“Took my iPad out into the outside world earlier. Was weird, I felt like I was from the future.”
“The iPad is bad for computer science in the same way that the availability of aspirin in bottles has killed industrial chemistry.”
The dark ages, circa 1985, from memory…
The state of the art, in our house at least, back then was an Atari 2600, a simple game console, with a slot for game cartridges which were sold separately.
This was hours of fun for all of us. You just inserted the game you wanted to play and it magically appeared on the screen. It had a grand total of four switches – on/off, colour/black+white, game select and game reset. In other words you could pretty much turn it off and on, start and stop games and not much else, so there was no learning curve and it was pretty bullet proof.
However, I naturally started to wonder: how does it all work on the inside? (as I am now discovering for myself, little people can be annoyingly curious beyond their station, and I was no exception). Who made these games we were playing? And, how? I enjoyed using the games we had, although to be honest I never was and still am not much of a gamer, but it felt like it would be more fun to try and make my own.
Around the same time I was given some old BYTE magazines, which were full of articles about “computers” like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. At the back there were pages and pages of goobledegook which were apparently the instructions you could type into these machines to make them do different and interesting things. That all sounded intriguing to me, so I started thinking of all of the things I could build and tried to convince my parents to let me buy one. However, they didn’t see the need for another “game machine”. The distinction between a console which you could play games on and a more expensive computer which you could type the code for games into and then play was a bit subtle and I struggled to make the case (something I’m still pleased to remind them of whenever I get the opportunity, given how things have worked out for me since!)
Eventually I saved up enough money to take the decision out of their hands. I purchased a second-hand Commodore 16 off a family friend (he was no doubt upgrading to something even more powerful like a Commodore 128 or maybe even an Amiga?) and started to teach myself BASIC.
It was pretty slow going to begin with. My first project was to try and build a system that would emulate the statistics shown on TV during a one day cricket game, with run rates for each batsman and manhattan graphs and worms etc. It turned out to be far too ambitious. I eventually got it to work for a full 50 overs, but it would always crash at the change of innings. In hindsight I suspect that I may have needed more than 16K of memory to achieve my vision. But either way I never let it defeat me. There was always a new technique to learn (discovering if statements and while loops was a revolution!) and I enjoyed the challenge of creating something of my own from scratch.
iPhone 3GS & iPad
Fast forward a few years…
The state of the art, in our house at least, today is an Apple iPhone or iPad. These are simple mobile devices, running applications which are sold separately.
This is hours of fun for all of us. You just tap on the icon of the application you want and it magically appears on the screen. It has a grand total of four switches – on/off, volume and mute and a home button model. In other words you can pretty much turn it off and on, start and stop applications and not much else, so there is no learning curve and it is pretty bullet proof.
However, I naturally start to wonder: how does it all work on the inside? Who makes these applications we use? And, how? I enjoy the applications we can download, to be honest I’m pretty addicted to and dependent on some of them, but it seems like it would be more fun to try and make my own.
I found a few websites with articles about developing applications. They were full of square brackets and semi-colons that you could type into a computer to create an application that you could then transfer to run on your device. That all sounded intriguing to me, so I started thinking of all of the things I could build. Thankfully this time around I didn’t need to convince anybody other than myself that this was a good idea. :-)
Eventually I saved up enough time to begin experimenting. I installed XCode and the SDK and started to teach myself Objective-C.
It was pretty slow going to begin with (it was a few years since I had to allocate and deallocate memory, for goodness sake!) My first project was to try and build the Flower Power Meter Reader (download now). It probably took me about 10x longer to get it working than it should have, while I came up to speed with some of the unique problems of designing and developing for a mobile device and a touch interface. But, either way, I haven’t let it defeat me. There is always a new technique to learn (discovering autorelease was a revolution!) and I continue to enjoy the challenge of creating something of my own from scratch. My second project, by the way, is called Top Three and will hopefully be approved soon – stand by for an announcement on that.
The Post-PC Era?
At the recent D8 conference Apple CEO Steve Jobs compared a PC to a truck – i.e. a heavy duty vehicle that has its uses but is not the standard transport mode of choice for most people (watch the video). Is he right? Are we at the beginning of the post-PC era?
It doesn’t seem to me to be an either/or situation.
A couple of years ago I got fed up with providing tech support for my parents and replaced their PC with an iMac (yes, they eventually realised that computers are not only about games but also useful for sharing photos of your grandkids!) This is much more of a controlled computer experience than they were used to – maybe a minivan, to extend the analogy? They love it. I imagine that the next computer they get, when the time comes to upgrade, will look a lot more like an iPad than like a PC. A car will suit them much better than a truck.
So, there will no doubt be more cars by popular demand. The iPhone a couple of years ago, and the iPad more recently, are both so simple to use that a much broader group of people have inadvertently started to carry a computer around wherever they go. In terms of putting more useful functionality in more hands, that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?
But trucks aren’t going away either, as long as there are people like me who want to find out how things work and are tempted to create things of our own. If you believe that the relatively closed platform of the iPhone and iPad is a threat to computer science all you need to do is ensure that people generally, and kids especially, remain curious.
Distribution, Distribution, Distribution
Chris Dixon recently tweeted:
“In video game industry, it is widely believed that Atari died because of explosion of crappy games. Hence platforms have been curated since then.”
Is that correct? I don’t know. But, either way, it is true that the iTunes App Store is tightly controlled by Apple (is “curated” the right word?), and that is a source of frustration for many developers who are forced to wait for them to approve every application and update. Brad Burnham from Union Square Ventures recently compared the system to a “monarchy”, which I thought was a good description, although I guess nobody likes to think of themselves as a serf or worse, find themselves banished from court for befriending a rival kingdom.
On the other hand, I struggle to get angry about the app store. It’s an amazingly popular venue full of people who have already demonstrated a propensity to pay for software. It’s an awesome opportunity for developers to tap into, and a significant step up in many ways.
Chris Dixon again:
“The people griping about Apple’s “closed system” are generally people who are new to the industry and didn’t realize how bad it was before.”
— Steve Jobs single handedly restructured the mobile industry
If only there was such an accessible and well trafficked distribution channel for web applications. Many of the early stage companies that I’ve been working with over the last couple of years would certainly benefit from something equivalent that makes it easier to reach the customers they are targeting with their products. If you begrudge paying Apple a 30% success fee, consider how much you would spend on sales, marketing, distribution, payment and fulfillment via any alternative channel.
I don’t know what the future of getting applications onto mobile devices is. Perhaps it’s iTunes? Perhaps it’s a decentralised and more open equivalent of the app store, without the oversight of a single company? Perhaps it’s just the web? Who knows?
Google recently announced the Chrome Web Store, which will be a place for developers to distribute (and sell?) applications. It will be interesting to see how they approach the job of curating listings within the store when it launches. If they get it right they could well end up doing for web applications (both desktop and mobile) what they have spent the last several years doing so successfully for web content: separating the wheat from the chaff.
History Only Ever Repeats
Here is a quote I read recently, from a 1996 issue of Wired Magazine:
“The Web reminds me of the early days of the PC industry. No one really knows anything. There are no experts. All the experts have been wrong. There’s a tremendous open possibility to the whole thing. And it hasn’t been confined, or defined, in too many ways. That’s wonderful. There’s a phrase in buddhism, ‘beginner’s mind.’ It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.”
— The Next Insanely Great Thing, Wired 4.02
That’s Steve Jobs 14 years ago talking about the coming wave of web applications, as he saw it then.
I was lucky enough to be part of that wave. It’s been a fun ride so far, and has some distance to run yet, I think.
But, let me revise the quote sightly, for these modern times:
“Mobile devices, and the iPhone and iPad especially, remind me of the early days of the web. No one really knows anything. There are no experts. All the experts have been wrong. There’s a tremendous open possibility to the whole thing. And it hasn’t been confined, or defined, in too many ways. That’s wonderful. There’s a phrase in buddhism,’beginner’s mind.’ It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.”
Amen. Or, namaste, if you prefer ;-)
When I was searching for Atari 2600 links I found this great post by John Gruber, who makes a similar point…
“40 years ago you could open the hood of your car and see and touch just about every component in there. And you had to, because many of those components required frequent maintenance. To properly own a car required, to some degree, that you understood how a car worked. Today, you open the hood of your car and you see a big sealed block and a basin for the windshield washer fluid. You can buy a new car, drive it for years, and never once open the hood yourself. That’s the iPad.”