Successful software is not defined by the number of lines of code or number of clever algorithms. More often than not, successful software is defined by how many roadblocks it removes for the user.
Sounds obvious, right? But it usually takes a few iterations before software gains critical mass. And for a (critical) mass number of users, you need to remove roadblocks. Roadblocks that power-users or early adopters don’t mind dealing with, but for regular users make all the difference.
Here are some examples of software that were not always the first, but did remove the right roadblocks and cleared the road for the masses.
Netscape is probably the most classic example of this. You already had the internet and the World Wide Web. And you had Gopher, FTP and SMTP and the likes. But critical mass? You needed something much simpler! Something that didn’t require typing in difficult commands after connecting to some remote server. But a graphical user interface where you could just point and click*. That’s what really brought the masses to the World Wide Web.
(*You could argue that Windows 95 did exactly the same, eleven years after the Mac did it).
Remember when you had to download specific video codecs for your media player? I do and trust me you don’t want to do that. VLC was like a breath of fresh air because it took care of all that stuff.
VLC was not the first (or last) desktop video player. But it was the first that bundled all codecs and made sure you could pretty much throw every imaginable video format at it, and it would just play it! It removed that roadblock.
Remember emailing videos? Sure that might work. But how can you be sure the receiver has the right codec (see above)? Or that the receiving email provider won’t mark the video as spam or too big for email? YouTube completely removed all barriers for uploading, sharing and viewing videos online in one go. Just from the browser and without a subscription. A lot of roadblocks: gone.
CDs were already a thing of the past. But downloading, paying for and managing individual songs was still a lot of work. Spotify managed to figure this one out, and it turned out this is actually what a lot of people wanted. Every song available, at all times for a fixed fee? Talk about removing roadblocks.
WhatsApp was not the first or only IM/chat software, not even by a long shot. So why did it succeed (in most parts of the world) as the number one smartphone chat app? Because they removed multiple roadblocks.
Early on WhatsApp put a lot of time and effort in making sure their software worked on any kind of cellphone, and specifically older, less powerful phones. Remember they offered a Java ME version? Because they understood chat is not a one-way street. It only works when everyone involved has the same access. Founder Jan Koum learned this from personal experience when trying to chat with family on the other side of the world on shabby internet connections.
And he and co-founder Brian Acton even carried around old phones for a long time. For this exact reason.
I never had a need for Slack (I’ve been using IRC for over 20 years), but I can clearly see what they did: they removed roadblocks.
While still offering pretty much the same core functionality as IRC offers: persistent group chat (emphasis on persistent). But: without the need of choosing servers, or setting up proxies or using intimidating software and all that other difficult stuff. They took care of all that. Oh, and you can share animated gifs.
The iPhone is an amalgamation of hard- and software. But it probably belongs on this list, for all the same reasons. It was not the first smartphone, but it was the first that did everything right and it didn’t feel second grade (hardware and software wise). Before the iPhone there where many different smartphones in every shape and form, after the iPhone every smartphone looked like the iPhone. That should tell you something.
I have personally never used Zoom, and from what I learned I probably won’t any time soon. But I can clearly see what’s happening here. All the (dirty) tricks they did with the installer and audio-stack: it is all about removing roadblocks. You can (and should be) critical of these kinds of tricks, but you can’t deny it made them the current go to app for video group chat, leaving Skype and the likes in the dust.
(I also think they have the best/easiest to remember name. That probably also helps. I could see it becoming a verb.)
C programming language
I maybe going out on a limb here, but I think C’s portability is undeniably a large factor in the succes of C (among other things). Because C was highly portable, it removed many roadblocks for the years ahead where many different hardware platforms all needed a higher level language but did not want to reinvent the wheel. C removed that roadblock and subsequently became a dominant language.
Entering dodgy terrain here. Not actual software, but a license. There are *many* licenses out there. But GPL was one of the first that removed many important roadblocks, about how to share and and distribute software that paved the way for a whole lot of other things. And caused an explosion of software in the 80s and 90s (GCC, GNU/Linux et al.)
These are just some examples but I always like to hear others! What software do you think removed a bunch of roadblocks to pave the way for mass adoption?
Also published on Medium.