Gatsby, Netlify, and the gravitational pull of general-purpose platforms

Developers want snazzy and innovative, but CIOs want stable and safe. The Gatsby acquisition shows an attempt to bridge those two desires.

Gatsby, Netlify, and the gravitational pull of general-purpose platforms

It’s been over a week since Netlify purchased Gatsby on February 1, 2023, “to accelerate adoption of composable web architectures,” and all the buzzwords are finally falling into place. Gone is any mention of the Jamstack (though you can still find its community humming along). Gone are the comments about how the two compete. Today it’s all love and roses between the two companies because they’ve jointly understood what all enterprise upstarts eventually realize:

As much as enterprise decision-makers may say they want best of breed, what they buy is general-purpose, one-size-fits-many solutions. Developers may want sexy and cool, but CTOs want safe and sustainable. The enterprise has ever been thus.

An end to entropy

I’ve addressed this topic of “general purpose” before and how it affects developer decisions around databases, but it goes well beyond databases. As much as individual developers may want to fiddle with their preferred Jamstack (JavaScript, API, Markup) web framework, of which there are many—the most recent Jamstack community survey lists 29—in reality, the front-end development community has for years been coalescing around just a few: React, NextJS, etc. That left little room for a GatsbyJS, however impressive it might be.

And it’ll need to do more than stand out—or, rather, to stand firm: firm against the enterprise’s need for conformity, for sustainability. For order. There’s a reason enterprise technology invariably settles on just a handful of vendors in any given category. It’s not that these necessarily offer the best technology, but rather that they provide the best technology experience for both enterprise developers and enterprise decision-makers.

Small wonder, then, that we’re seeing the highly fragmented web development world start to rein in entropy.

Sam Bhagwat, Gatsby cofounder and chief strategy officer, observes, “The last 10 years we spent out building all the primitives, and then the next 10 years—or however long it takes—we’re going to spend combining them in ways that make the development process, the page-building process, the site-building process easier to use for everyone.”

Very rare companies get to do all of that “combining” by themselves. Maybe if you’re Microsoft or AWS. Most either combine with a larger entity or fade into niche obsolescence. The irony, of course, is that by becoming the one-size-fits-all approach to development, this combined Netlify starts to look like the systems it purports to displace.

For example, Netlify cofounder and CEO Matt Biilmann has dismissed Adobe Experience Manager and Drupal as “monolithic solutions” that “start to feel very legacy and very dated,” but the essence of their approach (combining multiple point-solutions into one meta solution) seems to be where Netlify is moving, even if it’s doing so with a more modern architecture and approach. The reality is that big enterprises want two things: to buy from other big enterprises and to not have to meddle with a myriad of point solutions. Enterprise IT decisions are as much about minimized risk and comprehensible choice as anything else.

This brings us back to Gatsby and Netlify.

Just enough freedom

My hunch is that the Netlify executive team saw that enterprises wanted to upgrade their web development experience but didn’t want to give their developers unfettered freedom. As I’ve written, there’s been a trend toward standard, preapproved environments within the enterprise to give developers just enough freedom to use tools they love without making it a support and maintenance nightmare.

Netlify fits this trend perfectly. “Make all your tools work better by connecting them to a single, powerful development workflow,” proclaims its website. This orchestration of things like the web UI layer, build systems, and more can help an enterprise make sense of the otherwise overwhelming choice in front-end development. Gatsby didn’t succeed in displacing Netlify at this orchestration layer, but with its Valhalla Content Hub, Gatsby arguably offers Netlify a strong running start on better unifying a variety of data sources through one unified GraphQL API. Left alone, Gatsby would perhaps have struggled to compete with more established players like Kong and Apollo GraphQL, but with Netlify behind it, it’s game on.

As Bhagwat stresses, Gatsby kept hearing that enterprises “were looking for stable vendors that can help [them] sort of adopt this technology in a good way, with a good platform, and using the right patterns, and so on.” This is precisely what Gatsby was trying to do solo, but Netlify has more practice doing so at greater scale. That scale and solidity is exactly what enterprises want as they seek to make long-term investments.

Furthermore, Zack Urlocker, CEO of Gatsby and post-acquisition president at Netlify (and former executive at MySQL, Duo Security, Zendesk, and more), told me, “Early adopters are happy to pick a best-of-breed provider for their framework, hosting, back-end CMS, etc. But as we get to larger enterprise customers, it’s more that the CTOs and architects are making a bet on a strategic architecture, not [just] tools and languages.” In other words, “they’re looking for an architecture that will last 10 to 15 years and increase their agility and speed in launching new digital initiatives.”

However much developers may proclaim their love for a particular technology, they’ll end up using vendors like Netlify, Vercel, and, yes, Adobe, because they’re all safe for enterprise consumption. Netlify (and Gatsby) understand this, which is why you may well be using them within your enterprise soon enough.

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