Is It 1998 Again?

Set the Dial to 1998

Let’s power up the time machine and take a quick trip back to the wide world of tech around 1998. Microsoft was the Khaleesi of software and controlled a vast empire through Windows, Office, and Internet Explorer. Microsoft marched its conquering army of apps over the desktop and through the Internet with innovations like XMLHttpRequest, USB peripherals, and intelligent assistants.

All three of these innovations would go on to fashion the world we live in today with websites that look and feel like apps, devices that plug and play with our computers and phones, and helpful voices that do our bidding.

But back in 1998 these groundbreaking technologies were siloed, incompatible, and unintuitive!

  • You’d find that fancy web apps were usually tied to a specific browser (Walled Garden).
  • You’d buy a USB mouse and often find that it couldn’t wiggle your pointer around the screen (Standard Conformance).
  • You’d grow frustrated with Clippy (aka Clippit the Office assistant) because the only job it could reliably do was “Don’t show me this tip again.” (Poor UX).

And this is exactly where we are in 2018! Still siloed, incompatible, and unintuitive!

  • Do you want to run that cool app? You have to make sure you subscribe to the wall garden where it lives!
  • Do you want your toaster to talk to your doorbell? Hopefully they both conform to the same standard in the same way!
  • Do you want a super intelligent assistant who anticipates your every need, and understands the spirit, if not the meaning, of your commands? Well, you have to know exactly what to say and how to say it.

Digital Mass Extinction

The difference between 1998 and 2018 is that the stakes are higher and the world is more deeply connected. Products and platforms like Apple’s iOS, Google’s Cloud IoT Core, and Amazon’s Alexa existed in 1998–they just couldn’t do as much and they cost a lot more to build and operate.

In between 1998 and 2018 we had a digital mass extinction event—The dot com bubble burst. I was personally involved with two companies that didn’t survive the bubble, FlashPoint (digital camera operating system) and BitLocker (online database application kit). Don’t even try to find these startups in Wikipedia. But there are a few remains of each on the Internet: here and here.

Today, FlashPoint would be reincarnated as a camera-based IoT platform and BitLocker would sit somewhere between iCloud and MongoDB. Yet the core problems of silos, incompatibility, and lack of intuitive control remain. If our modern day apps, IoT, and assistants don’t tackle these problems head-on there will be another mass extinction event. This time in the cloud.

How To Avoid Busting Bubbles

Let’s take a look at the post-dot com bubble burst world for some clues on how to prevent the next extinction. After the startups of the late 1990s died-off in the catastrophe of the early 2000s the designers, developers, and entrepreneurs moved away from silos, proprietary standards, and complicated user experiences. The modern open standards, open source, and simplicity movements picked up steam. It became mission critical that your cool app could run inside any web browser, that it was built on battle tested open source, and that no user manuals were required.

Users found they could buy any computer, use any web browser, and transfer skills between hardware, software, and services. This dedication to openness and interoperability gave great results for the top and bottom lines. Tech companies competed on a level playing field and focused on who could be the most reliable and provide the highest performance and quality. Google and Netflix were born. Apple and Amazon blossomed.

Contrast that with the pre-bubble burst world of 1998 (and 2018) where tech companies competed on being first to market and building high walls around their proprietary gardens.

If we want to avoid the next tech bubble burst (around 2020?) we need Apple, Google, Amazon, and even Netflix to embrace openness and compatibility.

  • Users should be able to talk to Google, Siri, and Alexa in exactly the same way and get similar results (UX transferability).
  • Users should be able to use iOS apps on their Android phones (App compatibility).
  • Users should be able to share connected and virtual worlds such that smart speakers, smart thermostats, and augmented reality work together without tears (Universal IoT bus).

Google and Apple and Standards

At Google I/O last week the Alphabet subsidiary announced a few of examples of bubble avoidance features…

  • Flutter and Material Design improvements that that work as well on Android as they do on iOS.
  • AR “cloud anchors” that create shared virtual spaces between Android and iOS devices.

But sadly Google mostly announced improvements to its silos and proprietary IP.  I’m sure at the WWDC next month Apple announce the same sorts of incremental upgrade that only iPhone and Mac users will benefit from.

Common wisdom is that Apple’s success is build on its proprietary technology from custom chips to custom software. This is simply not true. When I was at Apple in the 1990s success (and failure) built on a foundation of standards, like CD-ROM, USB, and Unicode. Where Apple failed, in the long run, was where it went its own incompatible, inoperable, way.

In the 1998 the macOS was a walled garden failure. In 2018 macOS is a open source BSD Unix-based success. More than Windows, more than ChromeOS, and almost as much as Linux, macOS is an open, extensible, plug and play operating system compatible with most software.

The Ferris Wheel of Replatforming

Ask any tech pundit if the current tech bubble is going to burst and they will reply in all caps: “YES! ANY MOMENT NOW!!! IT’S GONNA BLOW!!!”

Maybe… or rather eventually. Every up has its down. It’s one of the laws of thermodynamics. I remember reading an magazine article in 2000 which argued that the dot com boom would never bust, that we had, through web technology, reached escape velocity. By mid-2000 we were wondering if the tech good times would ever return.

Of course the good times returned. I’m not worried about the FAANG companies surviving these bubbles. Boom and bust is how capitalism works. Creative destruction as been around as long as Shiva, Noah, and Adam Smith. However, it can be tiresome.

I want us to get off the ferris wheel of tech bubbles inflating and deflating. I want, and need, progress. I want my apps to be written once and run everywhere. I want my smart speaker of choice, Siri, to be as smart as Google and have access to all the skills that Alexa enjoys. I want to move my algorithms and data from cloud to cloud the same way I can rent any car and drive it across any road. Mostly, I don’t want to have to go back and “replatform.”

When you take an app, say a banking app or a blog, and rewrite it to work on a new or different platform we call that replatforming. It can be fun if the new platform is modern with cool bells and whistles. But we’ve been replaforming for decades now. I bet Microsoft Word has been replatformed a dozen times now. Or maybe not. Maybe Microsoft is smart, or experienced, enough to realize that just beyond the next bubble is Google’s new mobile operating system Fuchsia and Apple’s iOS 12, 13, and 14 ad infinitum…

The secret to avoid replatforming is to build on top of open standards and open source. To use adaptors and interpreters to integrate into the next Big Future Gamble (BFG). macOS is built this way. It can run on RISC or CISC processors and store data on spinning disk or solid state drives. It doesn’t care and it doesn’t know where the data is going or what type of processor is doing the processing. macOS is continuously adapted but is seldom replatformed.

To make progress, to truly move from stone, to iron, to whatever comes after silicon, we need to stop reinventing the same wheels and instead, use what we have built as building blocks upon which to solve new, richer problems, to progress.

 

Future Shock Reloaded

When I was a lad I would sneak into my father’s den and ransack his library. This was the early 1970s and I discovered all sorts of treasures, many of which I could barely comprehend, including The Godfather and even The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But the one book my pre-teen brain could parse was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I didn’t read the whole thing, too many pages! But I got the gist: “too much change in too short a period of time” is bad for us.

Toffler argued that human beings and culture just can’t keep up with the accelerating rate of modern technological change. For thousands of years we were farmers; for hundreds of years we were crafters; for decades we were factory workers, and now, what are we?

  • Last week we were web developers worried about search engine results.
  • This week we are gig-economy drivers living on apps for pickups.
  • Next week we’ll be data analysts mining Bitcoins on behalf of AIs.

Indeed, we’re getting those accelerating returns that Ray Kurzweil promised. Every week there is new technological anxiety adding to our already overwrought imaginations. Future Shock is back!

At home, at work, and on the road, I run into people worried about the impact of technology disruption on their careers, their health, and their spirits. And people have questions. Urgent questions that are difficult to answer but critical to understand in our Future Shocked world…

  • “Should I buy Bitcoin?”
  • “Will Robots steal my job?”
  • “Should I plug in an Alexa and allow it to spy on me?”

These are all great questions. And I don’t really have the definitive answers. But I have some ideas. The future is hard to predict but there are trends that we can look for and some basic laws of human behavior that we can count on. I’m going to share my answers below. I’m probably wrong but these answers are the best advice I can give.

Should I buy Bitcoin?

If you have to ask the question then the answer is probably “No.”

Buying or mining any cryptocurrency was a fun hobby in 2009. Today, Bitcoin and its friends Litecoin, Ripple, Dogecoin, Ethereum, et al. are basically a modern form of gambling and money laundering. If you have money you can afford to lose, and you’re not already in Las Vegas, go ahead, gamble on Bitcoin.

What we should buy as in buy into is Blockchain. It’s the future of how we’re going to contract with each other. There is a great book entitled Debt by David Graeber which explains that money is a social debt or obligation contracted between two parties. And these social contracts existed long before dollar bills, bills of sale, and other formal written contracts. Blockchain is the modern incarnation of social contracts as software. Blockchain is decentralized and open and part of a larger trend of “software eating the world.”

I bet in a decade or two almost every thing of value, including the labor of people like you and me, will be tracked and traded via blockchain-enabled smart contracts. Partnerships, concert tours, college educations, and even cute little human babies will hold ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) and we’ll all invest in each other such that the rising or lowering tide of value we collectively earn (or mine) will be used to pay our debts.

Blockchain will make the value we create for society as individuals *fungible*. I’ll be able to buy a block of your creativity and you’ll be able to buy a block of my coding skill.

Will robots steal my job?

Yes… but it’s ok, you’ll get another job (if you become T-Shaped).

There is no industry, vocation, or advocation that will not be impacted by automation and machine learning. In only a few more years RPA, Robot Process Automation, will automate entry level and managerial tasks. Everything from buying toilet paper to approving expense reports will be automated by a narrowly smart bot—not a physical robot like R2D2. Telemarketing, accounting, retail, sales, driving, and even acting and singing will be automated so that the labor is cheaper, cleaner, quicker, and more reliable.

And we want this world of smart, unbiased robots, lowering costs and improving service.

My favorite example is the Amazon Go Store. No cashiers, no money, no lines, no rudeness, and no shoplifting. Sooner than we think the major retail stores will be crewed only by a store manager or two while cameras and sensors do all the other jobs. Not only cashiers but security guards, cleaners, stockers, and customer service jobs will be automated away or performed remotely.

Luckily, in the world of software engineering, we have a great deal of experience with automation-driven employment disruption. When I started coding in the 1980s I used low-level programming languages like Assembly and C, but most of the work was the *housekeeping* required to build, test, and deploy software. Today, while I’m still programming, the real innovation is in DevOps and Cloud Computing and all the ways they automate the software development process.

Software engineers like me have learned to continuously learn! We’ve also learned to stretch and try new types of jobs every few years so we remain relevant and employable. In the software world we call this being T-shaped. This means we know a lot about a lot of things in our general domain but we also have a specialization or two where we have expertise and experience.

No matter what kind of expertise or experience that you have now, that enables your employment, it will probably be automated away in a decade or two. However, your domain will remain and new areas of specialization requiring new expertise and experience will open up, creating new jobs and new opportunities.

Should I plug in an Alexa and allow it to spy on me?

Absolutely.

Choose a voice assistant, Alexa, Google, Siri, and learn how to take advantage of it as it learns how to take advantage of you.

You’re worried about your privacy and security. Me too! But ignoring or unplugging technology won’t protect us from corporate snooping or hacking. The best defense of our privacy and data is strong engagement with and deep understanding of the technology that surrounds us.

Decades ago, I lived in a world where we had to type at a computer to get it to do anything. Today, I mostly touch screens to get stuff done. But typing and touching isn’t any more secure than a Home Pod that listens for and responds to my voice. And these smart speakers aren’t mind readers. We have to learn how to talk to a computer as it has to learn how to understand us. Both get better with practice!

What about privacy? Personally, I don’t think we have privacy anymore. That ship has sailed away in a sea of cameras and microphones built into everything. But we do have anonymity. For the most part, unless a shadowy government agency is out to get you, your personal data is lost in the noise of trillions of packets of data bouncing around the Internet.

Can we trust big capitalist enterprises like Amazon, Google, and Apple? Well, they are big enough to be held legally accountable and regulated. They are interested in our money, not our souls. So trust.. but verify!

How I learned to stop worrying and love Future Shock

The world works by each of us influencing each other. The whole history of computer-enabled communication is just the most recent installment of the ancient arts of oratory and rhetoric. “Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears” is the invocation of a conversation. Just like Amazon, Google, and Apple, Shakespeare is trying to influence you. Shakespeare had an agenda. Shakespeare was selling something but he was also listening for what you had to say.

I know that this is sometimes hard to believe, but the overall trend in the USA is that people are healthier, living longer, and generally wealthier, even when we consider all the conflicts, violence, and greed in the world. In the Neolithic Era we lived to 25 and died in the jaws of a tiger. In the Middle Ages we lived to 35 and died at the end of a lance. In the 21st century we live well into our 80s and have the Netflix Skip Intro Button. That button alone gives me hope!

It is technology that is making the difference: all that technology that we are anxious about; all that technology creating Future Shock.

An electrical shock only happens when you make initial contact with a charged wire. Don’t wait for the charge to build up. And once you make contact, one you embrace the future, stay connected so you can influence and own the future.

Eternity versus Infinity

I just completed reading, at long last, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. Like many of his novels, EoE is a morality play, an explanation, a whodunit, and a bit of a prank. The hero Andrew Harlan, is a repressed buffoon at the mercy of various sinister forces. Eventually Harlan finds his way to a truth he doesn’t want to accept. In EoE Asimov plays with time travel in terms of probabilities. This mathematical exploration of time travel resolves many of the cliché paradoxes that scifi usually twists itself into. Go back in time and prevent your mother from meeting your father and what you have done is not suicide. You have simply reduced probability of your future existence.

In EoE Asimov considers two competing desires in human culture: The urge to keep things the same forever and the urge to expand and explore. Asimov distills these urges into the Eternals, who fight what they think of as dangerous change by altering time, and the Infinites, who sabotage the Eternals because they believe “Any system… which allows men to choose their own future, will end by choosing safety and mediocrity…”

In one masterful stroke Asimov explains why we haven’t invented time travel. If we did, we’d kill baby Hitler! But then we’d work on elimination of all risks! Eventually we’d trap ourselves on planet Earth and die out slowly and lonely when our single world gets hit by a comet or our Sun goes nova. In EoE, Asimov has a force of undercover Infinites working tirelessly to keep the probability of time travel to a near zero value. This way humanity continues to take risks, eventually discovers space flight, and avoids extinction by populating the galaxy.

You’re probably not going to read EoE. It’s a bit dry for the 21st century. There are no superheroes, dragons, or explicit sex. While there is a strong female character she spends most of her time out of sight and playing dumb. EoE is a product of the 1950s. Yet For a book, where a computer is called a “computaplex” and the people who use them are consusingly called “computers”, EoE’s underlying message and themes apply very closely to our current age.

In our time, we have the science and technology to move forward by leaps and bounds to an unimaginable infinite–and we’re rapidly doing so except when we elect leaders who promise to return us to the past and we follow creeds that preach intolerance to science. I’ve read blog posts and op-eds that claim we can’t roll back the future. But we seem to be working mightily to pause progress. Just like the Eternals in EoE many of us are concerned about protecting the present from the future. Teaching Creationism alongside Evolution, legislating Uber and AirBnB out of existence, and keeping Americans in low value manufacturing jobs are just a few examples of acting like Asimov’s Eternals and avoiding the risks of technological progress at all costs.

I get it! I know that technological advancement has many sharp edges and unexpected consequences. Improve agriculture with artificial ingredients and create an obesity epidemic. Improve communication with social media and create a fake news epidemic. People are suffering and will continue to suffer as software eats the world and robots sweep up the crumbs.

But what Asimov teaches us, in a book written more than 70 years ago, is that if we succeed in staying homogenous-cultured, English-speaking, tradition-bound, God-fearing, binary-gendered, unvaccinated, and non-GMO we’re just getting ready to die out. When the next dinosaur-killer comet strikes, we will be stuck in our Garden of Eden as it goes up in flames. As Asimov admits, it might take thousands of years for humanity to die out in our self-imposed dark ages, but an expiration date means oblivion regardless of how far out it is.

Asimov shows us in EoE, and in rest of his works as well, that there is a huge payoff for the pain of innovation and progress. We get to discover. We get to explore. We get to survive.

Let’s face it. We don’t need genetic code editors and virtual reality. We don’t need algorithms and the Internet of Things. Many of us will never be comfortable with these tools and changes. Many of us long for the days when men were men, women stayed out of the way, and jobs lasted for a lifetime. This is not a new phenomenon: The urge to return to an earlier golden age has been around since Socrates complained that writing words down would destroy the art of conversation.

At the moment, it feels like the ideals of the Eternals are trumping the ideals of the Infinites. While a slim minority of entrepreneurs tries to put the infinity of space travel and the technological singularity within our reach, a majority of populist politicians are using every trick in the mass communications book to prevent the future from happening. We have our own versions of Asimov’s Eternals and Infinites today. You know their names.

Like Asimov, I worry about the far future. We’re just a couple of over-reactions to a couple of technological advances away from scheduling the next dark ages. That’s not a good idea. The last dark ages nearly wiped Europe of off the face of the earth when the Black Plague hit. Humanity might not survive the next world crisis if our collective hands are to fearful of high-tech to use it.

At the end of EoE Harlan figures out that, spoiler alert, taking big risks is a good idea. Harlan chooses the Infinites over the Eternals. I’d like us to consider following in Harlan’s footsteps. We can’t eliminate all technological risks! Heck, we can’t even eliminate most risks in general! But we can embrace technological progress and raise the probability of our survival as a species.

Faceless Phone

About twelve years ago I attended a management leadership training offsite and received a heavy glass souvenir. When I got home after the event I put that thingamabob, which officially is called a “tombstone”, up on a shelf above my desk. Little did I know that after more than a decade of inert inactivity that souvenir would launch me into the far future of the Internet of Things with an unexpected thud.

Last night before bed I set my iPhone 6 Plus down on my desk and plugged it in for charging. Then I reach up to the shelf above to get something for my son and BANG! The tombstone leapt off the shelf and landed on my desk. It promptly broke in half and smashed the screen of my iPhone. In retrospect I see now that storing heavy objects above one’s desk is baiting fate and every so often fate takes the bait.

I’ve seen many people running around the streets of Manhattan with cracked screens. My screen was not just cracked. It was, as the kids say, a crime scene. I knew that procrastination was not an option. This phone’s face was in ruins and I needed to get it fixed immediately.

No problem! There are several wonderful Apple Stores near me and I might even have the phone covered under Apple Care. Wait! There was a problem! I had several appointments in the morning and I wasn’t getting to any Apple Stores until late afternoon.

Why was this a big deal? Have you tried to navigate the modern world without your smart phone lately? No music, no maps, no text messages! Off the grid doesn’t begin to cover it! My faceless phone was about to subject me to hours of isolation, boredom, and disorientation!

Yes, I know, a definitive first world problem. Heck! I lived a good 20 years before smart phones became a thing. I could handle a few hours without podcasts, Facebook posts, and Pokemon Go.

In the morning I girded my loins, which is what one does when one’s iPhone is smashed. I strapped on my Apple Watch and sat down at my desk for a few hours of work-related phone calls, emails, and chat messages.

Much to my surprise even though I could not directly access my phone almost all of it features and services were available. While the phone sat on my desk with a busted screen its inner workings were working just fine. I could make calls and text messages with my watch, with my iMac, and with voice commands. I didn’t have to touch my phone to use it! I could even play music via the watch and listen via bluetooth headphones. I was not cut off from the world!

(Why do these smart phones have screens anyway?)

Around lunch time I had to drive to an appointment and I took the faceless phone with me. I don’t have Apple Carplay but my iPhone synch up fine with my Toyota’s entertainment system. Since I don’t look at my phone while driving the cracked screen was not an issue. It just never dawned on me before today that I don’t have to touch the phone to use it.

I imagine that our next paradigm shift will be like faceless phones embedded everywhere. You’ll have CPUs and cloud access in your wrist watch, easy chair, eye glasses, and shoes. You’ll have CPUs and cloud access in your home, car, office, diner, and shopping mall. You’ll get text messages, snap pictures, reserve dinner tables, and check your calendar without looking at a screen.

Now, we’re not quite there yet. I couldn’t use all the apps on my phone without touching them. In fact I could only use the a limited set of the built-in apps and operating system features that Apple provides. I had to due without listening to my audiobook on Audible and I couldn’t catch any Pokemon. Siri and Apple Watch can’t handle those third party app tasks yet.

But we’re close. This means the recent slow down in smart phone sales isn’t the herald of hard tech times. Its just the calm before the gathering storm of the next computer revolution. This time the computer in your pocket will move to the clouds. Apple will be a services company! (Google, Facebook, and Amazon too!) Tech giants will become jewelry, clothing, automobile, and housing companies.

Why will companies like Apple have to stop making phones and start making mundane consumer goods like cufflinks and television sets to shift us into the Internet of Things?

Because smooth, flawless integration will be the new UX. Today user experience is all about a well designed screen. In the IoT world, which I briefly and unexpectedly visited today, there won’t be any user interface to see. Instead the UX will be embedded in the objects we touch, use, and walk through.

There will still be some screens. Just as today we still have desktop computers for those jobs that voice control, eye rotations, and gestures can’t easily do. But the majority of consumers will use apps without icons, listen to playlists without apps, and watch videos without websites.

In the end I did get my iPhone fixed. But I’m going to keep visiting the IoT future now that I know how to find it.

First Day of the Year

Welcome to 2016 day one. Imagine if on today we could accurately predict what will happen in 2016? We could write a blog post with predictions and then gloat when they all come true!

Here are some of the outcomes I would like to be able to predict:

  • Which movie will win best picture?
  • Which candidates will win the democratic and republican nominations and from there win the Whitehouse?
  • Which football team will win the Super Bowl and which baseball team will win the World Series?
  • Which stocks should be bought and which should be sold?

But it’s hard to predict questions like these for several reasons. We don’t have all the facts and we don’t know how to rank the facts we do have. The facts can and most likely will change. And even if we have everything we need to make an accurate prediction, it would still only be a probability and even if an outcome is 99.999% likely to happen there is still a slim chance, 0.0001%, that it won’t happen.

One approach to predictions is to use the wisdom of the commons and just ask people what they think. This how opinion polls work. The problem here is that much of the time people don’t know their own opinions and how a question is asked creates bias towards an answer. Not to mention that people just change their minds over time which makes for stale predictions.

Another approach is to use the wisdom of the market and create a marketplace where people can bet on outcomes. This is really what the stock market is. The prices of Apple, Microsoft, or Alphabet shares aren’t a valuation of what those companies are worth today but what they will be worth at some point in the future. Sadly, the stock market has a spotty record at predicting the future health and success of a company.

And you can always ask an expert, usually the least accurate way to make a prediction, what she thinks is going to happen. There are enough experts out there that one or two, out of hundreds or thousands, ends up getting lucky and predicting accurate outcomes. There’s a movie out now about how 3-4 people predicted the mortgage crisis of 2008. Sometimes even if you know the future other people are not going to listen. They can’t! They are too invested in the present to make the changes needed to avoid catastrophe. And a thousand years from now we might lean that the financial meltdown in 2008 prevented a worse outcome!

Alan Kay and Abraham Lincoln both said “The best way to predict the future is to create/invent it.”

Given the difficulties involved in making accurate and reliable predictions and the nature of probability it best not to focus on guessing the future. IT is a more productive activity to help bring about the future that you want happen. Both Kay and Lincoln were pretty smart guys!

So here are some of the things I’d like to make happen in 2016…

  • I’d like the Internet to go faster so I’m going to do my best to speed up the performance of websites, mobile apps, and services I’m responsible for. Waiting for resources to load is killing all of us. We don’t need new tools and frameworks to speed up the Internet. We just need to do our jobs better!
  • I’d like there to be less misinformation and more accurate information available on the Internet so I’m going to encourage thoughtful, civil, responsible people to blog and post more. Maybe that will crowd out some of the noise.
  • I’d like more people to enjoy Math and Science and coding so I’m going to be more an advocate of learning Calculus in middle age, keeping up with Science at any age, and learning to code from non-Computer Science backgrounds. (I love music, novels, and movies but Geometry and Algorithms deserve appreciation too!)

I predict these tasks will be tough but I’ll make some progress—especially since a whole lot of other people are working toward the same goals.