Remember those holy tech wars we used to have? Heh, good times

We seem to be far less religious these days – what happened?

2018 has barely begun, and it already feels like we'll be nibbling techwar milquetoast all year long. If 2018 ends up being at all like 2017, that is.

We used to get our collective undies in a bunch over whether Linux or Windows was best, until smartphones rendered the debate somewhat moot. Still, we carried on a version of that battle, with Android (Linux) taking on Apple's iOS. As Linux gathered steam, we managed to turn even the underlying open-source movement into a family feud over GPL versus Apache-style licensing; free software versus open source.

These were epic battles that took on the fervour of good against evil, with the definitions of those two terms highly dependent on where one stood. Not anymore. Though we're still capable of silly holy wars, they've become much more niche, as Capital One cloud architect Joshua Morrison puts it.

I don't need no walls around me

While there are still trolls haunting the comments section of any blog post (look below for a taste), there doesn't seem to be much motivation to gather an army of trolls. Not anymore. At one time there was serious bloodsport over whether NetWare or NT was the better network operating system (yes, really), and legions would spar over Linux being the One True Alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating system (the City of Munich is still paying for its dalliance with that ideological war), but now?

Now we might get irate over drone delivery of tacos, but most of us are content to be smug over the cost of avocado toast.

Some of the things that infuriated us in yesteryear no longer get much of a reaction, but arguably should. Mozilla kicked off a business that today generates hundreds of millions of dollars by playing off Internet Explorer as the saviour of the free web. Today we have Google Chrome largely replicating all the wrongs of IE yet without the angst, even as it stands at nearly 60 per cent market share compared to IE's roughly 7 per cent (across desktop and mobile).

Yes, there's the odd post or two decrying Google, whose "own services often ignore standards and force people to use Chrome", but online message boards aren't lit up with indignation. Quite simply, we don't care.

Should we? Well, yes. Google, like Microsoft before it, has started to build Chrome-only features (like YouTube TV). While the company promises to release versions for other platforms eventually, this is the same slippery slope that IE took us down, locking up large swathes of the web on a closed platform. The fact that it's Google, an erstwhile champion of the open web, and not Microsoft, once the evil empire, is immaterial.

Yet we don't care. Did we grow up? Or are we just old and tired?

Lost in a haze of alcohol-soft middle age

In some cases, the answer might be yes. Microsoft ultimately had to join the insurgents as its business changed. For example, Microsoft's "open source is a satanic hell hole" stance was moderated by its need to evolve its platform strategy. Developers, once content to spend their lives within the four walls of Windows, demanded access to a rush of new innovation coming out as open-source projects. Pushing its Azure cloud platform, Microsoft became one of the industry's top-two contributors to open source.

Religion gave way to pragmatism.

On the enterprise side, Amazon Web Services probably also helped to mute some of the battles. AWS hasn't tried to force its developer customers into particular technologies, instead opening up an "Everything Store" with an ever-expanding array of services, whether built by AWS or not. This has helped to shift the argument from X or Y technology to platforms that offer more or less choice, with "more" winning out.

As for where those battles are fought, this has changed, too. Slashdot used to offer a convenient stage for needless spats over technology. Today, much of the discussion is more diffused across Twitter, but is sometimes centralised on sites like Hacker News. With a general skew toward younger technologists, the top-10 stories on Hacker News as I write this are:

  1. Speech and Language Processing, 3rd Edition [pdf] (stanford.edu)
  2. Why Mickey Mouse's 1998 copyright extension probably won't happen again (arstechnica.com)
  3. Introduction to reverse engineering and Assembly (homelinux.net)
  4. Toapi – Let any web site provide APIs (toapi.org)
  5. Birth Order Effects Exist and Are Strong (slatestarcodex.com)
  6. Browserling goes viral with cheap phone users trying to use WhatsApp (catonmat.net)
  7. Useful Mental Models (2016) (defmacro.org)
  8. What Spectre and Meltdown Mean for WebKit (webkit.org)
  9. Randomness a key in spread of disease, other 'evil' (sciencedaily.com)
  10. Ftfy – fix Unicode that's broken in various ways (now.sh)

Some general interest stuff, and some discussion around niche technology questions. Nothing really "Us versus Them" worthy, though if you dig into the discussions you'll still find plenty of pettiness (for example, "HN is not a hive-mind, stop trying to make it one and get off your high horse"), but the discussions themselves tend not to spend much time on big, meta-battles.

Get your filthy hands off my desert

Which may be the point. You can absolutely spoil for a fight around programming languages, for example. Just throw a "PHP trumps Java" or "Erlang is better than Go" grenade into your favourite two-pizza developer team, and stand back. But while developers have preferences, they don't rise to the same level of religious devotion as, say, iOS or Android.

To Morrison's point made above, we still have plenty of feuds, but they tend to be niche. What are some of these lesser divides?

  • Tabs versus spaces (trivial on one level but also some data suggests developers are more capable of reading code written in their preferred manner of indenting a line of code)
  • Containers versus VMs (while this battle has been "won" at a PR level for containers, thanks to Docker and Kubernetes, the reality of enterprise adoption differs markedly, with operations holding on to VMs even as developers push forward on containers)
  • Containers versus serverless (the next stage in the containers/VMs battle as containers quickly become superseded by serverless architectures)
  • Crypto versus rational human beings (I may have just betrayed my own bias here, but this "hive of invective" pits alt-currency enthusiasts (and gamblers) against those who can't understand how something that isn't backed by anything of value can have value, and why must it be so slow, insecure, and expensive?)
  • MySQL versus PostgreSQL (not a new debate but it has been reborn by PostgreSQL's revived popularity)
  • Open source versus whatever (this is the next generation of the GPL versus Apache licensing debate. Most projects on GitHub don't actually have a licence attached to them, despite GitHub's best efforts to change this, leading us into a post-open-source world of laissez-faire do-whatever-you-want-with-this-code "licensing")

And so on.

If you don't feel agitated by the mention of these particular internecine wars, not to worry: most people aren't. And if you do burn hot at their mention, well, there's a corner in Hell for you and your "friends". The reality is that the tech world continues to fight petty battles over the supremacy of this or that, but as an industry we've largely lost interest in the big debates.

Why? Some of it stems from the same sort of pragmatism that saw Microsoft embrace its nemesis, open source. Once it was the underdog, it needed the underdog's tool. But we've now been through these cycles enough to finally understand that which desktop OS you use really doesn't matter. Ditto your smartphone OS, preferred programming language, licence choice etc. In the new cloud world, platforms are built by encouraging users to embrace more choice, not less, and this seems to have contributed to developers and others in the tech community not feeling the need to be The Only Right Person On The Internet.

Which is all for the better, even if it does make life a bit dull at times. ®

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