The Business of Software

Failing to automate routine tasks is a waste of human potential

By Jim Grey (about)

I enjoy the Signal v. Noise blog from Basecamp. Recently they published a post about the human touch in customer service. Read it here. Its thesis, in short: automating any part of support is akin to saying the company doesn’t care.

I am charmed by the work ethos Signal v. Noise espouses: work at a sustainable pace on things that are interesting to you, and get plenty of rest. It’s very appealing. But sometimes I think they take the contrarian position as if it’s their brand, and this is one of those times.

There’s nothing wrong with a good robot providing routine customer service. As long as the experience is good, and can seamlessly hand off to a human when things go off script, it’s a win.

That’s because so much of customer service work can be rote and repetitive. One of my career stops was at a company called MOBI, which provided mobile-device management services to large companies. One customer was a global manufacturer that had something like 10,000 mobile phones deployed to its executives. MOBI helped them manage cost by keeping each phone on the least-expensive plan for its typical usage, and also provided a help desk with the promise of answering a request in 30 seconds and staying on the case until it was solved. (Try getting that from your carrier.)

But it was too expensive for MOBI to hire a bunch of new customer-service reps every time they took on a new customer. It cut the profit margin too thin.

Mechanical Man
Not this kind of robot

Moreover, a large percentage of the customer-service work was simply boring and repetitive. After you’ve done a handful of password resets, equipment orders, and plan changes, you can do them in your sleep.

MOBI has devised a number of robots (“Mobots,” they call them) to take away the drudgery.

If a MOBI customer user jumps on a chat, Mobot Audrey answers. She can handle many of the common, repetitive tasks. The minute the customer asks something she can’t handle, she seamlessly transfers the chat to a human, who handles the case from there.

I had lunch a few weeks ago with MOBI’s CTO, my former boss, who told me that the customer-service team was apprehensive at first, but is happy now because they are working on things that tap into their deep knowledge of the product, and that require them to solve problems creatively. As a result, they are more engaged with their work.

This resonates with me from another perspective. I was on the team that built the call-center software that Medicare customer-service reps use nationwide. I led the test team. Our contract required us to do a “full” regression test on every release — meaning we had to run thousands of written test cases. It took almost 24 person-weeks to execute those tests! This was about 15 years ago when automation tools weren’t great. But I hired a couple engineers to automate those tests anyway, and they finished after a few months. It took just 0.6 person-weeks to execute those tests forever after. My functional testers were free to spend more time performing  targeted, complex, and exploratory tests, using their experience to find critical defects the automation couldn’t find. It was much more interesting and meaningful work for them.

But back to customer-service robots: we all remember how bad the early ones were. That Medicare customer-service center had an early voice-response robot for callers, and it was awful. It didn’t understand callers right most of the time, it took a long time to navigate, and once navigated the caller found that the robot couldn’t help them and they needed to speak to a human anyway. Callers hated it.

But the technologies have begun to mature. Some of them claim to be able to learn, even, although I’m skeptical that it’s true, full-on AI or ML. At least it’s possible to create a good experience now. MOBI’s Mobots have done it; their user testing bears it out: most users have no idea that they are interacting with a Mobot.

So why wouldn’t a company like MOBI manage support costs and increase employee happiness by automating away the boring, repetitive tasks? I’m for it.

Quality The Business of Software

Love your salespeople because they make your paychecks not bounce

By Jim Grey (about)

He was a salesman at the company where I had gone to work after graduating from engineering school. And he routinely made my life, and the lives of the other engineers with which I worked, crazy difficult as he made wild promises during the sales cycle that we then had to fulfill in our product on impossible deadlines.

It was the classic tension between sales and engineering. There should have been a class on it when I was in school. I might have called it “Sales Douchebaggery 101” but perhaps the topic would better have been wrapped into a larger course on life as a working engineer. Cost constraints out the wazoo. Adding features to a product under pressure without doing necessary redesign of existing features so they scale and perform. Being bogged down by the avalanche of customer support that follows releasing the resultant buggy product. And all the while, salespeople promising crazy stuff to prospects to get them to sign on the line. Sales happily wrote checks, if you will, that engineers then had to figure out how to cash.

This particular salesman was the king of signing us up to build stuff on impossible deadlines. He seemed to take special glee at doing it. Cynically, we all grumbled to each other that it was about making his commission check as fat as possible. One of the engineers delivered this classic line: “He’s in sales. That means he’s coin operated.” I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.


And then one day he showed up at work in a brand new Lincoln Mark VIII. It was a stunning car in a pearly white. Lincoln called it “white opalescent,” and it was impossibly deep, almost liquid. I expected that if I touched the car, my fingers would ooze into the body and come back wet. It was mesmerizing.

Yet I was angry and jealous. Here was this guy blithely, happily making engineer lives miserable while piling up a crap ton of dough. I wasn’t going to make that kind of money anytime soon; no new Lincolns were in my future. But this wasn’t really about financial injustice. No, this was about him never suffering any consequences of his actions while living a lifestyle that reinforced his bad behavior. Such bullshit.

That was in the early 1990s. Since then I’ve worked for many other companies, successful and not, and have learned a few key things about sales. First and foremost: celebrate every sale, because they keep your paychecks from bouncing. I’ve lived through that and never want to again.

But second, that company had a lot to learn about product marketing and sales. The sales team was left to fend entirely for itself, with only a vaguely identified target market, no coherent story to tell about the product line, and nothing that generated qualified leads for them to pursue. They earned every closed deal from the ground up: cold calls, relationship building, and then doing what they had to do — including making stuff up — to get a yes so they could meet their quotas. It had to be brutal for them. So no wonder this guy was so giddy every time he closed a sale. He worked his butt off for it.

And third, and most importantly, back then I was content to grumble and that didn’t help my company at all. Learning how to estimate, negotiate scope, determine minimum viable product, set and manage expectations, and manage projects has been much more effective for me and for the places where I’ve worked. It’s helped sales teams know that Engineering is in their corner helping them succeed — and helped them better understand what Engineering is capable of delivering so they make fewer bad promises.


Today I don’t sweat that fellow his Lincoln. Seeing this one in a restaurant parking lot recently in sort of sad condition reminded me of him. I looked him up on LinkedIn. He’s still selling in that industry, for a company we all derided then as being the last place you’d want to work. Looks like his career had a similar trajectory to this Lincoln: still going, but not looking all that great. Fortunately, I’ve grown up enough to have empathy for him.

I regularly take photos of old parked cars and write about them for Curbside Classic, a site that tells these old cars’ stories. This post is heavily based on a post I wrote there a couple years ago; read it here.

Career The Business of Software

Behaviors and traits of successful software companies (the ones where I’ve worked, anyway)

Today I begin my 29th year in the software industry. Actually, today’s a day off where I work. But it wasn’t at the company where I began my career, also on Monday, July 3. It’s why I remember the date: my second day was a paid holiday!

Spring flowers from my garden

In 28 years I’ve worked for nine different software shops, small and large, serving many different industries and kinds of customers.

What surprises me is how little correlation there was to how good my co-workers were and success of the companies. I worked with some brilliant and visionary people at companies that struggled, and with some average people at companies that did well.

Does that surprise you? As I look back, it certainly surprises me.

Here’s what did correlate to the successful companies in my career:

  • A product vision and company direction that did not change wildly, but did evolve to meet the evolving market
  • An executive team in unity on that vision and direction
  • Good communication to everyone about that vision and direction
  • Reasonable planning to execute that vision and direction
  • Good execution in engineering and in sales
  • A work environment where people felt safe and valued
  • Transparency into company financials

Notice how none of the adjectives I used above are superlatives? No excellents or flawlesses or bests or outstandings. Everywhere I’ve worked, when people are aligned to a vision and direction, “good” and “reasonable” have been enough.

These things give brilliant engineers and visionary product people a solid platform to do pioneering work. But even the best people haven’t been able to overcome the lack of these things.

The Business of Software

You’re building a business

By Jim Grey (about)

I think there’s a miss in how startups recruit. They hype the interesting problems they have to solve and their cool company culture. But those are only two of the three things they need to hype. The last one is that together, you get to build a great business.

Under construction
Under construction

If that doesn’t sound very interesting or exciting to you, well, it should. Seeing your work lead to a company’s overall success is enormously rewarding. And given a startup’s size and scale, you have an outsize ability to affect that.

Does the company you work for share financial results and business plans with you? The one I work for does, once a quarter. We all get to see how much money we’re making and how much is left. And we are updated on our strategy to get to our planned next business phase. All of this tells us where we are on our corporate journey. Are you clear on what your company’s journey is?

(Sidebar: It is interesting to me that in my career, the companies where I’ve been the happiest are also the ones that shared financials and strategies. Not all companies do it. I think companies that do it get how it brings the company together as one.)

When you understand that journey, you understand the larger context your work lives in. It helps you make better decisions in the moment, ones that let you deliver the right balance of speed, quality, and scope.

If you don’t see now how building your business is an exciting journey, you will when your company meets its goals. Especially in a startup, it will be impossible to miss how your work made it real.

Process The Business of Software

Informal doesn’t scale

By Jim Grey (about)

Did you know that a fly doesn’t scale? If you shot a growth ray at a fly until it was the size of your car, that fly would crush under its own weight. Its exoskeleton can handle only so much mass.

Beetle bug (crop)
A fly as big as a Volkswagen would be pretty intimidating.

It’s a good thing flies stay as small as they are. But if you’re at a small, startuppy company, of course you hope your company grows. It’s what we all want, right? But meanwhile, there can be so much goodness, so much energy in a young company. You can wear so many hats! You can shoot from the hip! The hierarchy can be so flat! Everybody fits into one room! Communication is so easy! Everything and anything feels possible!

But much like the fly and its exoskeleton, your company’s light, informal structure will keep it from scaling. One day everybody won’t fit into one room anymore. You won’t be able to know everything that’s happening just by being in the room and on Slack. Stuff that used to happen organically just doesn’t happen well or at all.

That’s when meetings may creep in where there had been none. When the first process steps may start to be added. When software tools may augment or even replace simple face-to-face communication. When company-wide fun events may start to drop off because it’s too hard and expensive to include everyone.

The place starts to feel …corporate.

People sometimes fetishize startup smallness. It feels so good! But clinging to it will limit your growth trajectory. Like the overgrown fly, lack of process will crush your company. You need to change your ways of working to fit the company’s size. But this doesn’t have to be terrible. It totally can be terrible, if you do it wrong. Even if you do it right, it will change and even get rid of some of your company’s original goodness. But it enables new levels of goodness that you can’t imagine yet.

The tax of size simply must be paid. But don’t pay one penny more than you need to. At every step, add just the minimum process to keep things running smoothly. If you’re an individual contributor and thus probably not making the process decisions, perhaps you can (kindly, respectfully) ask if you can offer feedback, and if so, suggest changes to size the process to where you are now.

This is a bumpy road, and there’s no map. You have to feel your way through. But here are some questions you can ask that might help you.

What’s the least possible amount of process we can add to solve our current problems?

How can we break our organization into smaller units to keep the goodness of small?

How can we put light communication, visibility, and accountability systems in place that help the small units stay connected and deliver strongly for each other and for the business?

To the extent you’re able to successfully evolve your company’s exoskeleton of process and culture, you’ll smoothly adapt to the pressures that come with growth.


Quality The Business of Software

If you want your software to keep producing, be prepared to do some dirty work

By Jim Grey (about)

A woman named Verna built the house I live in. She landscaped it nicely; a sprawling flowerbed stretches in front of my front door and picture windows. Every spring, I eagerly await Verna’s spring color: yellow daffodils, purple hyacinths, red tulips, and finally the giant pink peonies.


I’ve added a few things: lilies, mums, lavender, coreopsis, phlox. I love phlox! But my eagerness to keep adding color petered out pretty quickly because it turns out I hate digging in the dirt.

I don’t much enjoy any of the other routine garden maintenance, either. Mulching. Deadheading. Dividing overgrown plants. Weeding – oh god, the weeding. Does it make me lazy that I just spray my weeds with Roundup and move on?

I just want to enjoy the flowers. But this ninth spring I’ve lived in my home, a few of my plants didn’t come back as strong. A couple didn’t come back at all.

So I asked my mom. She’s the gardener in our family. “When was the last time you fertilized?” she said. “Um, never,” I said. “Ah,” she said.

It turns out that you can’t just ignore the soil, or the plants themselves for that matter. Things growing in it year after year uses up all the nutrients, and crowded plants compete with each other for what little is there. “I’m surprised your flowers didn’t stop coming back a few years ago,” Mom said.


I did some serious fertilizing this season. I also separated some overgrown hostas and moved some of Verna’s plants so they had some elbow room. Not fun, but necessary.

♦ ♦ ♦

I once worked for a software company whose flagship product sold briskly. Version 1.0 was five years in the past, and since then we’d added lots of new features so the product could continue to lead the market. And now here came the head of Product Management asking for more new features

Dan, a quiet fellow, graying at the temples, led Development. “Well, yes, we can add all those features,” Dan said, adjusting his glasses. “This one will take six months. That one will take four. This other one, well, I think that’ll take a year.”

The Product Manager was dumbfounded. “Features of similar scope took far less time in the past, and you had fewer developers then. What gives?”

Dan looked up at the Product Manager kindly, and drew a breath. “Well, we’ve been under such pressure to quickly add features to this product that we’ve not focused enough on its overall design. We’ve also made no time to keep our underlying architecture up to date. These are things I’ve been pointing out all along the way. But we’ve just bolted features on wherever we thought we could get away with it. Now, to add any one of the features you’ve requested, we basically have to unbolt three or four other features, and blend the code all together. And we have to write complicated bridge code to do modern things with our aging architecture, and when that doesn’t work we will have to upgrade some parts of it and test the product well to make sure everything still works. It’s a slow process. And it’s just going to get slower and slower the longer we keep going like this.”

That the product’s design had become cancerous and the underlying architecture had gone out of date were not considered a crisis –- but not being able to rapidly add new features sure was. It focused the company’s entire attention. Their response was to code up a “next generation” product from scratch, which was a disastrous idea for a whole bunch of reasons beyond the point of this story. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001-2002, they had not yet successfully launched the next-generation product, and they still couldn’t add features to the old product fast enough. Revenue fell precipitously. Quarterly layoffs began, but it was not enough to keep the wolves from the door. That once-promising company was sold; the company that bought it outsourced development to China.

More recently I went to work for another promising software company. They had been in business for about a decade and had sold their software to a number of very large companies. But in the couple years before I’d been hired, the pace of new feature delivery had slowed to a crawl. Adding new features had become increasingly difficult and always broke existing features. As a result, it took longer and longer to test the product, but even then, major bugs were still being delivered to customers. Meanwhile, younger, more nimble competitors were stealing business away from us. As the rate of new revenue decreased, support costs skyrocketed. It was unsustainable, and that company, too, had to sell itself to another company to avoid collapse.

It was much the same story: the company had focused entirely on rapid new-feature delivery and not enough on ongoing design and architecture. After a decade, their soil had gone infertile and the code had become tangled. Nothing new would grow.

♦ ♦ ♦

Software as a garden: to be able to grow more software, to be able to grow revenue with it, you have to keep the soil fertile and give the roots room. The problem is, gardening projects are a hard sell. These are things like refactoring older parts of the code that no longer serve efficiently, or upgrading or replacing outdated parts of the architecture, or redesigning subsystems that work fine today but can’t adapt to things the company wants to do in the future. When you tell executives you need to do these things, what they hear is that they can’t have new features while you do it. New features fuel growing companies.

But if you don’t tend your garden, sooner or later it will stop producing.

The Business of Software

Stop outsourcing support

By Jim Grey (about)

There’s a trend among the hip companies in Silicon Valley to move tech support departments to middle America. Lauren Smiley wrote about it recently for Medium’s Backchannel, saying that it’s all about cost. You can simply pay support techs less when they’re not on the coasts.

But it has the consequence of blocking support techs from moving up into more interesting — and more lucrative — roles in the company. It makes support a total dead end job. But more importantly to the company, it takes away a key element that can make the software better.

Abandoned National Road and US 40

Support jobs aren’t always an automatic growth opportunity. The supply of support techs usually dwarfs demand for roles they can move up into.

But it’s no wonder support techs want to move up — support is hard. For less money than other technical roles in the company, you have to listen to unhappy users all day and try to help them get the promised value from your company’s products. It’s emotionally draining. I’ve heard support techs joke more than once that support years are like dog years: every year you work feels like seven.

Still, support really can be a good place to grow talent for other teams because techs know the products and, more importantly, how users actually work with and experience them. Support techs spread this invaluable perspective anywhere they go in the company. This is why I love to hire support techs into my testing teams.

But another reason it’s good to keep support in the same building is that it makes the software better.

Here in the Midwest, where cost of living is generally low, the startup, small, and medium-sized companies where I’ve worked don’t outsource customer service. Those workers are already plentiful and inexpensive. And so support is always down the hall or on the next floor. Developers and testers become friends with many of the support techs.

To developers and testers, users can be an abstract concept. It’s a shame, but since we don’t know them and don’t experience our products as they do, we feel freer to make choices that are expedient for us but potentially unpleasant for them.

But we always get an earful from support when things don’t work well! And we don’t want to create difficulties for our friends there. It makes us work hard to deliver software that doesn’t make the phones blow up.

Successful software delivery is a team sport. Don’t cut off a key part of the team just to save a dollar.

The Business of Software

To Microsoft: Kudos on the Windows 10 upgrade experience

By Jim Grey (about)

I’m a Windows user. I see how all the cool developers have switched to Mac. I was a Mac user once, so long ago that MacOS was still called just System, and it was on version 6. Work demands switched me to Windows before System 7 came out, and I’ve just stayed with it.

And until recently I’ve never upgraded from whatever version of Windows shipped with my PC. But I bought a cheap Windows 8 laptop a few years ago to schlep to the coffee shop to check email and write in my blog, and I found the “tile world” Windows 8 UI to be enormously frustrating. I took the unprecedented step of upgrading to Windows 8.1 to ease some of the usability headaches.

Except that it took three agonizing tries before it worked. The first two times it spent hours and hours trying to upgrade but failed utterly, I mean black-screen-with-blinking-cursor utterly, and I spent hours and hours restoring my laptop to Windows 8 so that it would function. It was an ungodly, gory mess. I gave up and planned to just stay on Windows 8.

The third upgrade try happened involuntarily. One day my laptop announced that it had downloaded 8.1 in the background, and that the next time I restarted, it would install itself.

Nooooooo! I scoured the Internet trying to figure out how to prevent the upgrade, but found no help. I felt doomed. And sure enough, upon reboot, it went into a long dark night of upgrading.

This time, finally, it came back with Windows 8.1 installed. But hardly anything worked. The display was wonky, my wireless mouse was unresponsive, I couldn’t connect to my printer. I had to update a whole bunch of drivers and change a whole bunch of settings, and finally the laptop worked again.

I was relieved, but resolved: never again!

My favorite sippin' glass
Bourbon: essential to any Windows upgrade

So when Microsoft announced Windows 10, I wasn’t very excited. My laptop was working okay on 8.1, and I was perfectly happy with Windows 7 on my old desktop. But the more I read about Microsoft’s plans for Windows, the more it became clear that Microsoft was changing its ways to not support old versions of their software for years and years anymore. To keep getting good security updates, the day was coming when you’d need to be on the latest version of Windows. The writing was on the wall.

So I reluctantly decided to test the waters on that laptop. I started early on a Saturday just in case I needed to spend the day troubleshooting.

I started the installer. I stood by, my anxiety building. And then an astonishing thing happened: it went flawlessly.

The installer showed me progress every step of the way. It rebooted the computer several times, but each time it came back successfully and kept going. And then it rebooted one last time and there was Windows 10! And everything about my laptop worked properly. Elapsed time, less than 30 minutes.

And then I liked Windows 10. It was enough like Windows 7 that I didn’t have to relearn how to use my PC, but was fast and stable and had some neat new functionality that I wished my old Windows 7 desktop had.

Before long, my Windows 7 desktop notified me that it had downloaded Windows 10 and would upgrade as soon as I gave the word.

Fear stabbed at my heart. My desktop PC was reasonably well tricked out when I bought it — Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM — but was getting up there in years. I’d installed and uninstalled all manner of software on it. My kids had installed all sorts of games on it and had surfed their way into a couple viruses I had to clean up. So this machine wasn’t exactly pristine. And this PC is the hub of my digital life. All of my photographs, all of my writing, all of my financial and personal files, everything is on it. I have good backups, but they didn’t entirely salve my anxiety. So I waited.

Over the next few months, the popups kept coming: Are you ready to upgrade? Windows 10 is all downloaded and ready. All you have to do is click here! Click the button! The beautiful, shiny button! The jolly, candylike button!

One night I sat down to write. I’d poured myself a bourbon (good stuff — Woodford Reserve Double Oaked). It was busy lowering my inhibitions when Windows popped up another invitation to upgrade.

I was tempted. I poured myself another bourbon, a double. And then, impulsively, I clicked the button.

Instantly, I was flooded with regret and anxiety. But then the install went as flawlessly as on my laptop. It took a little longer, about 45 minutes, but my PC came back up ready to go.

There was one small hitch: my mouse’s scroll wheel no longer worked right in Chrome, and only in Chrome. Updating the driver solved it.

I’m impressed. Microsoft, my hat is off to you. I don’t know how you did it, I don’t know what has changed inside your organization, but this was a great upgrade experience.

Quality The Business of Software

Don’t piss off your users by suddenly changing your UI

By Jim Grey (about)

Delivering software on the Web is great. Especially with continuous delivery, we can deliver changes large and small anytime we want. And then we can get quick feedback from our users and the market, adjust the software accordingly, and push those updates fast, too. It’s utopia and the Holy Grail rolled into one!

Except that users are not very excited when we change things. They want software to stay as it is. Well, mostly: they want us to fix the bugs that affect them, of course, or even to add this or that little feature. But please, they plead, don’t make it work differently than it does now.

Meanwhile, we face various pressures. Markets shift; new needs emerge and old needs become less important. Technologies shift; old frameworks become outdated, new frameworks enable us to keep pace. Today everything has to not only work on mobile, but feel native to mobile — and all run on a single codebase. This is shifting product direction across our industry.

That’s the backdrop against which WordPress, the content engine behind one out of every four Web sites, rolled out a new editor last week. It was part of a complete rewrite of all of Their old technologies just couldn’t stretch to where the world was moving. So they threw it out and started from scratch. Their new editor is fast — fast! — and works fluidly, while looking great both in my browser and on my phone.

Spanking new editor in my browser…

But boy, were users pissed. Pissed! Check the forum: 19 pages of complaints and counting. Sometimes, I swear, users wouldn’t be happy if you sent them gold bars, because they preferred the silver bars you used to send them. But very often users have a point: they’ve gotten into the swing of your software, and now you’ve changed it and they have to learn it all again. Worse, maybe now something they used to be able to do isn’t there anymore, or if it is, they can’t find it.

…and on my phone

For the record, I was the first commenter on that thread, because I experienced some of those frustrations. I tried to be kind, but several features I use either went missing or were accessed in a way that I couldn’t easily discover. Argh! And I wished the editing space were wider; it felt awfully cramped. I wasn’t alone in any of these complaints.

I wanted to just edit a post. I didn’t want to learn a new interface. But I found that there’s no way to just revert to the previous editor. It is simply gone.

I understand what drives changes like this and know that this is a monumental achievement this is for WordPress. Still, because I’m a heavy WordPress user, more than anything else I feel frustrated. The new editor breaks all of my usage flows, and I’m having to rediscover everything. I didn’t want this.

It’s the same, by the way, with Microsoft Office’s ribbon, which replaced an older menu structure way back in Office 2007. That’s forever ago in software terms. Yet there are still features I can tell you exactly how to find in those old menus, but I have to Google where they are on the ribbon.

Users don’t give a rip about your business or the future of technology. They use your product to accomplish a thing. As long as they can consistently and easily accomplish that thing, they stay happy. Many users learn your product’s nuances and become quite adept with them. When you suddenly change the UI and all of their flows are interrupted, of course they’re frustrated.

So what would happen if you followed Basecamp’s model? Their software helps companies small and large manage projects. Last month, they released Basecamp 3, a ground-up rewrite — yet they received not a single complaint from existing users. That’s because Basecamp 2, and for that matter Basecamp 1, remain fully active. Existing users can upgrade if they want, or stay put if they don’t. There are compelling reasons to move to Basecamp 3. But if you’re a happy Basecamp 1 or 2 user, those products will be there, fully supported, for as long as you want to use them.

Maybe your company can’t do that. But what can you do to ease the transition for your users, so they can stay fully productive? Think this through. It’s more important than any technology or implementation decision you make.

Fortunately, WordPress does, for some reason, still provide back-door access to an even older editor.

Outdated but highly functional classic editor

I don’t care that this is based on outdated technology: it’s fully featured, and I know how to make it sing. I cut my blogging teeth on this editor when I started my personal blog in 2007. I’ve written over a thousand posts in it. I hope it never goes away.

The Business of Software

Personal computers are for content creators; mobile devices are for content consumers

By Jim Grey (About)

Wired wrote last month about the ongoing decline in PC sales. They weren’t the first to notice, but unlike others they made a strong statement: it’s the end for the PC.

It’s hyperbole. The PC’s market share is just shrinking to the audience that has always truly needed it: people who make things.

This seems so obvious to me. Isn’t it to everyone? Or am I missing the boat here?

Because it’s not like PC sales are on their last leg. Wired admits that more than 293 million PCs are expected to ship this year. Mobile devices are more than keeping pace, however. Wired also notes that 71 million iPhones shipped in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

I predict that the cheap PC era is about to end. A few years ago I bought an entry-level laptop for $300 and use it for checking email and Facebook when my son is using my main machine. I also use it to Chromecast YouTube to the big TV in my family room. An iPad or a Surface would work just as well and take up a lot less space. I kind of wish now I’d gone with the Surface.

It’s because mobile devices are simply brilliant for consuming content. I do most of my reading, get most of my news, and watch virtually every video I see on my mobile devices. I actually consume more of this stuff thanks to these devices than I ever did before I got them.

Fixing computers
Me, a long time ago, fixing some old computers. My iPhone is probably more powerful than these machines.

Before phones and tablets became viable Internet devices, the only way to consume Internet content was on a PC. We were pretty happy with that until we discovered, much to our collective delight, that an Internet device in our pocket let us pleasantly wile away the minutes we spend waiting — in doctors’ waiting rooms, before meetings begin, in the john.

Oh sure, on your phone you can type a quick message for the world to read on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, even WordPress. You can take a video and upload it to YouTube, or a photo and upload it to Instagram. There are even some apps that let you do some decent photo and video post-processing now.

But that’s all casual content creation. The PC still shines at serious content creation because you get a usable keyboard, a dedicated pointing device, a bigger monitor, and plenty of computing power.

Take this blog post as an example. At 554 words, there’s no way I’d tap this out on my iPhone. I’d hurl it across the room in frustration after five or six sentences. I might get this far on an iPad before feeling fatigued, but I wouldn’t want to write an epic post on one.

And as a hobbyist photographer, I want a bigger monitor when I process my photos. So does my youngest son when he edits the YouTube Poop videos he makes. And when both of us work with large files we’re glad for all the memory and CPU that my 16 GB, Intel i7 PC offers.

Adding accessory keyboards and pointing devices to mobile devices can help, but then those devices become more and more like PCs.

So no, the PC isn’t dying. It’s just found its place.