Consolidation lurks in the wings for web development industry

I’m struck by the amount of consolidation that’s taking place these days. Companies are gobbling up other companies in order to scale up, expand horizontally or simply eliminate competition. We in the web development industry have so far been spared this fate, simply because of the amount of incredible innovation and changes that always take place in what we do. Let’s face it, a company needs a solid product that can be sold, and so far, it’s really hard to pin down “products” in web development. Plus, the very nature of our work, which can be done anytime, anywhere, rewards individuals, especially those willing to stretch the boundaries of what’s thought possible and come out with something cleaner, something nicer, something slicker, something cooler.

But, even with all of these road bumps in the way of web development consolidation, it’ll still happen. Don’t think I’m enjoying myself as I write this. I don’t want it to happen! You know what’s going to act as the catalyst? The same thing that’s driven manufacturing companies out of the States: price. Look at some of the free products that are out there, that let you create websites with no cost at all: Google Pages, MSN Spaces, Yahoo (whatever it’s called), etc. They’re not full-featured, but they work to get people started. And they’re really easy to use, to the extent that even a “moron in a hurry” (aka the Apple courtroom test) would know how to use them. I’m not implying that most people are morons, but most people don’t need fancy sites that do lots of cool things and manipulate databases, etc.

If you don’t believe me, look at MySpace. It’s there that you’ll see the tastes of most people: that site is full of tasteless decoration, crowded, nasty-looking things that can’t even be called web pages. And that’s only the content. I’m not even talking about the MySpace-imposed page layout and horribly big, screaming ads. The whole site is gross. But, that’s the idea of a “nice” web page to most people. They don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to web development. They don’t understand how to design a site. They have no idea about the stress and hard work that goes on when coding/designing a real site. And they shouldn’t be expected to know this. After all, that’s what web designers and developers are paid to do. But the point is, the masses don’t crave and don’t care about good design, they want the free stuff, and most don’t care if that free stuff is ugly.

As free products like the ones I mentioned get more full-featured, and more complicated systems like WordPress or Drupal get even easier to use and customize (not that WordPress isn’t easy to install and use, it is, but you still need to know how to code and design when customizing it) the needs of more and more people will be met. And as that happens, the market for web developers shrinks more and more. And here we get back to my opening comments: solidification of product offerings leads to consolidation. Once a market develops for a clear-cut product, competition will increase, the main differentiating factor will become the price, and the biggest company will be able to offer the lowest price — hence the catalyst for consolidation. Besides, who can beat FREE stuff? How do you beat that? Who can beat offshore web development, where people can live on dollars a day and can afford to develop a complicated site for a few hundred dollars? It’s really, really sad to see web designers and web developers who aren’t able to make a living in the States anymore. I can understand why it happens, but it’s still very troublesome.

What recourse is left to us, as web developers? I would hope we can find some solution that would allow us to keep our independence while also allowing us to make a living without competing purely on price with Ivan in Russia or Mihai in Romania or Jose in Argentina, because living in the States, we’d lose the price battle very quickly.

I realize the outlook as portrayed in this post is a bit depressing, but I plan to write a counter-post to this in the next few days. I do think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s hope for those of us willing and able to seize certain opportunities.

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