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Google App Engine: Rise of the Hobbyist?

Though I feel bad for jumping on the bandwagon, the Google App Engine is worth talking about because it represents what could be a major critical point in the development of web applications.

To this point the production of web applications has largely been the business of startups small and large. While the development of the applications involved can sometimes be a one-person operation, the infrastructure to run a production-ready scalable app has largely been beyond the reach of individuals and hobbyists. Google’s move, while still in its early stages, could be a watershed moment in app development.

De-Brandification

One thing that the App Engine might do is begin to separate web applications from the branding/marketing needs they currently have, at least in the initial stages. The app gallery access to a list of applications, all of which are easily accessible with your Google account, provides a brand-new experience for users. Rather than hearing about a new app that happens to do something that a user wants, instead they can now actively browse through a listing of applications, all rated and all easily accessible with a single sign-on. Do you care what company makes the widgets you stick on your Dashboard or your iGoogle page?

This isn’t necessarily bad news. Apps can still generate ad revenue and charge for services, but who makes the app becomes far less of a factor than how good it is at doing its thing.

Apps Get Smaller

With a central directory and a free base infrastructure, applications do not need to be all things to all people. They don’t even need to be most things to most people. The profit model for an application simply becomes a question of revenue recouping development time. While AWS provides a much less expensive server infrastructure than traditional mediums, the value of free cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to the individual.

If a developer knows they can host an app that can scale to thousands of users with no cost, there is a stronger incentive than ever before for ‘the hobby project’, something that the developer thinks is cool but may or may not have real-world marketability. This is a dream come true in an increasingly agile industry: ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ becomes not only viable but likely preferable when the barrier to entry is lowered by such a drastic degree.

Enter the Hobbyist

This low barrier to entry is going to foster a new generation of hobbyist apps. Many, perhaps most, will likely be worthless at least in some aspect. But a few will be brilliant gems, developed by a single person on a zero dollar budget. Hobbyists can create their projects on the side, release them in the wild, and see what gets a following, all at zero cost except the time spent developing the app.

This obviously isn’t applicable to all apps and situations, and venture-backed startups will still have just as much of a place, but the entry of hobbists into the web app mainstream could be a kickstart for competition and interoperability.

Nothing if Not Consistent

The final piece of the Google App Engine puzzle is that by providing a single platform – BigTable, Python, Google Account Access, and a standardized SDK, it will be much easier for App Engine projects to interact with each other semantically since they will all be built on essentially the same structure. As a Rubyist, I certainly look forward to more language support, but I think there is some power in the one-dimensional approach that, although it limits options, also provides a consistent target.

An analog to this is video game development. Up until the most recent generation, PC gaming was considered the platform for the truly ‘hardcore.’ But for developers, a consistent platform target that was deployed in millions and millions of homes won out against the configurability of the PC market. I think the same thing could be happening in the web app world: configurability is great, but if 90% of all apps can be hit by a single offering, it may be more worth it to have the consistency. This does not include language dependence, but if the App Engine SDK were available for all the big scripting languages, it would maintain that consistency while giving developers flexibility in implementation.

There are exciting times ahead, and the community will certainly be watching as more developments arise in the App Engine arena.

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