Galapagos Software Syndrom

Galápagos syndrome is a term of Japanese origin, which refers to an isolated development branch of a globally available product. The term is a reference to similar phenomena Charles Darwin encountered in the Galápagos Islands, with its isolated flora and fauna, which were key observations in the development of Evolutionary Theory.

Through my career I’ve encountered this model several time, a software houses that doesn’t use standard frameworks, doesn’t consciously follow any of the industry design patterns and is mostly using  proprietary software, Some even use their own proprietary data retrieval system rather than any known database. I call this the Galapagos Software Syndrome, much like the creatures that evolved in complete isolation on Galapagos islands the products of these companies are often unique. Opting to use proprietary software rather than any of the industry standards they share little with the market seemingly oblivious to what the market has grown to consider “the” standard.

Usually this is the result of hiring exclusively fresh grads, these fresh vanilla developers fresh out of university usually have no tools under their belt other than J2EE/SE or .net. Having little work experience such developers don’t have enough experience with industry standard products and are willing to put in extra hours to build their own alternatives from scratch. For instance instead of using a standard application server such as Weblogic, a proprietary server side Java app is built to handle requests. Few years down the line these fresh grads become seniors and they

There are certain advantages for this approach :

  • No need for expensive licenses, everything is built from scratch.
  • Products are tailored to function rather than customised, purpose built products built from the ground up.
  • Resilience to market wide vulnerabilities that are inherited from standard products, After a company will suffer from an OID security vulnerability only if it is using OID.
  • Locking in the employees, since their experience wouldn’t be market relevant.

This approach has many disadvantages mainly pertaining to the isolation of the product such as:

  • Proprietary  software built by inexperienced developers might suffer from undiscovered bugs, and unlike vendor wildly popular software that gets community reviewed and patched by its vendor.
  • Purpose built products are usually harder to scale up or customise, unlike industry standard products that are built with customisation/scaleability in mind.
  • Steep learning curve for new hires since little is shared with the market, It is quite hard to hire experienced developers who’d hit the ground running as they’d need to learn the ins and outs of the proprietary technology first.
  • From the customers’ perspective the code is hard to maintain, which might lead to vendor lock in.
  • Ecosystem integration, current browsers and even OS are designed & tested to run smoothly with industry standard technologies it is hard to predict how various browsers would behave with the Galapagan software.

It is worth mentioning that many of what we consider industry standards now started out as Galapagos software houses however slowly transitioned to market standards, for instance BEA the weblogic producer was marching to its own tune and was eventually purchased by oracle turning it to an industry standard. However the time was different back then and the industry was still in early development modes, currently with so many stable products on the market its actually hard to reinvent the wheel successfully. If the focus is the customer rather than the product then a company is better off customising existing products rather than building it from scratch.


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