Monthly Archives: April, 2020

The limits of software

In 2011, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote a widely discussed essay provocatively called “software is eating the world.” One of the illustrations for the web edition of this piece looked like this:

An Angry Bird

It’s a pixelated version of the main (red) bird in the breakthrough mobile game, “Angry Birds,” one of the so-called “killer apps” of early iOS and Android devices. “Angry Birds” was as good a microcosm of the then-booming app economy as any other piece of mobile software – it was disarmingly easy to use, cheap, and completely unsustainable.

If you want to play the original “Angry Birds” today, the most straightforward option is to play one of the console ports (e.g, for Wii U or Wii), which offer a frozen-in-time look at the game near the height of its popularity in the early 2010s. The game itself, which retailed for a few dollars, can no longer be bought in the Apple App Store and has been replaced instead by a free-to-play sequel called “Angry Birds 2.”

The first “Angry Birds” did well within the distinct limitations of mobile phones, which lack the buttons, analog sticks, and various oddities of consoles and PCs, despite having very powerful CPUs and GPUs. But it was a dead end, too. There wasn’t a lot of room to go further with innovation in control schemes, plus mobile devices were already so capable in the 2010s that there was never an opportunity for a quantum leap in graphical fidelity like the ones that swept through console gaming from roughly 1996-2006, when 3-D graphics and then HD became mainstream.

But despite seeming not to change that dramatically on the surface – how much different, really, is the iPhone 11 from the iPhone 6 you might idly wonder – mobile devices and their games have changed rapidly under the surface, dropping support for older 32-bit apps, adding new APIs, etc. on a yearly basis. Their app ecosystems have also evolved just as fast, from paid software in the early days (Angry Birds was once a one-time purchase) to free-to-play and subscription models.

Despite being only a bit over a decade old, “Angry Birds” seems like a relic now. It couldn’t go outside the limits of rock-bottom mobile app pricing nor the restrictive controls possible on a slab form factor phone, and now ironically the best place to experience it as it was is on one of the consoles that it and the other early mobile games were supposed to make obsolete. The Wii U, which sold a meager 12 million units, has a touch screen controller with a stylus that it basically perfect for playing “Angry Birds” and the fact that that console is discontinued means that there aren’t any of the commercial or technological pressures that will necessitate ongoing updates to its version of the game for it to remain playable. Meanwhile, the iOS version to “Angry Birds” from 2010 might as well not exist anymore.

Andreessen himself recently published a new essay lamenting how no one “builds” things anymore, mainly physical things that would have been helpful to have in hospitals, which after all need much more than software. In other words; he seemed to be moving on from the “software is eating the world” optimism because software is, despite being infinitely malleable, limited in its own ways.

It’s limited in the audiences it can reach, as developers like email client makers HEY recently found out.

It’s limited in its preservation, as “Angry Birds” demonstrates.

It’s limited in how it can be commercialized, as the dominance of free-to-play games shows.

It’s limited by the types of hardware that can be built and shipped in a world beset by climate and public health crises.

Software has limits, just like the earth itself. Andreessen’s pivot since 2011 is a strange but welcome way of someone coming to terms with that notion.