Whose Plantation Are You On?

Every development platform has its "gotchas."

I thought Tim Bray's use of the term "sharecropper" to describe developers building applications on the Google App Engine was interesting.

Bray, who is director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems, said he was given a hard time by folks who said he used "racially charged" metaphors when he called developers building on the Google App Engine platform sharecroppers "on the Google plantation" in an April 9 blog post.

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Indeed, Bray said: "What a devil's bargain; Google will make your identity pain go away and qualify a high proportion of the world's Internet users to use your app. But you're gonna be on the plantation forever; deal with it."

In any event, I found Bray's choice of words interesting, not so much because I view them as racially charged. From my experience with Bray, I certainly don't believe he intended them that way. I just thought it was interesting because the tech business has always been associated with thought leadership, innovation and the ability to bootstrap-not exactly the characteristics associated with sharecropping.

As Dave Walker, a commenter to Bray's post, said: "Sharecroppers performed backbreaking physical labor for almost no money, and existed in an environment where a bad harvest or a duplicitous landowner could spell the difference between a survivable (but meager) winter and near-starvation. Software engineers work in air-conditioned offices, usually for at least decent pay, and have freedom of movement, self-determination and the opportunity for professional advancement."

Walker was actually quoting from a post he had written five years ago.

But, of course I know what Bray's talking about-good old lock-in. The question is how much you're willing to take and from which provider. Or in Bray's parlance, Whose plantation are you on? Every platform has its tradeoffs.

For example, compare Bray's view of Google App Engine and Google's motives with Sun's research project named Project Caroline, which sounds a lot like Google App Engine.

According to the Sun Web page describing it: "An advanced R&D project at Sun Microsystems, Project Caroline is a hosting platform for development and delivery of dynamically scalable Internet-based services. It is designed to serve an emerging market of small and medium-sized software-as-a-service (SAAS) providers. Anticipating needs driven by new SAAS business models and processes, Project Caroline helps SAAS providers develop services rapidly using high-level programming languages like the Java(tm) programming language, Ruby, Python and Perl, to update in-production services frequently, and to automatically flex their use of platform resources to match changing runtime demands."