The modern web and (alleged) software stagnation in the past few decades

January 3, 2021

I was recently reading The Great Software Stagnation (via), which puts forward a simple thesis:

Software is eating the world. But progress in software technology itself largely stalled around 1996. [...]

I have a number of reactions to that, but one of them is that one specific yet obvious area of software technology has progressed hugely in the last 24 years, or even the last ten, and that is the 'application' web (which these days is not just Javascript but also CSS and HTML features that allow interactivity, animation, and so on). What you can do with the web today is quietly astounding, not just for the web but at all.

Back in 1996, software technology might have allowed you to build a global, high detail map as an application that was delivered on CD-ROM (not DVD, not in 1996). But you definitely wouldn't have been able to have that map on almost any device, and have it updated frequently, and have high resolution satellite views of much of the west included (and probably not all of the map details, either). Nor would you probably have been able to include interactive, highly responsive route planning, including for bicycling.

(If you consider the backend systems for this web application as well, much of the software technology necessary to operate them likely postdates 1996 as well.)

Maps are everyone's go-to example of web application technology, but I have another one that is much closer to home for me. Here in 2021, I can easily deliver to my co-workers (in a very small organization) a whole set of custom monitoring dashboards with custom graphs, information tables, and other visualization displays that I can update frequently and that are available on basically any computer you care to name (this would be our Grafana dashboards). There's an entire ecology of software technologies that enables all of this, and almost none of them existed in 1996 in any meaningful form.

(I will argue that not even Javascript existed in 1996 in meaningful form; the Javascript of 1996 is significantly different from the Javascript of these past five years or so.)

Could you have theoretically done this in 1996? Yes. Could I have practically done this in 1996? No. The web's software technologies have made it possible to build this and the sea change in the viability of the web itself has made it possible to deliver this (including ongoing updates to how the dashboards work, adding new dashboards, and so on).

(There were monitoring dashboards in 1996, and I know the university had some of them, watched by operators in our central machine room. But they were not delivered over the web, and I'm pretty certain they were very expensive enterprise software and much more time consuming (and expensive) to customize and operate than our setup.)

These are not the only web applications that more or less couldn't have existed in 1996 in any form. Even some ostensibly relatively plain websites could not have existed with 1996 software technology even if you gave them 2020 hardware technology, because of their sheer scope. People have been talking to each other over the Internet for a long time (as I'm very familiar with), but Twitter's global scale and activity create a whole new set of problems that require post-1996 software technology to deal with, often in areas that are genuinely new.

(Much of this software technology is less obviously sexy than new languages with new models of programming. But it's also quite sophisticated and represents real progress in the state of the art in things like distributed consensus and large scale data stores.)

In looking at all of this, I'm strongly reminded of another article I read recently, Dan Luu's Against essential and accidental complexity. This basically takes the other side of the 'things have stalled' argument by walking through some drastic changes in programmer productivity over the past several decades. Dan Luu's starting point is roughly 1986 for reasons covered in the article, but many of the changes Luu points to are from after 1996.

PS: Another web-related area that software technology has made huge strides in since 1996 is almost everything related to cryptography. My strong impression is that much of this progress has been driven by the existence of the HTTPS web, due to the web being where most cryptography is used (or more broadly, TLS, which is driven by the web even if it's used beyond it).

Written on 03 January 2021.
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Last modified: Sun Jan 3 01:38:11 2021
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