Tag Archives: Negroponte

Shiny thing make it all better (sic)

The title is taken from the excellent Daily Mash and is their description of their own app.

I have just finished and submitted my most recent app to the iTunes store for approval for sale (You can read about it here). It is an attempt to provide useful and topical functionality presented in an appealing way. Five years ago (or less) to produce this I would have had to :-

  • Decide on the hardware (Chipset ) I was going to use.
  • Write the software for that chipset.
  • Commission the manufacture of the device somewhere.
  • Pay up front for the design, prototyping, manufacture and approvals processes in each market I wanted to sell it in.
  • Commission or devise a marketing strategy, then pay for and implement it, and finally …
  • Respond to the inevitable huge demand by shipping units to customers world-wide.

… or not.

It would have been a huge gamble and would have involved the speculative tying up of resources (Human, physical and financial) and the shipping of physical objects across the face of the earth. It would also have been expensive to buy. All for something designed to bring a couple of minutes fun to every day.

Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s media lab describes two shifts we are currently undergoing :-

  • The shift of communications to land bound means (Cable, fibre etc.) except where mobility is essential, freeing up the airwaves for a future of always connected, high bandwidth communications, and …
  • The shift from moving atoms about the face of the earth when we buy music, films and software to shifting bits around on networks.

The second of these is analogous to the shift of western economies towards the provision of services rather than goods, broadly the goods come west, the services go east. Whether or not this geographic trend continues, I think it is clear that Negroponte is right that we will be buying fewer and fewer physical artefacts which have to be manufactured and moved about in what Neal Stephenson calls “meatspace” and more services will be provided by moving bits around.

When we consider all the devices lying around (Some even with their chargers) which when current were only used for a fraction of the time, its not difficult to envisage a significant reduction in the waste of time, energy and resources that went into their production. Some of this will be transferred to the production of increasingly powerful and ubiquitous smartphones but this is much more forgivable given the high level of utilisation they get.

A brighter day dawns for all, I think, when people like me can get hold of shiny things to make life better as apps for pennies rather than as techno clutter.

We’re Puppeteers not Artisans

I’m working now on the interface for my Project Planning App for the iPad.¬†Whatever people say about form following function, it’s not true when the function is ill defined.

Spitfires and E-Type Jaguars, Gaggia coffee machines and Dualit toasters are all engineered to do a specific task, and emerge beautiful by being perfectly appropriate to that task. Software is different. Software emulates tools, but only within the constraints of current hardware. We have come a long way from the green screens and dumb terminals of the 1970’s / 1980’s, via windows, to touch screen tablets like the iPad. Each step has been massively beneficial, in that the tools we use shape our thinking about the work we need to get done, but we re-frame our work to best use our tools. Until we make the last step, to have tools that suit our preferred ways of working, form will dominate function.

How many manhours are wasted globally producing PowerPoint presentations, not because we have much more to communicate to each other than when we used OHP slides, but because they look lovely and “Professional”? (Of course this is exceeded by the manhours wasted in the audience). Many people use spreadsheets to do database tasks, because it is the only tool they know, and not only couldn’t design a database properly, but couldn’t even frame the question in the right terms, they think in rows and columns, not sets and relationships.

In his excellent book “Being Digital” (Selected bits here :- http://archives.obs-us.com/obs/english/books/nn/bdcont.htm ),¬†Nicholas Negroponte describes the ideal interface for humans to deal with information systems. We would sit down at our desks in the morning and a series of hologram figures (The seven dwarves, a cast of SuperHeroes, characters from ancient mythology, whatever we choose), would march out onto the desktop to be given spoken orders. They would then scuttle away, returning later with information, ready processed into usable form, or with analysis and suggestions. This is how we work with each other, and its how we work best. Freed from consideration of the constraints of the tool, we can describe the task in its richest terms. Until then we have to move in Geisha sized steps towards better solutions. The best solutions will be those which can allow us to behave like puppeteers controlling agents and delegating tasks, rather than blacksmiths selecting differently shaped hammers. Getting the interface to move towards this is the next step, and those that achieve it best will, once more, change not just the way we work, but the way we think.