Joel Spolsky, CEO of Fog Creek Software and author of the popular Joel on Software blog, wrote a post the other day that would piss me off if I was Jason Fried – Jason is one of the founders of 37Signals which publishes a bunch of very successful web-based software applications.
In Joel’s post, Where there’s muck, there’s brass, he starts off talking about how everybody has a “gnarly problem” – spending way too many words talking about bread and his childhood; which he apparently spent making bread.
Work that makes you unhappy is what I mean by “a gnarly problem.” – Joel
He goes on to say that the market pays for solutions to “gnarly problems.” Apparently, one of Fog Creek Software’s gnarly problems is getting their bug tracking product, FogBugz, to run on their customers’ own servers. FogBugz is available in hosted and “serve yourself” configurations. Fog Creek deals with the “gnarly problem” of getting FogBugz to run on their customers’ own servers because apparently the market is willing to pay for it. This is where Jason and 37Signals come in.
Earlier in the week Jason published a post titled Installable software? – a response to a question re: whether or not 37Signals had plans to produce installable versions of any of their applications. Jason’s response – unlikely. You can read his post if you want to know the details of the why. Here’s a summary of the why.
If we built installable software we’d have to spend a lot more of our time on technical support, write a lot more documentation, slow down our development process, and lose a fair bit of control over our customer experience. For some companies this wouldn’t be a big deal, but for us it would be a real drag. – Jason
I think Jason did a great job of summarizing the benefits of a centrally distributed application with cross-platform capability. I think this is the future of software. I think Jason and 37Signals made a good strategic decision to NOT offer installable versions of their applications. I make my living developing software for Windows systems and we spend a ton of time just making sure it’s going work on all the different available flavors of Windows – it’s a huge time suck. 37Signals thinks they have better things to do with their time and I agree.
Joel on the other hand, IMO, thinks 37Signals is making a mistake. That 37Signal’s customers want an installable version. That 37Signals isn’t going to grow significantly if they don’t try to solve the same “gnarly” problem Fog Creek is solving by offering installable versions of their products. Joel also seems to think they could start offering installable versions if they simply hired one extra employee – wrong.
So unless they (37Signals) deliberately want to keep the company small, which is a perfectly legitimate desire, they might eventually lose their reluctance to do things that seem gnarly. – Joel
Joel is wrong. Jason is right. 37Signals doesn’t need to produce an installable version of their product to grow. I think 37Signals can grow at a healthy pace selling subscriptions to their very functional and useful web-based software.
Joel makes a number of other comments that I’d find insulting if I was Jason. Yes, he throws in a few complements re: Jason’s design skills but doesn’t give 37Signals credit for producing software that works – there’s a major technical accomplishment here above and beyond the great design accomplishment.
The one thing that so many of today’s cute startups have in common is that all they have is a simple little Ruby-on-Rails Ajax site that has no barriers to entry and doesn’t solve any gnarly problems. So many of these companies feel insubstantial and fluffy, because, out of necessity (the whole company is three kids and an iguana), they haven’t solved anything difficult yet. Until they do, they won’t be solving problems for people. People pay for solutions to their problems. – Joel
FogBugz began it’s life as installable software. Today, FogBugz is available as a hosted solution. More people still buy the installable version over the hosted version but that’s starting to change. I think Fog Creek will see more and more of their customers moving to the hosted solution. I think Fog Creek developers will start to favor the hosted version over the installable version. The installable version will eventually go away.
I’m sure Joel – like a lot of software publishers is feeling vulnerable. Maybe that’s why he lashed out. Technical barriers to entry are coming down – it’s getting to the point where it’s pretty easy (and inexpensive) for a few kids and an iguana (Joel’s words) to reverse engineer a software application and drop it on a server somewhere. Fog Creek is better off if their customers think “installable” is a requirement – that’s harder to copy – there’s a barrier there. These days, it’s less about the software and more about marketing. That’s a hard thing for some software publishers, especially the veterans, to get their head around.
Joel should probably be taking advice from Jason as opposed to sending it in the other direction. I’m in FogBugz (the installable version) and Basecamp hours per week and FogBugz could use a little love from 37Signals. Oh and we’re still trying make time to upgrade our FogBugz installation – it’s becoming a gnarly problem for us.