Worse is Better

Richard Gabriel’s essay Worse is Better is one of the handful of things I strongly advocate any serious designer reading. It’s a bit bitter, since it reflects the hard won discovery that the way he and his community were approaching the systems design problem was fatally flawed. As such it’s an attempt to frame the arguement for why they should move out of their comfort zone and into foreign territory. With minor variations this is a key reason that Common Lisp only captured a niche rather than the world. The lessons in this essay were taken to heart by any number of the refugees that left that world.

I now tell the story he’s telling in very different way.

Systems are valuable because they solve integration problems. They bring stuff together in new ways. Designers need to appreciate that there are two kinds of integration value: inside and outside. The inside connections of a system are what most engineers think of as design. When it’s easy they take modular components and hook them together; when it’s hard they force unwilling bits of technology to cohabitate in a space slightly too small for them.

External integration is what marketing folks tend to claim as their turf. But if you set back and consider the situation engineers to this too. For example when unix was designed to have pipes that made it easy to hook elements together dynamicly and a uniform file system that made it easy to hang devices of all kinds off the same name space as the files the result was a substrate that encouraged complementary connections. All that stuff that plugged into that framework created external connections. When a programming language is designed to be easy to learn your creating affordances for easy connections.

As soon as the system your building has network effects associated with these external connections the designer needs to wake up and embrace that external connections are more important then internal ones. External connections tend to be more durable, external connections are often more scalable, external connections capture early in a market a the seeds of hubs.

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