Thank You, FAANGs, for Your Gift to Software Development (All but One of You)

The new year does not look to be a good one for the leading software behemoths, sometimes referred to as FAANG: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. You probably use services from some if not all of them, but they are increasingly under attack for being too big, too anti-competitive, and knowing too much about us.

I have mixed feelings about proposed solutions such as splitting up some of the FAANGs or regulating them like utilities. As a technologist, I see them as more than just ruthless corporate entities. All of the FAANGs have advanced the software industry by taking key, general-purpose software tools and techniques they created in-house and making them freely available. All of them, that is, but one.

Google and Facebook each released software tools, initially developed internally, that have become two of the hottest front-end frameworks for web software developers. Google eliminated its famous “Don’t be Evil” motto from its employee code of conduct, but not before they released the Angular framework to the world in 2010. Facebook publicly released the React framework in 2013. Websites developed using one or both of these technologies (in addition to Google and Facebook) include PayPal, ESPN, Netflix, Twitter, Nike, … it might be easier to list famous brand websites NOT developed using either of these technologies.

Netflix has also made internally developed software freely available to the public, but they’re most well known in software circles for a 125-page HR document defining Netflix’s famously performance-driven corporate culture. Known simply as the Culture Deck, in its various versions it has been read online over 20 million times. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg once said, “It may well be the most important document ever to come out of [Silicon] Valley.”

Apple has released software to the public… expressly to enable developers to build applications supporting Apple’s own products. Still, they make my list of tech largesse with an asterisk, thanks to their User Interface (UI) guidelines. Apple’s influence on software (as well as hardware) interface design has been profound, dating back to their first publicly published Human Interface Guidelines in the mid-80’s. Apple converted then-revolutionary UI research into practice, laying out fundamental principles of UI such as consistency, context, and user feedback. While Apple’s guidelines have evolved tremendously over the years, many of their original principles remain tenets of good software design.

That leaves the final FAANG: Amazon. I’m one of their best customers. I placed 130 Amazon Prime orders in 2019 alone. I make extensive use of their “cloud” Amazon Web Services professionally. But Amazon earns no tech-humanitarian points to balance their arguably ruthless approach to technology and e-commerce. Like Apple, Amazon contributes to public, “open source” software projects purely to help sell more of their own products and services. Sorry, Amazon, no good citizen award for you!

Whatever you may think of the size and dominance of the FAANGs, each has made lasting contributions to how we build and consume technology. Does it matter whether some of their innovation is given away for free? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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