Software is still eating the world… one byte at a time

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“Software is eating the world,” declared Marc Andreessen in 2011.

As co-founder of Netscape, and later co-founder of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, he was well placed, if also financially vested, in making the observation.

“My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy,” Andreessen wrote.

“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defence.”

More than a decade later there can be little doubt that Andreessen was in many ways correct.

Tech startups have profoundly disrupted a great many business sectors, and in order to keep them at bay incumbents have invested heavily in software too.

To give just one example, agricultural machinery giant, John Deere, which was established 186 years ago, now employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers.

In an interview with the Verge podcast Decoder, Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer at John Deere, explained why tractors are now essentially giant computers, thanks to the rise of what is known as precision agriculture, which enables ‌farmers to track the placement and development of seeds and their subsequent yield.

In theory, this means much greater efficiency – and a new model for John Deere based on subscriptions to software services rather than just machine sales and parts.

But this introduces some interesting questions.

“Turning everything into computers means everything has computer problems now. Like all that farming data: who owns it? Where is it processed?” says Decoder host Nilay Patel.

“And then there are the tractors themselves — unlike phones, or laptops, or even cars, tractors get used for decades. How should they get upgraded? How can they be kept secure? And most importantly, who gets to fix them when they break?”

In his 2011 essay, Andreessen specifically mentioned healthcare and education were ripe for disruption, but so far change has been incremental.

While the administrative functions of hospitals and schools may have adopted new software to improve workflows, and software has aided the development of new drugs and devices, for most people the experience of being seen by a doctor or attending class is relatively unchanged.

It will be fascinating to see the impact of recent developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence in the years ahead.

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