Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Software Prosumer

The affects of prosumerism are well documented in the evolving economy of content, but the pattern applies equally well and valuably to software creation.

You are most likely a consumer, and if you're an American you think that is a Really Good Thing, most likely. The producers pushed that, and benefit from it. That is not to say we don't benefit from the relationship. Have you seen the price of tube socks at Wal-Mart? I can live with that.

Nonetheless, someone always has to complain, attack the norm, and think they know better. Anyone betting on the dominate future of the “prosumer” is likely right on that current negativity. We don't just read the news. We filter, amend, and combine it. Every novel today spawns even more words of fan fiction. Slashdot1 would be completely worthless without their prosumer users. The barriers between those who produce and those who consume are blurring and the two are mingling. The party is just getting started.

Prosumerism in Software Development

We already are seeing the affects and benefits of adapting the prosumer identity to software developers. Things like free software and Greasemonkey, which allows anyone with a little JavaScript know-how to alter existing websites, are good examples of the software prosumer. Ideally, the prosumer will consume more than produce, and what is produced can be consumed on the same level by peers. I think we have seen this with Greasemonkey and user scripts. I might not even use Firefox if it were not for the user scripts I employ. Obviously you can't say Firefox is somehow above or better than extensions to it which are more important to the user than the product itself.

There is an obvious lack of interest and motivation to promote the prosumer by software developers. You can attribute that to a subtle fear by developers in providing the users with a way of replacing them. The more development can be done among the users, the less real developers we need. However, we can also realize that the more development can be done among the users, the more can be done for the product by all. The more flexible we make our products, the more work the users will do for us. Prosumer software cultures are also great ways to get free marketing, dedicated users, and to satisfy user needs you could never find time for or even be aware of.

Plugin systems are a great way to encourage prosumerism. Some products are developed almost entirely as extendable frameworks, with all the “real” work done all in plugins. When the traditional producers work in the same environment as their prosumer base, the ability of those prosumers will rise. When the traditional consumers' only path to prosumerism is wrought with difficulty, hackish patching, and little or no producer support, the results do nothing but harm both sides of the equation.

The next time you're doing a project, keep some things in mind. If you need a new component and you could open the plug-in API a little to allow making it an extension, do so. If you can develop in an accessible (not compiled) language, do so. When you have some spare cycles, set up a repository of user contributions. A few small steps can go a long way.

Some examples and references:

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I write here about programming, how to program better, things I think are neat and are related to programming. I might write other things at my personal website.

I am happily employed by the excellent Caktus Group, located in beautiful and friendly Carrboro, NC, where I work with Python, Django, and Javascript.

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