On Evangelism and other Isms

•29Dec08 • Comments Off on On Evangelism and other Isms

I discovered the other day that James Plamandon had started a blog discussing the art of Platform Evangelism. James has achieved a modicum of infamy when some of his work came to light during the Iowa antitrust case against Microsoft.

As it happens, I know James from our days together at Apple. He is an exceptionally smart guy and quite the character. I remember reading his presentation at the time of the trial and marveling at it’s sarcasm, its cynicism, its far-reaching vision, and, most importantly, its lack of ethics. Given that I’d just spent two years at Adobe battling with Microsoft on a variety of issues, it was amazing to see how many of those tactics Microsoft were still a key part of Microsoft’s arsenal.

One of the more interesting posts on James’ new blog explains why he is coming forward now to write a new blog. In it, he says:

First, the global financial melt-down forced an epiphany. We at Microsoft always felt that we were on the side of free markets and unfettered capitalism—you know, the Good Guys. But so did the guys at Lehman Brothers, AIG, Fannie Mae, and all of the other failed financial institutions. Even Alan Greenspan, the High Priest of free markets, has had to concede that there’s “a flaw” in free market economics—a flaw that led directly to the current financial collapse.

My belief that I was one of the Good Guys was similarly flawed. This is now inescapable. I was wrong. Many of the TE practices that I developed, taught, and espoused were wrong. Anyone who continues to practice them is wrong. As a first step towards making amends for my past wrongdoing, I must make this clear, and widely known.

Its great to see that James has recognized the error in his ways, at least in part. But I found it telling that the global financial melt-down is what forced James to have an epiphany. You see, when I knew him, James was a die-hard libertarian1. The kind who would always drive 90 MPH on the freeway on principle. His reference to Alan Greenspan here is not just a comment on the economy – Greenspan was a member of Ayn Rand’s inner circle and as such is one of the heroes of the libertarian movement. I suspect he is one of James’ personal heroes as well.

But what both Greenspan and James fail to have done is to connect the dots: the “flaw” in free market economics is actually the fatal flaw that occurs whenever someone tries to apply a pure philosophy to the real world: people and organizations do not act consistently with philosophies. In the case of libertarianism, the flaw is that self-interest is rarely enlightened, and people can rationalize anything.

James’ strategy at Microsoft was a case in point: they rationalized that what they were doing was justified because the markets reward the strong. The irony, of course, was that they were not acting in an enlightened way: monopolizing the market did wonders for Microsoft’s revenues and share price in the short term, but the damage done to the overall market for computer software was immense. In the longer term, this will hurt Microsoft more than it ever helped it, and in fact you could argue that Microsoft’s stock price malaise the last several years was a direct result of the market ossification that occurred.

1 I use the term loosely, encompassing both libertarianism and objectivism. Wikipedia has lots of information on the many variants of libertarianism, objectivism, and the arguments between the two camps.

SugarTrip: Mobile Collective Intelligence

•21Oct08 • Comments Off on SugarTrip: Mobile Collective Intelligence

Its funny: the other day, I was driving my new car with its fancy traffic-aware nav system and thinking: man, this traffic system is lame. I wish that there was a way I could get real information from other drivers in real-time and use it to plan my route. Then I started thinking about cellphones with GPS (like my iPhone 3G) and how they could be used to send such information to a centralized service. Much more efficient than putting traffic monitoring devices on every road.

Today I read that someone has actually built such an application, SugarTrip, that runs on google’s Android phones (and others, I hope).

SugarTrip is a great example of a collective intelligence network. Google is probably the best at applying collective intelligence to solving problems – using the web browser as their input device. But mobile, connected devices may very well be the ultimate input device for such networks – pretty much everyone has one, they have web access just like a browser, they have GPS, they have cameras, and so forth. I see a ton of potential for such networks – geolocation provides a host of possibilities that many people are already exploring. Now SugarTrip is looking at applying the velocity data that comes from GPS systems as well. What if phones could provide other information – like temperature/humidity, or heart rate, or blood sugar?

obligatory kid photos

•17Oct08 • Comments Off on obligatory kid photos


Originally uploaded by michelebertolone

had to share this photo, since both kids are smiling and anacapri is showing off her new missing tooth…

SousChef: When is a native app worse than a web app?

•29Sep08 • 6 Comments

Thanks to John Gruber’s post, I went and downloaded SousChef, a recipe file for the Mac that has some interesting new features:

  • it lets you “Tap the Cloud” – you can search for recipes other SousChef users have shared. Like flickr, sharing is enabled by default.
  • it lets you search your recipes based on ingredients you have on hand
  • it has a “10 foot mode” that shows you your recipes fullscreen so that you can keep the computer a good distance from your cooking area and still read the recipe. Furthermore, the 10 foot mode supports reading the recipes out loud and speech recognition.
  • it makes it easy to export formatted HTML to your favorite blog
  • an import facility to make it easy to convert recipes from unstructured text into structured recipes (title, ingredient list, cooking steps, etc.)

SousChef costs $30, but there is a free download that you can use to try things out before you buy. The tryout version is limited to 25 recipes, shows limited search results, and doesn’t allow blog export. I downloaded the tryout version because I do have a library of recipes in text/word/pdf format on my computer that I wouldn’t mind getting into a nice format. One bug or additional limitation is that the import feature doesn’t seem to work in tryout mode: you can drag the little boxes around, but when you click the Import button the imported recipe doesn’t include any of the text you just imported. Because of this bug, I did most of my testing with the supplied sample database instead of using my own recipes. I hope they fix this bug soon.

I really wanted to like this application: it fits a real need, it had a nicely designed UI (albeit not as sophisticated as Delicious Library which was a clear inspiration), its from an indie developer, and it takes advantage of Mac features like speech recognition. But the program is hamstrung by its business model: cloud-based features depend on large numbers of customers to work effectively, and there will never be sufficient volume of Mac users willing to pay $30 to make these features effective. Furthermore, the developers chose to cripple the cloud-based feature in the free version, in the hopes that it would make more people cough up the $30.

Furthermore, there are large numbers of websites around today that will let you do similar things for free (the best of which seems to be bakespace, though none seem really great). I’ve heard of several people who are trying to build the ‘corkd’ of the recipe world. Guess I’ll wait.

Apple and “Cinematic Experiences”

•29Sep08 • Comments Off on Apple and “Cinematic Experiences”

An interesting discussion is going on about the “iPhone Black” UI over at Paul Goracke’s Corporation Unknown blog. The post itself is really about how the current trend to ‘all-black’ iPhone apps is a lot like the way Apple and other developers went crazy over the brushed metal look in their applications, violating Apple’s own HIG in the process. Of course, one key difference here is that it is only third party developers who are using the all-black look and not Apple.

But the more interesting part of the discussion is going on in the comments on the article. Scott Stevenson makes an excellent point:

In my experience, if you try to determine a specific set of rules for every UI convention, you’ll find yourself lost down the rabbit hole. I think this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for UI in the classic engineering approach: there isn’t always a series of logical decisions to arrive at the destination.

Your example of interior design is a great way to illustrate this. The idea of “mood lighting” doesn’t always lead you to the most practical results in terms of visibility, but it does succeed in creating an experience. In a lot of cases, that’s what the developer is looking to do and that’s what the user reacts to.

Chris W’s comment above mentions that that Weather and Stocks are “unnecessarily” different (and you address these as immersive), but I think it’s a mistake to assume consumers want everything to be as uniform and structured as possible. In fact, that can lead to a very monotonous experience. It’s a delicate balancing act between chaos and stagnation.

I agree with you that developers often use UI conventions in contexts that don’t fit well, but that’s nothing new and will continue to be the case whenever they don’t have the the funds for or availability of a dedicated designer.

I don’t know if it was Scott’s intent or not, but he is clearly arguing against the position of having a rigid set of guidelines (e.g. the HIG) and for a more tailored experience. Interestingly, the next commenter, “JB”, says that Apple is making this much more explicit:

At WWDC, I was in many 1:1s with designers, and every single one pushed me to get more daring with the designs. They told my friend the HIG is for people that don’t know how to design.

This was all strange to hear from Apple, and a little hard to swallow. But there you go — Apple is actively pushing to reduce consistency, and to increase, as they told me “cinematic software experiences”.

I don’t know that Apple’s intent is to actually push to “reduce consistency”, but I agree that the trend at Apple is towards more tailored experiences, and I think that follows along very nicely with the stuff I’ve written about earlier: I have seen the future, and it looks a lot like Flash… and The Death of UI Consistency. I’m curious to see where the conversation goes from here, and whether or not this is the beginning of the end for the HIG-zealots…

As Beavis & Butthead would say: Fire! Fire!

•17Sep08 • 2 Comments

Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire. — Reggie Leach

master bath toilet
This is advice I appear to have taken a bit too literally. I resigned from Adobe a few weeks ago, and Monday was my last day. That was a big life change, but it was one I was looking forward to. I’ve got a startup idea I’m working on, and I’ve been talking to some really interesting startups.

Unfortunately, the powers that be decided that wouldn’t be quite enough upheaval, so they set my house on fire Sunday morning. Thankfully no one was home but my older dog, Ozzie, and he got out safely. But the damage is pretty extensive and we won’t be able to move back home for 2-4 months.

Still, it could have been a lot worse. Our house didn’t burn down completely – the firefighters told us another ten minutes and it would have been all over. Here are some pictures for the curious.

Continuous Integration and Continuous Testing

•31Aug08 • 1 Comment

I recently installed CruiseControl.rb on my MacBook Pro, and its been a great help. But I’ve also been looking at “Continuous Testing” tools like the autotest feature of ZenTest. I don’t find autotest to be a great fit for my laptop – it kills battery life if I forget to turn it off, and it makes the machine hot even when I’m plugged in.

I’m curious: what do other people do for Continuous Integration and/or Continuous Testing on their small team projects? What are the gotchas? Any wish lists?