mainframe, say, or a Windows PC – programmers would use a language like Sun’s Java that was adaptable to any computer. It was a liberating idea: Software developers and users would no longer be locked into one operating system, and beholden to the owner of that system.
And it came to pass. The Web, a universal medium built on device-agnostic standards, sped the embrace of the “write once, run anywhere” ethic. The idea of tethering an app to an OS came to seem kind of absurd. All was good in the land of software.
And then Apple opened its iPhone app store, and in a Cupertino minute everything changed. Suddenly, the idea of tethered software seemed normal again. (Ironically, when Apple was struggling to survive in the 90s, the Web’s run-anywhere ethic had served as an important lifeline for the company, reducing the importance of Microsoft’s control of the PC software market.) Proprietary app stores are popping up everywhere, as device makers and social network operators seek to extend the usefulness of their gadgets and sites and at the same time strengthen their ability to lock in customers. Just last week, Amazon announced it would be opening an app store for its Kindle e-reader.
The rise of the app store comes as the nature of personal computing applications is changing. Some of the apps sold for the iPhone and other devices are old-fashioned, self-contained programs, drawing on data stored in the device itself. But most of them are what might be called “cloud translators.” They serve as software gateways between the Internet and the device. They tap into stores of data that exist out in the Net’s cloud, from maps to message streams, and they tailor that data for some practical use geared to the device’s form and interface.
So is Sun’s “write once, read anywhere” ethic as doomed as Sun itself? Is the proprietary app store model the new normal? Farhad Manjoo, writing in Fast Company, doesn’t believe so. Although “companies increasingly see it as the future model for all software distribution,” he argues, “the app bandwagon” may soon hit “a dead end.” The universality of the Web, he says, will once again win the day: “The App Store’s true rival isn’t a competing app marketplace. Rather, it’s the open, developer-friendly Web. When Apple rejected Google Latitude, the search company’s nearby-friend-mapping program, developers created a nearly identical version that works perfectly on the iPhone’s Web browser.”
“You’d be a fool,” concludes Manjoo, “to ignore the long-term trend in software – away from incompatible platforms and restrictive programming regimes, and toward write-once, run-anywhere code that works on a variety of devices, without interference from middlemen.”
He may well be right. The advantages of run-anywhere software, and of the browser as a universal platform, remain strong. And yet you’d also be a fool to ignore a different trend: people’s retreat from the open Web and their embrace of private networks, whether run by device makers like Apple or site operators like Facebook. The battle between universal software and proprietary apps is also, in other words, a battle between two models for the future of personal computing. While both models will almost certainly survive, only one will be the dominant model. The question that will be answered in the years ahead is this: Is write-once-run-anywhere the destiny of software, or was it an anomaly?