Roben Kleene

The Specialization of Web & Mobile Apps

Ben Evans of Andreessen Horowitz on the new wave of productivity startups:

Part of the point of both of these waves of company creation is that merely taking Excel or Word or Powerpoint and putting them onto the web may make the file share thing work a bit more smoothly, but doesn’t actually create a new workflow. If I’m a lawyer reviewing files for court, pasting the file names into a Google Sheet is probably better than pasting them into an Excel file on a network drive, but it’s still not as good as an actual tool. […]

If you want to book X, the old workflow is a spreadsheet or an old-world database, plus phone calls, faxes or email. And the way you solve this is not by moving it from Excel to Google sheets, any more than the way you solve version tracking of video edits or legal document review is to move it from Excel to Google sheets. You solve it with a dedicated workflow and tools. Honor is Figma for home help - or vice versa. […]

Meanwhile, a few years ago a consultant told me that for half of their jobs they told people using Excel to use a database, and for the other half they told people using a database to use Excel. There’s clearly a point in the life of any company where you should move from the list you made in a spreadsheet to the richer tools you can make in But when that tool is managing a thousand people, you might want to move it into a dedicated service. After all, even Craigslist started as an actual email list and ended up moving to a database. But then, at a certain point, if that task is specific to your company and central to what you do, you might well end up unbundling Salesforce or SAP or whatever that vertical is and go back to the beginning.

The piece also references an image by Andrew Parker that perhaps expresses the idea more concisely. As Evans describes it, “[by] showing how many startups were unbundling parts of Craigslist into dedicated vertical marketplaces”. The point is that web apps and mobile apps are more specialized compared to desktop software, and the trend is increasing over time1.

I feel like the odd man out by advocating for powerful, flexible software these days. I’m usually talking about creative software, where power and flexibility are nonnegotiable. You can normalize your business processes in order to use an off-the-shelf solution, but if you do the same with creative software, you’re removing the capacity for expression. But even for general purpose software, it feels odd that it’s often the most technical people who are advocating for switching from the flexible, powerful tools to the off-the-shelf solutions.

To use Siracusa’s car analogy, the big applications, the Photoshops, the Excels, seem like they should be the supercars of software, tools that can shape themselves to the problem at hand. But the main powerful and flexible apps that the tech community usually advocates for are Google Chrome, Visual Studio Code, and Unix, which are all open source, but are also all tools programmers themselves need. For everyone else it’s inflexible, specialized web apps, which, like the tools they are replacing, are almost always closed source, while also requiring users to hand over control of their data.

On one hand I suppose it makes sense, since it’s the programmers themselves that are making these more specialized tools for everyone else, but on the other hand, we’re also supposed to be the people who actually like software. Yet here we are telling people to use Google Sheets instead of Microsoft Excel, even though it’s less powerful and people like using it less.

I’ve always loved the chapter on tools from The Pragmatic Programmer, where Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt advocate learning one text editor well and using it for everything. The tech community does a good job of doing this for their own tools, the aforementioned ones, but promotes the opposite for everyone, and everything, else. I think people would be better off investing in learning a few flexible and powerful2 tools that they can use long-term, rather than constantly migrating their data and workflow from one specialized app to the next until the end of time.

  1. The rise of more specialized apps is partially being driven by the ease of installation of mobile apps (or lack thereof for web apps), which lowers the barrier of entry to having many apps, especially when compared to the desktop. ↩︎

  2. The trade-offs of specialized versus general purpose tools are different between personal and business software. Off-the-shelf software is great for business software, because there the priority is collaboration. In the workplace, everyone needs to be able to use the same tool with as little friction as possible. But the trade-offs are different for individuals, with their own personal data. There I think the priority, beyond the capabilities of the program, is being able to open their files for decades to come. ↩︎