Elitism in Geek Culture

Earlier today I saw this video, made by a company whose web application I deeply love.

The company is NewRelic, and the tools they make are wonderful in helping me to make my web applications better in many ways. I was bothered by the video, and I said so on Twitter.

Later, the man who made the video contacted me and invited me to email him my thoughts on why the video bothered me so much. This is what I sent to him. In the hope that it might be helpful to others, or least enlightening as to my motivations, I’ll post it here too.

Patrick,

We spoke on Twitter earlier today. The meat of this message might not be fully “baked” and ready for deep analysis, but I think if I try to consider it more deeply and make a better argument, I’ll never actually send this email, so please forgive the holes and incompleteness of some of these ideas in the interest of having a conversation.

First off, I want to say that NewRelic is seriously my favorite web app from a professional perspective, and has brought me so much peace of mind and so much help that it is mind-blowing. So, well done. I recommend it to every serious web app developer without reservation as often as I can.

Your “Developers” video bugged me for a few hard-to-explain reasons. I’ll give it my best shot.

I’m one of those developers who has an immense respect for Steve Jobs and Apple. I moved across the country to work for the Mac OS X team in 2002 and worked there for about six years before moving back to the midwest. I never would have gotten into technology without Steve Jobs or the things he helped to make. I’m completely certain of that. So when someone appears to be teasing something that I know meant so much to him, and so much to me, and they’re doing it only a couple of months after his untimely death, I bristle more than a little.

But more important than my personal emotional ties, I often feel like developers and geeks (among whose number I proudly count myself!) don’t really understand how important visionaries like Steve Jobs are. Technology isn’t just about computer scientists solving geeky problems in clever ways. In fact, I would say it’s largely not about that at all. To be clear, I agree that we absolutely need geeks to solve geeky problems. That’s a crucial ingredient to what we’re trying to do. We don’t get anywhere without that.

We also don’t get anywhere without guys like Steve solving less-geeky problems. Steve doggedly pursued simplicity, down to the very core of his products, and protected the interests of common users who didn’t want to become geeks. He let them get away with not needing to learn much about technology in order to wield its power. In a sense, he delivered great power to the otherwise powerless, and demonstrated that innovation isn’t just the first time something is done, but also the first moment it becomes truly easy to do it.

I remember the first time it became easy to see how my app was performing on my live server. It was with your product.

Sometimes my own people, my geeks, act like lowered barriers to entry are a downside. We’re a pretty elitist, snobby bunch sometimes. I think we tend to forget who we’re making all this stuff for, and we make it obtuse and difficult almost as a point of pride, as though only the “worthy” can use our creations. The attitude is that if you can’t learn our horrible jargon and our convoluted, geeky way of thinking, you don’t deserve to have the power that comes with it. I think that’s a disgusting way to see technology.

So, having said all that, when you turn Steve’s concept into a new video which ends with the line “Because the ones who can create magic with code are the ones who will one day rule the world”, it doesn’t feel genuine to me because it conflicts with and thumbs its nose at the original message so strongly. It’s difficult to believe that it “meant zero disrespect” to the original concepts it is mimicking. “Rule the world” is a very exclusive goal. It shouldn’t be ours. The original line from the poem you’re mimicking says “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” That’s what we’re about. Changing the world. Not ruling it.

I hope that we as developers can pull together, amidst our developer pride and geek pride, and not widen the trenches between ourselves and the users. I hope we can help each other to fight pride and arrogance instead of making it culturally acceptable to build it up. The only way we can ever do that is by pulling the focus off ourselves and putting it onto the problems we’re working to solve together.

Josh

The iPad and the Importance of Focus

Apple has introduced the iPad today, and it starts at only $499. I admit I thought Apple was going to go more in the direction of Inkling as I expressed earlier on this blog, but I suppose by releasing the iPad, Apple allowed it to happen, even if they didn’t do it all themselves. The iBooks application is most of what I had imagined as the deeper purpose behind the device, and the interface tweaks they made to email, web browsing, iTunes, iCal, and the rest of the software are really intelligent and beautiful. This gallery is worth a look.

There’s one reaction that has been repeated by countless friends that I’d like to write about and analyze more deeply. The reaction generally involves a mix of anger and dismissal of the product for multiple reasons. You’ll hear things like…

  • What’s the big deal? It’s just a big iPhone.
  • I can’t use something that doesn’t do multitasking / background processes.
  • It doesn’t support Flash? How can that be?
  • It doesn’t have a camera? It needs to have a camera! It’s useless without one.
  • My laptop is more flexible and powerful. Why do I need this?

The list is much longer than that, but you get the idea. The central theme in this school of thought is that the person wanted it to have X, and it doesn’t have X, and it must therefore be a low-quality, worthless product. These folks spend a lot of time explaining why they won’t be buying one, as if it’s interesting news. They often blame Steve’s Reality Distortion Field when others defend it as a good product.

You’ll recognize the thought pattern from the discussions they were having when the first iPhone was released. It had a low-quality camera, it didn’t have GPS, it needed to run 3rd-party applications, it needed more storage space, it was too expensive, blah, blah, blah. What these people mean to say is, “I have a checklist in my head! Design according to my checklist or your product isn’t worth praise!”

I’d like to tell you why they’re wrong, and why their checklists don’t matter. In a word: focus.

Let me introduce you to a user. We’ll call her Jane. She didn’t follow the Apple announcement today because she’s not a geek. In fact, she won’t hear about the iPad for another week or two. She has an Internet connection at home, and she just uses it with her old Windows machine. She’ll go home tonight, check her email and a couple of her favorite websites on it. She likes Facebook, too. Beyond that, she’ll use her PC to write her Christmas letter every December, or play Solitaire, but that’s really all the machine is for. Tonight, she’ll curse at it softly because it’s been slowing down a lot lately. She can’t figure out why, and she doesn’t want to pay someone to fix the problem. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t use the computer that much anyway. She has other hobbies, and other things to do, and she’s not really into technology.

Because of the kind of content on this blog, most of my readers are not Jane. But Jane is everywhere. Jane is the most common computer user in the world. And the fact is, Jane doesn’t need a computer. She needs something less than a computer. She needs something she can type on, and play a few games on. Is she going to be doing a lot of audio and video editing? No. Desktop publishing? No. Does she care that she can’t run such-and-such as a background process? No way. She needs something that can get online easily without a lot of weird configuration options and hullabaloo. She needs a device that knows how to focus. A device that knows how to be less.

But she doesn’t want to spend, like, $1000 and end up getting more than she needs. We’ve already seen she doesn’t need much. Should we give her a netbook, so she can have all the inherent complexities of Windows with a user interface originally designed for a screen twice that size and a finger-achingly miniaturized keyboard and mousing surface and a million options in a nested-folder file system? Should we?!

You hate Jane, don’t you. Just say it. Go ahead, give her that netbook and slap her in the face. You jerk.

Jane needs the iPad. Jane would fall in love with the iPad. You may not be Jane, and that’s OK. I’m not Jane either. But let’s not insult Jane’s iPad. It’s focused, and it’s beautiful, and it’s good at what Jane wants to do. Maybe some day they’ll come out with an iPad that meets the checklist in your head. Until then, let’s show some respect for Jane.

The Problem with Tablets

There are lots of rumors swirling about an Apple Tablet. It’s to Apple’s credit that people get excited about (and start reviewing) a device they’ve never seen. Maybe Apple is making one, maybe not. I have no idea. But the rumors are swirling more quickly than usual, gaining details as they go. They feel pretty credible.

Still, there’s one problem with all these rumors.

Tablets are awkward. If you want to watch a movie on it, how do you prop it up? How do you hear it? If you want to send email, are you doing that on a flat surface? You wouldn’t hold it up in the air and type with your thumbs. It’s too wide and heavy, and easily droppable. If you want to listen to music on it in your car or at the gym, you can’t easily take it on the go because it’s too big to fit in your pocket or sit in your console or on the dashboard. You’d want to put it into a backpack or briefcase, at which point it’s just another laptop. (To be clear, I’m not saying the previous things won’t be possible on the device, but that they can’t be comfortable or ideal without forethought on the part of the device’s designers.)

So now we know the problem. What’s the solution? Let’s think about what we know about Apple.

First off, we know Apple isn’t the kind of company to leave the aforementioned problems to the consumer. They’ll solve the problem for you before they sell you the product, and oftentimes include the solution within the device. (Or sometimes sell extra accessories.)

Secondly, Apple never makes a device just to get something into a particular form factor or “make a play for a niche.” When they create, they have particular needs and particular uses in mind. If it’s not widely useful, they won’t make it. They don’t want to waste money and time making a device no one wants and no one can take pleasure in using. They’re far more likely to make a device that does one or two things extremely well at the expense of other functionality than they are to make a device that does a hundred or a thousand things in a mediocre, awkward way. In fact, I would say that particular tendency is at the absolute core of Apple’s mentality.

So the big question in my mind is this: what would Apple think people could enjoy doing with a 10-inch touch screen tablet? It’s not a laptop. It’s not an iPod or iPhone. It’s something else. Why does it need to exist?

I have a wild guess. Ready?

My guess is that it’ll compete with the Kindle and launch with an iTunes Book Store. You’ll be able to put all your textbooks for school on it, all your novels, periodicals, blogs, the Bible, comic books, whatever. Then, via a slick UI, they enable the user to highlight certain passages and take notes (audio, video, or text). You’ll be able to search all your books and notes via built-in Spotlight technology. Suddenly it’s got the souped-up power of a computer with the easy utility of a well-loved paperback. They could also augment it socially by making it an always-online device which you can use to collaborate with friends and have discussions about anything you’re reading.

Perhaps in the future, publishers of original text would be able to submit and sell their writing in the iTunes Store in the same way iPhone application developers do today. Suddenly bloggers and other writers can make a buck on their craft without having to cling to a huge parent organization. If you’re a good writer, you can do that for a living and you’ve got a gigantic potential audience waiting to pay a few cents here and there for your creations.

In a nutshell, the device will be “Reading Redux.” It has uses in business, education, and in the home. We all read all day. We’re all stuck in paper. That’s gotta change.

Reading Redux is compelling. A device with current functionality shoehorned into a different form factor is not compelling to you and me, and it isn’t compelling to Apple either. That’s not what we’ll see.

iPhone OS 3.0 – Accessory Ideas

The iPhone OS 3.0 presentation that happened on Tuesday really got me thinking. There were a lot of exciting announcements that are being loudly touted by the press: the arrival of a rather elegantly designed Copy and Paste to the OS, Stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) support, CalDAV support, new application payment models, and device-to-device interactivity are a few favorites. These are all pretty big announcements. But the biggest announcement of the show wasn’t the addition of Copy and Paste, but something Apple is just calling “Accessories.”

Let me explain briefly what “Accessories” means for those who don’t know, and then I’ll tell you what I see in this idea’s future.

Up until now, the iPhone has had only a short list of ways in which it could interact with other devices. You could sync it with iTunes, pair it with a Bluetooth headset for hands-free phone conversations, or plug it into a music speaker system with a dock connector. It’s a simple, highly-focused list.

But what if the iPhone could talk to other kinds of hardware? Any kind of hardware? Apple gave a very safe example for starters: a custom application that would allow the iPhone to control a hardware equalizer built into a particular iPhone-compatible music speaker system. But later in the presentation, Apple showed the idea is much bigger than that. The iPhone could soon connect to things that aren’t necessarily music-related or phone-related at all. They asked us to imagine medical devices being assisted by the iPhone. Like a blood pressure cuff wherein the traditional display (which sometimes requires its own cart and custom computers) is replaced with just a cord and a dock connector. Custom software on the iPhone would display all the relevant readings from the cuff (on a large, high-resolution color screen no less), just like the current stuff does. But since the iPhone platform is so powerful, why stop there? Record the readings over time, advise the patient based on trends, and wirelessly send the collection of reports to a doctor from anywhere in the world with a click of a button. Now we’re talking. None of the blood pressure monitors I’ve ever seen could do that.

Keep in mind, also, that these new accessory connections work with both the dock connector or a Bluetooth connection, depending (I assume) on your application’s bandwidth and latency considerations. The cord doesn’t necessarily have to be there.

So what else could be done with this? I’ve come up with a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.

Mobile Magnetic Strip Reader

It’s not easy to process credit cards wirelessly. If you want to sell something to people without a big Point of Sale cash register system and store walls around you (like, say, at a garage sale) it would seem you’re limited to taking cash. Not anymore. Hook a magnetic stripe reader up to the iPhone, write some software, and take credit card payments wirelessly from anywhere. I would be shocked if Apple wasn’t using these by November of this year in their stores to increase the number of points of sale and mitigate holiday shopping congestion. I think they’ve previously (embarrassingly) had to use Windows Mobile to do this.

Device Firmware Updates

Ever had a device whose software could be updated, but you never bothered to do it? My TV has an update to its software right now that I haven’t applied. The instructions require you to hook your PC’s serial port up to the thing with a custom cable (note: it’s not Mac compatible), run some software, etc, and you just don’t want to lug your machine downstairs, get out the cable, and go through the whole thing. What if you could just deliver the device firmware over Bluetooth through the iPhone? No portability problems, no cable, and a nice multi-touch experience that trounces whatever they created for the PC. Suddenly, all your devices can add features and fix problems by using the iPhone as the conduit to the Internet. Devices of tomorrow might come with some minimal additional hardware (Bluetooth, a dock connector cable, whatever) that leaves their future functionality a bit more open and flexible, just like the current flexibility of your computer or iPhone. They don’t now, but they will. And when they do, we’ll really start to see how things can change quickly. There’s no reason you can’t update your coffee maker or your toaster.

I understand these things were functionally possible before. But no one does them because it’s a pain and it’s hard. When Apple steps into these kinds of areas, industries change. Why do you think Congress only started to have opinions about locking cellphones to certain networks when the iPhone came out, when it was a practice that was many years old? Buzz is worth a lot, and the iPhone has it by the truckload.

Internet-connected, Highly-portable Barcode Scanner

Remember my old idea about using the iPhone to price compare? Well, the iPhone’s camera isn’t good enough to scan an average barcode in a store. Android has several apps out that do this now, but the iPhone requires that you enter the barcode digits in manually in order to provide similar functionality. Yuck. But that’s over now. Someone will definitely be making a barcode scanner that connects to the iPhone and talks to a specialized piece of software. If it’s cheap and small, it’ll be very interesting. Not because it hasn’t been done, but in part because it’s on a popular device.

Augmenting Standalone Devices

The Canon digital camera we use most around our house doesn’t have GPS built-in. It’s a bummer, because knowing where photos were taken is a powerful and useful feature (supported by iPhoto ’09, no less), but to me, it’s just not worth paying thousands of dollars for a new camera that has built-in GPS. So why not write the camera’s software to tether to the iPhone (wirelessly or not) and get that data from the phone while pictures are taken? I get GPS data on my photos without having to build the cost of GPS into the camera. Everybody wins! Except people who own cameras today. OK, no plan is perfect.