Tuesday, July 15th, 2003
Tim Bray urges software developers to avoid being sharecroppers, people who farm someone else’s land using tools and seed provided by the owner. The sharecropper gets a share of the crops, but has little control. “It’s a lousy position to be in, because you’re never going to make much, and if the land’s owner finds something better to do with the land, you’re history.”
Are You a Sharecropper? If you’re developing software for the Windows platform, yes. Or for the Apple platform, or the Oracle platform, or the SAP platform, or, well, any platform that is owned and operated by a company. They own the ground you’re building on, and if they decide they don’t like you, or they can do something better with the ground, you’re toast. They can ship their own product and give it away till you go bust, then start charging for it; and use secret APIs you can’t see; and they can break the published APIs you use. All of these things have historically been done by platform vendors.
On the other hand, “You’re not a sharecropper, especially not a sharecropper, if you’re building on the Web platform. If you can define your value-add as a series of interactions via a browser, or an interchange of XML messages, nobody can whip the land out from under you.” (Thanks to Kevin Burton of Newsmonster for pointing Bray’s article out to me.)
This metaphor is very relevant for content providers now getting paid per click to run Google-mediated text ads. Google is turning publishers into sharecroppers. Google owns the relationship with the client — the advertiser — and has reduced the value of content to its “clickness.” Whether you are the New York Times or Joe Blog, you don’t have a brand anymore as far as Google advertisers are concerned, you are an anonymous provider of clicks. You can’t demand a premium for the quality of your reader — he’s just another anonymous clicker. You can’t demand a premium of the quality of the community you’ve worked so hard to meld — its just a disaggregated bunch of eyeballs.
You are only as good as your clickthrus and Google can always find someone else’s reasonably relevant content to piggyback if you don’t like the terms Google offers. After all, where else are you going to go to find 100,000 context-relevant advertisers?
How much did Google tell you they are sharing from that clickthru? They didn’t say? Oh, sorry.