David Heinemeier Hansson

December 24, 2023

Finished software

One of the driving aspirations behind once.com is the notion that not all software needs to evolve forever. We’ve become so used to digital services being malleable that we’ve confused the possibility of software updates with their necessity. Some software can simply be finished, and a lot would be better if it were.

That’s basically the antithesis of SaaS. Which relies on the pitch that the system is always improving to get people to pay every month. There’s a really powerful incentive in promising that what you buy today will become better tomorrow. More capable, more secure, more, more, more.

And that’s not wrong. We’ve built our business at 37signals on that prospect. Basecamp has literally evolved for over twenty years now, and HEY has been going strong for more then three. I do really like this model. But it’s just not for everything.

To me, the clearest example is Dropbox. I’ve used Dropbox since the earliest days, and I love it. Nothing has ever come close to providing the speed, reliability, and cross-platform compatibility for file synching of Dropbox. Even though I technically get iCloud File Storage “for free” as part of some broader package, I still pay for Dropbox with a smile. But man do I wish they would just leave it the hell alone.

Over the years, Dropbox has tried a million different things to juice upsells, seat expansions, and other ways to move the needle. There’s been a plethora of collaboration features (when all the collab I ever need is those magic links to files I can send over any wire!) and more and more pushy prompts to, say,  move pictures and videos straight from the camera into the cloud. Along with pleas not to store the files I have in the system on my local computers (presumably so the transfer costs they pay are less). It’s exhausting.

I just want to pay for the original premise: All my files synched between all my computers, with a backup in the sky. That’s a beautifully, simply solution to a surprisingly difficult problem. And Dropbox absolutely nailed it.

But SaaS can’t stop, won’t stop, ever being just enough. I think the closest I’ve felt this in our own shop is the legacy versions of Basecamp. We still do millions in revenue from past versions of the system where feature development has been frozen for over a decade. And these versions have a lot of fans who are as passionate about, say, Basecamp Classic, the one we stopped working on in 2010, as I would be for the prospect of a Dropbox Classic. It solves their problem, and that’s enough.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back when I got started with computers, all software was assumed finished once it was put on a floppy disk or CD. You literally burnt the bits into a hard surface, and they weren’t going to magically change after that. Even if nostalgia tinges that memory with a certain rose-colored hue, I still think there’s also some objective value in constraints like that.

So that’s kinda what we’re try to do with once.com. Not to a religious degree, this isn’t Amish software. We’re not swearing off all advantages of modernity. Especially for the first few products, there’ll undoubtedly be some degree of refinement, and we’re committing to at least three years of security patches on any purchase as well. But we are designing these software products as products, not services. Ones that have a clear path and prospect for becoming DONE.

Let’s see whether the market actually wants that or not.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.