Why I Love the Software Biz

I’ve been asked by several people why I love the software business so much, given all its frustrations and the fact that currently the economics of selling software are pretty similar to the economics of selling ice in Alaska.

The answer has a lot to do with the way that really good software can strike a chord in people. People fall in love with really good software. It becomes not just a product they use, like a pencil or a shampoo or a desk lamp — it becomes, for some people, something more important, more intimate; something more like an extension of their mind. Losing that software, or having it taken away, can therefore feel like a real blow.

I was reminded of this recently by an e-mail exchange I had with a woman who found me through this blog. Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Mitch Kapor Returns” about the founding of the Open Source Applications Foundation, the not-for-profit group backing several major open-source projects (including Mozilla). OSAF’s founder and leader is Mitch Kapor, who back in the 1980s founded Lotus Development Corporation, the makers of the legendary Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. One of OSAF’s current major projects is to build a personal information manager (PIM) in the spirit of another Lotus product, Lotus Agenda, that was not nearly as successful as 1-2-3 had been; Agenda was the first real PIM, it was groundbreaking and revolutionary in a lot of ways, but the market never really figured out what to make of it and it was discontinued long before the PIM market would be established by products like Microsoft Outlook (which aren’t nearly as ambitious as Agenda was).

I wrote about all that in my piece last year, and posted a link to a site where interested folks could download a full version of Agenda (Lotus made it freeware a few years back). A couple of months ago, a comment was posted to that piece by a woman named Maggie Green, asking me if I knew of anyplace where Agenda was still available for download: “I used to rely on Agenda for everything and I think I’d like to try using it again.” We corresponded by e-mail, and it turned out my link wasn’t broken, the download site was just temporarily down for some reason; a day later it was back up again and Maggie had her copy of Agenda.

Once she had it up and running she wrote me back:

I wound up getting Agenda (after 10 years, its like seeing an old pal!) and am using it now. If I can just figure out how to print from DOS… Funny how the brain goes soggy after not using it for a few years!

Let me reiterate this, because I think it’s important. This woman is excited about software that is more than ten years old. It runs completely in MS-DOS — no Windows here. It has no graphics at all and runs completely in text mode. It’s so old it doesn’t even know how to interface with a mouse! And yet, for Maggie, it is terribly exciting stuff. More exciting, probably, than if you plunked down the latest shrink-wrapped copy of Office 2003 on her desk, with all its bells and whistles. That’s because, for whatever reason, Agenda works the way her mind does. For her, it just “clicks” in a way that no product has since.

That’s why I love designing software — because with each new project, there’s the chance to build something that could have that impact on somebody. It’s the kind of opportunity you get in damn few lines of work these days.

UPDATE (April 9, 2007): Here’s a great page with tons of links for Agenda-philes, including links to a Wiki and a Yahoo Group where you can turn for help with your favorite PIM.