When technology gets out of the way

I’m a sucker for sport generally and live sport especially – see previous posts here on Olympics, Football World Cup & European Championships and even previous Rugby World Cup events.

If they keep score I’ll probably watch it, and might even get up in the middle of the night to make sure I can influence the outcome.

Indeed one of the all-time top posts on this blog is Just tell them it’s sport – although that appears to have more to do with the fact that it contains the words “shower naked with a group of men” and “dress up in lycra” which are apparently both popular Google search terms!

The big downside of watching these big events live on TV is having to deal with adverts, which I otherwise mostly manage to avoid.

Here in NZ we haven’t quite descended to the depths of US sports coverage, where networks have the ability to call time-outs during the game if they are not getting enough stoppages. But, we are slowly getting closer.

The latest slippage is the insertion of a 90 second ad break between the anthems/hakas and the start of the game. It’s an annoying intrusion after all the ceremony is completed and everybody is ready to get going. Even more so at the ground, where all of the players are left standing in position waiting for the referee to get the signal from their TV overlords so they can start the match.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the ads themselves weren’t so terrible.

For example, this horrible “advertisement” for a Panasonic television, which is featuring here during the Rugby World Cup:

The first 20 seconds are a long list of irrelevant and intimidating technical jargon.

The last 10 seconds are even worse, portraying their target customer as a freak who is more than a few biscuits short of a full packet.

The number of people who care if their television has a “built in high definition SD card viewer for media playback and program recording” is infinitesimally small.

Rather than trying to impress with the advanced componetry they should focus on what the technology allows real people to do – surely the manufacturer can think of something more inspiring than barking at your dog over Skype?

The benchmark in this area continues to be set by Apple. The repeated message in the iPad adverts is “it’s going to change the way we do things everyday” – in other words: it’s not what the software/hardware does, it’s what the user does.

So, I’m agitated that Panasonic have chosen to intrude into an event I’m excited about watching and having been force fed their marketing I’m left with the impression that the Viera is a complicated overspec’d piece of technology that only propeller heads and nutbags will love.

Nice job!

Previous Rugby & World Cup Posts:

  • Are the All Blacks winning more than ever? July 2007 – yes!
  • Dark Days October 2007 – thoughts following our exit from the previous World Cup in 2007, in which I pin the blame on all of us (see also: Whatever makes you nervous) and also predict a NZ vs Australia final in 2011 based on historical patterns – before the draw was even made.
  • Re-invigorating the All Blacks December 2007 – more is less and variety is the spice of life.
  • Third Largest? September 2008 – yes, it’s exciting to have it here, but let’s not get carried away!
  • Rugby World Cup 2011 December 2008 – after the draw was made, in which I predict the semi-finalists and finalists three years out (not actually looking too bad at this point, with the exception of under-estimating Australia)
  • 31-December December 2008 – further proof that Richie McCaw is exceptional.

LOAD * ,8 ,1

“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.”

Atari 2600

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.

We had a few of the classics – Pac Man, Space Invaders, Missile Command.

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.

We have a few of the classics – Flight Control, Skype, Shazam.

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 ;-)

Related Reading:

When I was searching for Atari 2600 links I found this great post by John Gruber, who makes a similar point…

The Kids Are All Right

“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.”

The career path of a heads-up developer

… as pointed out by Eric Ries at Kiwi Foo:

  1. Write software
  2. Lead a team of people writing software
  3. Manage people who lead a team of people writing software
  4. Advise people who manage people who lead a team of people writing software

What’s the next step after that?

What do you do?


Heads Up vs Heads Down

Garmin Lock In

I’m a big fan of Garmin.

I acquired a Forerunner 405 about 18 months ago from Chris Auld (even the toys he doesn’t want any more are cool!)

I have been raving about it to everybody ever since.

It’s a standard ANT+ sports watch which connects to a heart rate monitor and cadence/power meter on my bike, but also includes GPS built in.

The killer feature in my opinion is Garmin Connect, a website where you can upload data from your device.  This gives you a great view of the information collected while you’re training or racing (including plotting routes on a map) and let’s you keep track of this over time.  For example, here is a replay of the bike leg I did at Challenge Wanaka earlier this year (please focus on the first half of the race when I was flying, not the second half as I was dying up-hill and into the wind!)

This site has a really clean and simple design, and is a great example of a site that fades nicely into the background putting the focus on your data.

And, now that they have proper support for OS X, the integration is super slick – I simply put the watch in the same room as the computer at the end of a run or ride and the data is automatically sucked out and uploaded.

So, all was good.  Until…

I was on a long training ride a couple of weeks ago and noticed that the display on the watch was starting to fade in and out.  By the time I got home it was so faint that you couldn’t really see the details anymore.

As I write it’s less than 20 days until the Taupo Half Ironman, so (if you’ll excuse the pun) it couldn’t be worse timing.

The next day, I took the watch into a local shop to get the battery replaced, only to be told that they couldn’t help me.  So, I called the Garmin service department, and it turns out that the battery is not replaceable.

I have to say, they did everything right.  The lady I spoke to was very friendly and helpful.  Even though the watch was outside of its warranty period, once they checked the serial number they offered me a replacement at a significant discount to the normal retail price which arrived by courier a couple of days after I returned the faulty one.

But, I couldn’t help feeling like I was the sucker – somehow I’ve become locked in by an eco-system of accessories, online services and persuasive support staff.

So, I guess I need to add Garmin to the list of companies that has earned the right to tax me as they see fit.

Google Alphabet for NZ

Google Suggest

Here is a list of the top suggested term for each letter in the alphabet, from the Google NZ home page:

A: air new zealand
B: bebo
C: currency converter
D: dictionary
E: ebay
F: facebook
G: gmail
H: hotmail
I: ird
J: jetstar
K: kiwibank
L: lotto
M: miniclip
N: nz herald
O: online games
P: pacific blue
Q: qantas
R: runescape
S: stuff
T: trademe
U: university of auckland
V: vodafone
W: white pages
X: xtra
Y: youtube
Z: zm

Some observations:

Surprisingly, four airlines make the list.  But only one bank, Kiwibank, although all of the others were in the top few results.

Lots of online gaming sites make the list, including runescape and miniclip, as well as the generic “online games” – club penguin and mathletics also featured in the top results for their letters.

Some local sites beat out well known international competition – e.g. “ird” over “itunes”, “air nz” over “amazon” and “white pages” over “wikipedia”.

Apart from “currency converter” and “online games” all of the other terms are brand names which the person doing the search could have reached directly just by adding a “.com” or “.co.nz”. (see related: Where do I find Google?)

What do you make of this list? Any obvious omissions?

How many letters do you have to type into Google Suggest before your site shows up?

I’m in fourth place, behind Rowan Atkinson and his daughter.