Programming languages are an interesting area of technology. On the one hand, they are the indispensable basis for everything that is done in software, the Internet, embedded devices, essentially everything in technology, and thus are invaluable. Advances in languages – from assembler up to the latest high level languages – are what have made possible the creation of portable devices, Google, Facebook, Microsoft Word, and everything else we do. On the other hand, from a business perspective, they are the arcane “language” (pun intended) of techies. From the end-user perspective, all that matters is that it works.
However, from the side of the language itself, it is interesting to note that very few organizations have actually made money on the languages themselves. There really are only three types:
- Language Service Organizations: These are organizations that build up expertise and then sell that expertise. These are primarily consulting firms and training houses. Every time a new language comes along that has demand, those organizations smart enough to see which one will have broad adoption gain early expertise and a name, and leverage it to sell training and consulting.
- Proprietary Owners: The specific example here is Microsoft, which owns .Net (and various “Visual” languages before it). I cannot think of another firm that has owned a language and made money on it in a similar manner. Even Sun, which largely owns Java, has never made serious money directly off of it. Certainly, it has leveraged its ownership to develop commercial products around it, but little to no direct financial benefit.
- Tools Providers: These are organizations that sell tools to help in development, whether Integrated Development Environments (IDEs), testing tools, debuggers, and similar tools that assist developers.
Proprietary Owners has existed in rare circumstances. Most of the languages in use today have no one getting direct ownership benefit: C/C++, Java, Perl, PHP, Ruby, etc. There is some money in debuggers and IDEs, probably a reasonable amount of money in training and consulting, but nothing in direct language leverage. Further, many of the critical infrastructure elements, like application servers and frameworks – think Rails for Ruby, JBoss or Tomcat for Java, Cake or Kohana for PHP – are open-source. In other words, real money, the kinds of high-growth firms that investors like, are hard to find directly around a language. There have been what would largely be called “arbitrage plays,” where commercial software takes a lead before open-source fills in – WebSphere and WebLogic for Java before JBoss – but they are few and far between.
Given this background, the growth of a new language is important and interesting, critical to understanding where to invest your labour, but it is hard to see how to make scaling money off of them.
- If it does, other than becoming an expert firm and offering training and consulting, where is there real money to be made?
The answers could be interesting.