In August, I took part in a Telerik panel session titled, “Coding Tomorrow’s Masterpieces: An Intimate Conversation with App Dev Masters.” The panel participants included heavy hitters from the likes of NASA’s Planetary Data Systems, CBRE, St. Jude Medical (the device company, not the hospital), Couchbase, Tactile and Forrester Research.

The original premise for the session was around the idea of creating software masterpieces. Similar to a great piece of art, a superbly crafted piece of furniture or even a fine wine, it takes time, a level of expertise, craftsmanship and dedication to result in something truly remarkable that stands the test of time.

However, as the session evolved, I quickly became aware that my original definition of “masterpiece” was a bit too narrow. Each panelist had their own thoughts and opinions which lead me to expand my ideas in new and exciting ways.  

Evolution

Each panelist had their own idea of what made for a software masterpiece. Much of the banter led to a single conclusion: true software masterpieces are not static, like a traditional piece of art. Rather, they evolve like a well-written piece of music. Each time the piece is performed, the musician changes it—just a little bit—in an attempt to achieve ever-perfection. In the case of software, this evolution keeps the masterpiece relevant and effective to its respective users as requirements, technology and the world continually change.

Tom Stein, Computer Systems Manager of NASA’s Planetary Data Systems offered commentary on this evolution. In his case, he talked about NASA’s Analyst Notebook web application, an archive of Mars mission data. While the initial application served a very valuable purpose, the addition of elements, such as the ability to integrate data systems within the application, was vital and expanding upon the initial application. It’s also has kept the Analyst Notebook evolving for more than 10 years, despite only being initially designed to support a 90-day mission.

Supply and Demand

In addition to constant evolution, software masterpieces have a few key elements (beyond the code) that aid their importance. Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research noted that his idea of a software masterpiece is something that meets a need or demand, addresses a specific audience, has value and that meaningfully changes how people think about a problem. Uber is a perfect contemporary example.

Stein suggested that a software masterpiece, much like traditional masterpieces, are in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, he asked the audience to think of their idea of a “masterpiece” and then ask themselves, “would you miss it, if it went away?” He suggested that the value placed on the masterpiece by the individual, is what determines its importance, overall.

An example of this could be something as simple as Flappy Bird (I know, you think I’m crazy, but stay with me for a moment). Flappy Bird, while not earthshattering by any stretch, was brought to the market at a time when it met a simple need, had a supportive audience and was very profitable to its creator. More importantly, once it was gone, gamers clamored for it and its value only grew in importance. While there were hundreds of games just like it, and in many cases, better games, Flappy Bird caught its audience’s attention and its status skyrocketed. Masterpiece? Perhaps.

Going Above and Beyond Can Be Simple

As other panelists offered their opinions about how to define a software masterpiece, Wayne Carter of Couchbase was quick to point out that while achieving a purpose is of value, what really makes something a masterpiece is not only achieving the purpose, but doing so in an amazing way.

That said, amazing does not need to mean complex. Often times the best apps have a simplicity that end-users love. For example, again looking at Uber, they created a very easy-to-use app that is revolutionizing the taxi industry. Uber managed to create a business model and supporting technology that makes customers comfortable and satisfied with the experience. A simple idea that was extraordinary enough to have a major impact on a well-established marketplace.

Chuck Ganapathi of Tactile agreed: simplicity leads to success. He suggested Dropbox is a software masterpiece because users love it and it just works. In addition, the app has been duplicated many times and as we all know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

As the panelists offered examples of software success, the idea of simplicity brought me to another form of masterpiece—the automotive industry. If you ask any “car guy” what they would consider a masterpiece, it’s often a vehicle with iconic lines—a Aston Martin DB5 or a Mercedes 300SL Roadster, for example. Really, can you get any better? As I was dreaming about the cars of yester-year, the panelists also began to discuss cars, but in a much different way.

Masterpieces of the Future

When the topic turned to the next great masterpiece, Krupa Rocks of St. Jude Medical suggested that the Google Self-Driving Car may be it--the idea of cars driving for us, minimizing traffic, accidents and overall road rage. Wayne noted that, while Google Car may or may not be the next masterpiece, the reason it is intriguing is because the next masterpiece will undoubtedly involve the integration of hardware and software, and this integration will be so seamless that users won’t even recognize the software. It will just blend.

As the discussion continued, topics veered in many directions (I will get into those ideas in future blog posts). But the conversation kept coming back to the idea of software as a masterpiece. It was intriguing, not only to the panelists, but to everyone in the room. The idea that generations from now, our great-grandchildren could look back at the work we’re doing today and consider some of these apps true masterpieces–it’s mind blowing!

I question whether apps will stand the test of time, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or will most be considered a flash in the pan as our market continues to rapidly evolve? While no one knows for sure, one thing holds true: the best innovations of our time were built, painstakingly by developers with a creativity and passion for an idea they wanted to bring to reality. While not as tangible as a piece of furniture or bottle of 50 year old Glenfiddich, these apps often contain a creative genius unlike any other.

So, the question remains – what’s your software masterpiece?


About the Author

Todd Anglin

is an avid HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript advocate, and geek about all things web development. He is an active speaker and author, helping developers around the world learn and adopt HTML5. Todd works for Telerik as VP of HTML5 Web & Mobile Tools, where his current technical focus is on Kendo UI. Todd is @toddanglin on Twitter

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