Walking on Water

Apple Computer. Barack Obama.

Wondering where I’m going with this? What do these two have in common? High expectations . . . I would even venture to say, extraordinarily high expectations. Perhaps even unreasonably high expectations?

I am 40-years old and I was around for the original Mac vs. PC war, if you can even call it that. Apple was Betamax to Microsoft’s VHS (see, I told you – even my metaphors are old) — a technically superior alternative that seemed to never get the traction it deserved (and yes, I know that Betamax went on to a long life in professional video circles, but it disappeared out of people’s homes). Steve Jobs was thrown-over for a guy famous for selling sugar water. Apple languished, even having to rely on it’s old enemy Microsoft for a deal to help it limp along. Then Jobs came back, the iPod came out, OS X came out, it switched to Intel processors, and then came the iPhone. Suddenly Apple was not only a going concern, it was profitable, it was leading not just one industry, but several. Apple users could hold their heads high once again. Now of course, they also have the iPad, which if you count it as a computer (which I certainly do), has lead Apple to not only be successful, but the single largest manufacturer of computers in the US.

So when Apple devoted their homepage to advertising a big announcement yesterday, the rumor mill started grinding away with fresh fervor. A music streaming cloud service? An iOS update? Something that they’d managed to slip by everyone until now? Beatles on iTunes? Wait, what?! The Beatles haven’t been a band for decades, half the members of the band are no longer with us – how the hell could adding their music to iTunes be relevant or considered important by anyone? Then the Wall Street Journal broke the actual story last night – the announcement was going to be about the Beatles coming to iTunes.

This morning, as the official word came down from Cupertino, I saw my Twitter stream fill with reaction — most of which seemed to be landing on a spectrum of emotional response somewhere between “meh” to “Oh, come on, who cares?”

Well, as it happens, I do. I will likely buy some of the Beatles songs – I have my vinyl collection, and somehow never seemed to get around to buying the CDs, and because I believe in supporting artists (even those as rich as Sir Paul), I don’t pirate music. But that’s not the reason I really care. The reason I care are my kids —  my 8 year-old son and my 2 year-old daughter. I seriously doubt either of them will ever buy a CD. To them, it’s already a technology dinosaur. My son’s iPod Nano is filled with music that I’ve put on there for him – hundreds and hundreds of songs across multiple genres and from multiple eras. My son likes Johnny Cash and Tom Petty just as much as Bowling For Soup and They Might Be Giants. And I want him, and his sister, to experience the Beatles as well.

The Beatles were progenitors of so much that has happened in music, from their start 50 years ago. They were only together as a band for 10 years! And yet everyone knows who they are, and they are an influence, in one way or another, of pretty much anyone who has ever picked up an instrument and wanted to play a song for somebody else.

Will the Beatles being on iTunes change the face of computing, technology, music, or anything else? No. But will it mean that the generation of my kids and all the generations after them will have a better chance to discover something wonderful? I think so. As Jon Stewart has spent a bit of time alluding to recently, the current environment for public debate and news is an overheated, blazing ball of hot air that somehow manages to shed no light on anything. Have we become so jaded that everything has to rise to a messiah-returning-level to even get 15 seconds of our attention? We’re like baseball fans suddenly wanting our team to hit every pitch out of the ballpark with the bases somehow magically loaded for each at bat.

And that brings me to poor President Obama. Much has been made of the shift of power on the Hill to the GOP and the rise of the Tea Party. Will Obama pull a Clinton and seek to “triangulate” his way forward? Or will he pull an FDR, who said the following in 1936 as he ran for re-election:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. … Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today.  They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred!

Hmm, that certainly seems rather fitting, doesn’t? As a Democrat, and as a progressive, I hope against hope that he chooses the path of FDR. But I also know that is not the type of man Obama is. And that’s okay. I supported him early on in the primaries against Hillary Clinton because I believed he was a liberal pragmatist, a.k.a a progressive, and I voted for him in the general election, not because I believed he was some sort of liberal messiah who would guide us to the socialist promised land, but because after 8 years of Dullard-in-Chief, I wanted a President who was thoughtful and considered in his responses. I wanted a President that would not only lead, but would lead by example.

Am I 100-percent happy with Obama’s term so far? No, I’m not. But do I think there is anyone out there who could have done better? No — and I still believe he’s the best person to have in the Oval Office right now and for the next six years. To all my fellow travelers within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party who have been bitching and moaning about Obama and will he or won’t he cave on X or Y, I ask the following: Did you think that the work towards the country you want ended on Election Day 2008? Did we elect Obama to carry us forward or to give us the opportunity to move ourselves forward? Where were you when the Democrats on the Hill were adding flotsam and jetsam to health care reform? Where was your approbation when the Democratically-controlled Senate sat on its hands as the House passed bill after bill that would have created jobs, true financial reform or a national green energy policy? Where were your howls of frustration that both the House and the Senate could not overturn DADT or that they refused to allow Obama to close Guantanamo Bay?

In short, while he is President, Obama is still just one man, and leads just a third of the federal government. Will he AND the Democrats on the Hill need to compromise to move anything through Congress? Undoubtedly. But is that a sign of failure? Compromise has become a dirty word in Washington and indeed across the country, but the only way to move forward as a country is to compromise. No defeat or victory is ever the last in politics, no matter how much the 24/7 noise I mean “news” machine builds it up. To go back to my baseball analogy, be happy when we get on base and don’t boo whenever it isn’t a home run.

So that’s how I see Apple and Obama linked — by a shared perception that anything less than “insanely great” equals failure. It’s a fine narrative for the media to use to fill in the spaces between ads, but it’s not reality.

I mean, come on, it’s not like anyone is claiming to be bigger than Jesus, right? 😉

Let’s Not Forget What the Enemy Is

. . . bad code! Some random thoughts on a technological love triangle, why I hate Microsoft, and how the world inside our computers should be more like the world outside of them

So, Apple and Adobe aren’t getting along. And Google and Apple are on the outs. There are cries that Apple/Google/Adobe needs to be more open and transparent. Google need this. Adobe needs that.

What fools these mortals be! Let’s all stop for a second and remember where we’re coming from. Picture if you will a timber-industry forest . . . row after row of trees, and not just trees, but all the same species and often times trees that are essentially identical. That’s the landscape that existed 10 years ago, brought to you by Microsoft. Remember them? Small little company up someplace in the Pacific Northwest called Redmond I think. They’ve accounted for 85%-90% of the client-side OS marketshare for seemingly forever. Oh, and in that article link (published in 2000), an industry analyst said “the Mac OS continues to be a non-threatening element in the market.”

Forest picture taken someplace close to Redmond I'm sureSo why do I equate Microsoft with a monotonous, undifferentiated forest? Well, there’s the obvious dominance of the market, but also because, despite what they claim in every press release, they are the antithesis of innovation. Oh, they may purchase a company and/or technology once in awhile, and bring it out to the masses, but once that happens, it’s dullsville. The technology languishes. This isn’t because of some malevolent effort by the Microsoft suits — no, it’s just a function of the fact that Microsoft is essentially as old-school as IBM at this point. They’d love to innovate, but that market-share of installed tech is an albatross around their necks. By the time they’re able to integrate a new technology, they’ve reached a decision tree fork : option a) continue to expand use and integration of new technology or b) shoehorn in whatever newer technology that is out there and people are clamoring for. As far as I can tell, they always choose option b.

Why does all that matter when discussing Adobe/Apple/Google? Since the popularization of personal computing technology, there have always been only a handful of dominate players in terms of hardware and software, and very little balanced competition — usually you’ve got a dominant player, and one or two also-rans that help keep the antitrust folks from breaking someone up. You’ve got something like a close to 90-percent chance that, if you’re reading this on a computer, it’s got an Intel processor and is running some flavor of Windows. In ecological circles, you know what they call that? Monoculture. And it is invariably a sign of a weak,sick, or damaged ecosystem. There’s never really been any evenly matched competition on PCs in terms of hardware or software.[note: just to be clear, I’m not talking about sellers of PCs, e.g. Dell, HP, etc. — that doesn’t count as they’re all selling the same damn thing)

The lack of diversity and healthy competition shows — Windows for all of it’s iterations, is a dinosaur. To mix my metaphors, every new versionof Windows strikes me as just another layer of lipstick on the dinosaur. Great – they add the “Aero” interface to Vista and Windows 7, but can they bother to include something better than Notepad to edit text files? Of course not. They now support 64-bit, but can’t come up with a better file system than NTFS?  You know how old NTFS is? 17 years! And the most recent version (used in XP, Vista and Windows 7!) is 9-years old!

Compare that to Mac OSX or Ubuntu – not only do those OSs manage to introduce major new features fairly regularly, but along the way, basic tools and services get improved as well.

So is Microsoft the enemy? No, and I ascribe no malice to them either. The enemy is, as Steve Jobs might say, software that is crap. And at the moment, Microsoft’s OS, web browser, and office suite are all crap. From antiquated technology to awkward interfaces and on to a lack of support for standards, Microsoft serves as the perfect negative-example of how to code software.

Which brings us back to our love triangle of Adobe/Apple/Google. I believe the paradigm of the 800-lb gorilla and everyone else we’ve been operating under for decades is about to change. And it shouldn’t be a question of who is more open and transparent, or who is more or less “evil” — the only things that matter should be: does the code work? is it elegant in design and function? does it fulfill a need? Other than that, there is no right or wrong. Now, that’s not to say that other personal preferences can’t come into play. You may only want to use open-source software, which is perfectly fine, but realize that is what works best for you may not be the “superior” choice for everyone else. You may only want to use technology X and never technology Y, but again, while that may work for you, it almost certainly doesn’t matter to most other people. What we often forget is that most users don’t care how something works, just as long as it does.

The lesson Microsoft should provide all of us is that a monoculture is bad. We need diversity in not only the hardware and software, but in approaches to coding the software, to sharing or selling it, and in how it is used. That will be the only way sustainable progress happens. Every time some blowhard pontificates on why some company’s product or service will bring about the end of the world, all they’re doing is displaying their backwards view. No company has that much control anymore – not even Microsoft. The computing world has gotten too big – too many devices, running too many different OSes, and too many different types of users and that’s a good thing.

So let Apple keep being Apple – Steve Jobs turned around a company headed to the trash heap of history and made it a dominate player in industries that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. They will never be as open as some want, but that’s what works for them and their users, and you can’t argue with that. They control the horizontal and the vertical, and that’s part of why the user experience on any Apple device is superior to almost every other competitor. No one is forcing anyone to use their stuff, so what’s with all the complaints?

And Adobe – don’t whine about Apple not accepting Flash for the iPhone. Flash is a crappy, klugey platform that I hope to see disappear within 5 years. It’s a clumsy tool that 95% of the time is used to create clumsy applications, it’s an accessibility nightmare, and your own tools to develop in it reflect all that perfectly. Oh, and considering your own history working with others developing software to work with your products, I’d not be complaining about Apple too loudly.

As for Google — are they a perfect company? No, and I don’t believe such a thing exists. But at the end of the day, they continue to push the borders of what we can do on the Internet and they genuinely seem interested in doing things in the most responsible manner possible. Do they probably need to focus on actually finishing and/or fixing things occasionally – hell yeah. And for all those worried that they’re going to be the next Microsoft – relax, there will never be another Microsoft – the technological and economic environments will never again sync up in such a way to create something on par with Microsoft.

In my ideal world, this would be the progression for any new service or technology. Google should create or develop it, Apple should then take it and make the interfaces functional and intuitive, and then Adobe can take on the maintenance,expansion, and support of it. Actually, in my ideal world, these three companies and all the others out there would do all of these steps well, but that has about much chance of happening as Microsoft delivering software that doesn’t make me start swearing.

Closing thought: Technodiversity? Should that be a term? If it isn’t, I think it should be. I believe in the future it will become as important a topic as biodiversity. Just as with the natural spaces, where biodiversity yields a healthier environment (more biomass, resistance to disease/pests, evolutionary progress), our cyberspace is dependent on technodiversity for dissemination of information, security, and further advances in technology.