Six years ago, Joel Spolsky wrote a piece on Architecture Astronauts, people who get so obsessed with the big picture that they miss the important little details that actually make things work. More recently, Dare Obasanjo pointed to Spolsky’s piece in his posting XML Has Too Many Architecture Astronauts.
I’d like to start by agreeing with Dare: XML does have too many architecture astronauts, and almost everything that’s bad, ugly, or simply scary about the huge number of standards built around XML (WS-* springs immediately to mind, but it’s not alone) comes from gross overgeneralization. That said, architecture astronauts do have their place, and we ignore them at our peril.
Case 1: Napster
Let’s start by turning Spolsky’s main example (which Dare cites) on its head. Here are two different perspectives on Napster circa 2001:
Architecture pedestrian: Napster lets people find and download songs.
Architecture astronaut: Peer-to-peer networks let people find and download songs. Napster is (was) a peer-to-peer network.
Spolsky writes about how architecture astronaut perspective helped to fuel a mini-P2P bubble at the time, with investors pouring wasted money into P2P-everything, when Napster’s success was due not to the fact that it was P2P but to the fact that it let people get songs easily. However, consider what was happening at the same time in the music industry. Rightly or wrongly, they wanted to stop people from sharing songs. The architecture pedestrian perspective (my term, not Spolsky’s) told them that Napster lets people find and download songs, so the industry spent millions of dollars in legal fees, PR, etc. shutting down Napster. The result? People downloaded even more music. After all, as the astronauts said, it was P2P networks that let people share music, not Napster in particular. Since then, the music industry has been fighting the equivalent of an insurgency, putting down one uprising after another with no end in sight.
Case #2: The Netscape IPO
My second example took place over 11 years ago, kicking of the much larger dot.com bubble (the P2P mini-bubble was just a tiny part of its tail). It was around 1995 that most non-techies noticed the web, mostly through the lens of the Netscape browser. Again, the architecture pedestrian and the architecture astronaut looked at this differently:
Architecture pedestrian: Netscape lets people see text and pictures online.
Architecture astronaut: The web allows people to put text and pictures online. Netscape is a web browser.
This time, the investors listened to the architecture pedestrian rather than the architecture astronaut: Netscape was set to open at $14/share, doubled to $28/share, and climbed to $75/share on the first day, and eventually reached a peak market cap of $8 billion. The astronauts knew all along, however, that while people (at the time) thought of the web in terms of the Netscape browser, the web wasn’t Netscape. If Internet Explorer hadn’t knocked Netscape off its perch (resulting in layoffs as early as January 1998), some other browser soon would have.
Case #3: XML