Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

App Engine: Commodity vs. Proprietary

I like this phrasing of the debate about App Engine’s role, from Doug Cutting: Cloud: commodity or proprietary? (via). (Well, I like it more than the sharecropping phrasing referenced in my last post.) I guess I’m excited about this because like Doug I do want a “cloud” of sorts, and this is a move towards that in a way that makes sense to me. Maybe to state my motivations more clearly: I hate computers. I really hate them a lot. I dream of some world of Platonic ideals where software just exists, and existence that state it works. App Engine feels like a strong move in the direction of computers-not-mattering. What does App Engine run on? I don’t care! Where is the server located? I don’t care! What is BigTable? I am comfortable thinking of it only in its abstract sense, an API that works, and I don’t know how, nor do I need to know how. I don’t need to know these things if they just work. Always. Totally reliably. I’m not shy about digging into code. I tend to be light on my reading of documentation, because I’d much rather open up source code and poke around. But when something can work so reliably that I can treat it as completely opaque then it’s a blessing, because I can start to forget about it and think about bigger goals.

There was a time when people were concerned about Big Endian vs. Little Endian in computers. You had to think about this sort of little detail when programming. People formed actual opinions on which way was best. To think! Similarly XML has removed a large number of fairly pointless format decisions people might make. There is progress. Commodity hosting (reliable, consistent hosting, better than what we have now) feels like similar progress.

Unlike Doug I’m optimistic that App Engine is a move in the direction of a commodity cloud. The APIs seem to lack the stench of proprietary APIs. They are based on Google services, but they reasonably abstract and reasonably minimal. This does not seem like some kind of “play” (and the developers’ seem to be reassuring about their intentions). There’s a tendency to be cynical about any company’s work, that it has underlying intentions that are at odds with any competitor (present or future), that anything good is just a loss leader meant to hook you in so they can squeeze you later. Some companies deserve such cynicism. I don’t know that this company, or this team, deserves that.

Mind you, I don’t say this from a Best-Tool-For-The-Job perspective. I believe in the moral foundations of Free Software, not just the technical advantages of its development process. But I’m a Utilitarian, and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable that not everything is Free if I think it’s a step forward for overall freedom. I think App Engine has the potential to be a very powerful tool for enabling people to create and use web applications. If it was great, but still a dead end, then maybe that wouldn’t be good enough. But I don’t think this is a dead end.

Update: Indeed people are reimplementing the interface: see the announcement

This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.