What Debt Does Personal Computing Owe to the Past?

Last week Dave Winer posted about the important, if obscured, influence of MacWrite and MacPaint after being surprised that a younger techie he was talking to had never heard of either of them. He followed up with an invitation for people to provide their own nominations about influential software.

At least one of the commenters bemoaned the fact that so few people gave credit to software before the micro/personal computer era. This is my response:

I tend to agree that we shouldn’t loose sight of our origins, but I think the fact that so few people can name influential software before the personal computer era shouldn’t be condemmed without deep consideration.

Many serious people dismissed inexpensive micros as “toys,” barely worthy of their consideration. For good or ill though, the arrival of cheap micros meant those people no longer controlled the course computing would take. Their influence was muted, as was the influence of all the software they produced and/or revered. It was like the protestant reformation. The monks and priests, their cathedrals, their rituals all became optional. Nothing mattered but the user, the software and the hardware.

Certainly a lot of the people who were involved in the early days of the personal computer had at least dipped their toes into what came before. Gates and Allen had used PDP-10s, for example, but for many, those cheap micros were the beginning of computing. They may have owed a debt to the past, but only because some of them did the work of digging through the scrap piles behind the cathedrals to find discarded scraps they could haul back to their camp and hack to work on their 8-bit toys.

What the Technology Press and Bloggers Doesn’t Understand About Apple (or the rest of the industry)

John Gruber and others have done good work highlighting the ravings of Apple’s doomsayers and trying to understand what makes them tick.

I’ve been ranting and raving about what’s wrong with the world-view that, “the latest Apple product was a boring incremental update and that they need to release something disruptive or they are doomed,” for a while now, but I figured it was time for me to actually write some of it down.

My take is that these technology writers might know a little something about writing, to the point where they can collect some facts and hack them into a narrative that seems to accommodate them, but they don’t know shit about technology and user experience.

They know that once upon a time, Apple almost died, but then Steve Jobs returned, saved the company, bestowed the the revolutionary iPod, iPhone and iPad upon a grateful public, and as a result, became one of the most valuable and most profitable in the world. From this they conclude that if Apple doesn’t do the same thing, in the same way, again, soon it is doomed, and Steve Jobs won’t be around to save it.

Their mistake, is, as I said before, they don’t know shit. They don’t understand that users are most apt to embrace revolutionary change when the status quo is shit. If the status quo is already pretty good and improving at a steady rate, they’ll stick with what they know. This is perfectly rational, sensible behavior. Incremental improvements let people build on their existing knowledge, revolutionary change requires that they unlearn what they already know and learn something new. Steve Jobs understood this. Time Cook, for those who listen, seems to understand this.

Apple released the iPod, iPhone, and iPad into a stagnant landscape. It stagnated because of Apple’s own failures, and Microsoft’s failure to innovate and improve user experience, despite its success in crushing competition and dominating the industry. Apple was disruptive because catching up on a 5-10 years of missed innovation was disruptive.

Going forward though, the best interests of Apple and Apple’s users aren’t served by disruption, they are best served by strong, steady, relentless incremental progress. As long as Apple keeps up a healthy pace in the areas they’ve already entered, there won’t be obvious disruptions. Instead, every few years, people will feel like things have improved enough that they feel compelled to give Apple more of their money and take home the latest version of Apple’s gadgets. When they get them home, they’ll have an easy time moving all their data and settings over to the new device, and be reassured by the familiarity of the user experience. They’ll also feel glad they spent their money, because the new device will be the best phone/tablet/computer they have ever owned. Their old one, which they may have hesitated to part with, will seem old and worn.

If anyone has doubts about this approach, they need only look at Apple’s oldest product line, the Macintosh. After a rough decade preceding and following Steve Job’s return to Apple, Mac hardware and software has seen regular incremental updates. In the process, Apple has seen its share of the personal computer market grow steadily, and it has taken the lions share of the most profitable segments of the market. They’ve done this from a base that was far far weaker than their positions in the mobile phone and tablet market.

As for what the future holds for Apple. I expect that they will, eventually, move into new markets in a big, disruptive way, but they’ll do it on their own time.  It’s also possible that, despite their best efforts, competitors will end up disrupting Apple before they disrupt themselves. I won’t bet on when though, and I’d be skeptical of anyone of anyone who insists that such a change is coming soon.

Yup, Consumer Electronics Still Suck

I’m reminded again just how crappy traditional consumer electronics are. My inlaws have a recently purchased Vizio Internet-enabled TV. It is, on its own, a decent product by the standards of the consumer electronics industry. The bundled “apps” are pretty easy to access and use with the included remote control. The setup screens aren’t completely impenetrable, etc. But using it with their older progressive-scan Sony DVD player is a nightmare.

For one thing, the DVD player’s own setup controls are crap, and are made even crappier by having to accommodate settings for “enhancements” of dubious value. The worst part though is that when you play a letter-box format DVD, it doesn’t automatically switch to a reasonable full-screen mode, instead, it shows the thing in the middle of the display, with a big black border all around. I can push a button to toggle among the other widescreen modes, but it takes some fussing to figure out which one looks best (Zoom, I think, but I’m not sure).

I don’t know if Apple will ever expand beyond the Apple TV, but there is still sooo much opportunity for them to remove the suck from watching TV and movies at home.

On Economics as a Discipline

I recently suggested that education, in whole and in parts, shouldn’t be considered without the context of economics. I also cautioned that in so doing, one shouldn’t make the mistake of framing that consideration solely in terms of business, or the free market. That same line of thinking now leads me to say more about economics. I come to this point not to praise it, but neither do I come to burry it.

Instead, I will simply note that economics isn’t adequately described from either the perspective of Marxism, or of Capitalism, and while considering it from both perspectives in combination is better that from either individually, it is still not adequate.

Further, I should point out that in my estimation, Economics as a discipline is not just a dismal science, it is despicable. This is not sufficient reason to give up on it all together, because it is still, at best, an adolescent, and probably more properly, an unevenly precocious infant, strikingly articulate and aware one moment, screaming and oozing shit on the furniture the next.

As a science, it might be best to consider Economics in comparison to Biology in general, and Ecology in particular. Biology and Ecology, like Economics, are ultimately studies of complex systems with emergent properties. Like Biology and Ecology, it is difficult to conduct controlled Economics experiments from both a practical and an ethical perspective. There are other similarities, but I’ve come far enough to call out important differences.

Biology, Ecology, and other sciences, like Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy and Geology have all had to struggle to break free from societal dogmas and superstitions and rise above them. Economics, on the other hand, still seems buried up to its neck in the sludge of political and religious ideology.

Biology and Ecology are humble, aware of their shortcomings, cautious about the implications about their experiments, and their conclusions. If some Economists are similarly humble, they are too often overshadowed by their more arrogant fellows, who seem unconcerned or unaware of their shortcomings and yet willing, or even eager, to experiment with the lives of millions by implementing their under-tested theories.

This arrogance on the part of Economics is even more despicable because its area of concern is even more expansive and complex than that of other sciences. It starts with the complexity of ecology, and multiplies it by the complexity of language and culture.

So please, use economics as a tool for understanding the world, but do not depend on it.