Users, Tools, Platforms, And The Shifting Goals Of Software

I've been around long enough now to remember when we used different words to refer to our favorite apps and websites. Long before the words Platform, Service, or Ecosystem infected our discourse there were Tools. And I think we need fewer of the former and more of the latter.

The word User is also partly a holdout of this now bygone age. A User is anyone (even a dog) that uses the website or app. By traditional parlance, a User is the person being served by the software. On an Ecosystem, Service, or Platform though the User is likely not the Customer, they're often the Product.

A hammer is a tool and it is used for a purpose by a user—it's right there in the name. The user uses the tool to accomplish a goal in their lives and the tool exists to make the user's life easier in doing the thing they want to do. We used to think of software that way, but alas that mode of thought has long faded from popular conception. These days a User is more likely to be a person used by the software rather than someone who uses it to accomplish a goal. The software's goal is paramount, not the human's.

No doubt many of us out there still believe the old adage I've recited as:

A computer is a tool. I don't wait for a hammer, it waits for me. Hammers exist to make life easier not harder. Computers and software should be no different.

These days it is more likely for software to feel like an entertainment product, a movie theatre. The User then isn't a person trying to accomplish a goal, but is a captive audience who paid for one experience but gets a bunch of extra content thrown at them for the privilege of getting what they paid for. Though, thinking about it more, perhaps the better comparison is that of an airport. A user's every movement is tracked and monitored both for security and sales, everything is overpriced and cheaply-made, yet at the end of the day you still get where you need to go (assuming your bags make it and the plane has no loose bolts).

Perhaps this transformation is part of the increased scope and scale of modern software or perhaps it has to do with the professionalization and financialization of the industry. Maybe it's something else. I don't know.

Apps like NetNewsWire or Mastodon (just to name two examples) remind me of what we've lost. They're not trying to get me to adopt some platform. They're tools to help me get work done, like good software should.

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