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Stay curious about how things work, and how you can use them to make things of your own.

Atari 2600

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 ManSpace InvadersMissile Command.

This was hours of fun for all of us. We just inserted the game cartridge we 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 we could pretty much turn it off and on, start and stop games and not much else, so there was no real learning curve and it was pretty bullet proof.

However, I naturally started to wonder: how does it all work on the inside? (as I’ve since discovered for myself, little people can be annoyingly curious, 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”. To be fair, the distinction between a console which I could play games on directly and a more expensive computer which I could type the code for games into and then play games on was a bit subtle and I struggled to make the case.

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 grand 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 & iPad

Fast forward a few years, to circa 2010…

The state of the art, in our house at least, then was an iPhone and iPad - both simple mobile devices, running applications which were sold separately.

We had a few of the classics - Flight ControlAngry BirdsShazam.

Again, it was hours of fun for all of us. We could just tap on the icon of the application we wanted to use and it magically appears on the screen. It had a grand total of four switches – on/off, volume and mute and a home button model. In other words we could turn them off and on, start and stop applications and not much else, so there was no learning curve and they were pretty bullet proof.

However, I naturally start to wonder: how do they work on the inside? Who makes these applications we were using? And, how? While the applications we downloaded were pretty addictive, 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. In the intervening years I’d completed a BSc in Computer Science and helped to build Trade Me a couple of times over, so I wasn’t quite so naive. And 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 a power meter reader app which ran on top of the Powershop API. 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 didn’t let it defeat me. There was always a new technique to learn (discovering autorelease was a revolution, for example!) and I continue to enjoy the challenge of creating something of my own from scratch.

A couple of years after that we launched the first version of Triage, which was briefly a top-rating app for sale on the App Store!

The Post-PC Era?

At the D8 conference in 2010 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).

With the benefit of hindsight he was right. He was, in some ways, highlighting the beginning of the post-PC era.

Of course, it’s not an either/or situation.

Around the same time as the first iPhone was launched 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 grandkids!) This was much more of a controlled computer experience than they were used to - maybe a minivan, to extend Jobs’ analogy? They loved it and the things they were able to do with technology blossomed. By 2015, when it was next time to upgrade, they made the jump to iPad. A small car suited them much better than a truck.

The numbers tell the story loud and clear. There are orders of magnitude more demand for cars than for trucks. The iPhone and iPad and other equivalent mobile devices, are so simple to use that nearly everybody in the world now carries a computer around wherever they go.

But trucks haven’t gone away. As long as there are still people like me who want to find out how things work and are tempted to create things of our own we’ll always need some trucks to do the heavy lifting.

Distribution, Distribution, Distribution

Ever since the first App Store was launched in 2008 (it was called the iTunes App Store back then) it has attracted controversy - both for the opaque approval process and for the licence fees and commissions that Apple charge app developers.

As Chris Dixon explained (in a since deleted tweet), perhaps Atari has some responsibility for this:

In video game industry, it is widely believed that Atari died because of explosion of crappy games. Hence platforms have been curated since then.

I don’t know if that is correct. But, either way, it is true that the App Store is tightly controlled by Apple (is “curated” the right word?), and that remains a source of frustration for many developers who are forced to wait for them to approve every application and update and pay handsomely for the privilege.

The App Store is a monarchy.1

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 too angry about it. It’s an amazingly popular venue full of people looking for software to install. It does a pretty decent job of separating the wheat from the chaff (which is a bit depressing for those of us whose apps are in the latter category). And it takes care of many aspects of marketing and selling applications that are painful on other platforms.

Chris Dixon again in an article about  how the iPhone permanently upended the mobile industry:

The people griping about Apple’s “closed system” are generally people who […] didn’t realize how bad it was before.

If only there was such an accessible and well trafficked distribution channel for web applications. Many of the startups that I’ve worked on over the years would certainly have benefited from an equivalent channel to reach the customers we were targeting with our software and services.

Those who begrudge paying Apple a 30% success fee, probably overlook how much they would spend on sales, marketing, distribution, payment and fulfilment via any alternative channel.

Recently this feels like an open question again, with legal challenges and the emerging threat of regulation. Whatever happens we will always need a method for getting software installed on devices. Perhaps it’s the App Store and equivalents on other proprietary platforms. Perhaps is a decentralised and more open equivalent, without the oversight of a single company? Perhaps it’s just the web?

Who knows?

History Only Ever Repeats

Here is a quote I rediscovered 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 again, talking about the coming wave of web applications, as he saw it way back then. I was lucky enough to ride that wave. It’s been a fun ride so far, and has some distance to run yet, I think.

But, half a lifetime later, we can easily tweak that quote to apply to any new technology.

Different hardware will come and go. Different languages for developing software will come and go. Different channels to distribute software will come and go.

Here’s my advice:

Don’t worry about any of them destroying what came before - that’s inevitable in time. Rather than being scared, do your best to understand them and explore them. Try to see the possibilities and keep a beginner’s mind. But balance that with a healthy skepticism - it’s rare that anything is as amazing as it promises to be in the short term. Often the biggest opportunities are revealed when you understand the limits and constraints.

All we need to do is ensure that people generally, and kids especially, remain curious about how things work, and most other things will take care of themselves.

  1. HT Brad Burnham from Union Square Ventures for that perfect description:
    Web Services as Government ↩︎

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