choice – Stay N Alive

The Virtuous Cycle of Choice and Momentum

Here we go again.  We’ve been here before.  History always repeats itself.

In the early days of the desktop computer, it was the Wild West.  No computer was dominant because they all simply had not been around long enough.  The movie, “The Pirates of Silicon Valley”, described this era well, and was a time of company after company innovating, stealing features from their competitors that they lacked, and then their competitors innovating and doing the same.  It’s a virtuous cycle that continues to repeat itself even today, resulting in more competition and better technology as a result.  As we move from platform to platform this cycle will continue, over and over again, and consumers will always end up, as a majority, choosing the most popular player that provides “choice”, without regard to any potential benefit the less popular player may give them when it comes to a more close environment at the benefit of a better experience.

Microsoft’s Platform: Choice, at the Sacrifice of Experience

As Microsoft began to gain a handle on the market, taking the software route and letting go of the hardware market, Apple, the other consumer desktop player was trying to control the hardware experience, and Microsoft’s business took off.  Microsoft was unstoppable, momentum pushing them faster and faster to the point of almost Monopoly.  It even got to the point where markets they never even considered competing in, such as the web browser, had no chance because Microsoft had control of the operating system where those markets ran.

Microsoft’s entire platform was about choice. You chose the hardware you ran.  You chose the software you ran on it.  Heck, the hardware was open enough you could also run other operating systems such as Linux on it.  The Microsoft environment promoted this type of mentality, and, like it or not, perhaps was part of the cause and motivation towards the Free Software and Open Source Software movement that is so prevalent today.

Apple’s Platform: Closed, at the Advantage of Experience

During the entire time Microsoft was growing and booming into the company it is today, Apple maintained its consistency.  It wasn’t going to give up the tightly-integrated hardware and software experience at the risk of losing the full experience Apple was known for.  When you bought an Apple product, you knew the software on the product was going to work well with the hardware it was built on.  The software was designed specifically for that hardware.  In return the customer got an experience that made that customer the die-hard Apple fanboy you see today.  They gained a loyal, devout following as a result, “The Cult of Mac”.

The Cycle Continues

So here we are today.  It took an entirely new device to start the cycle over again – a music device, the iPod, which eventually turned into a phone and Apple was able to gain control of the music industry in the process through iTunes (which is, in essence, a cloud based product that downloads files to your computer).  This gave them the advantage they needed to innovate and bring new customers in at a faster rate than ever before.

Soon competitors emerged.  Palm released WebOS.  Google released Android.  Microsoft released the Zune and will soon be releasing Windows Phone 7.  Now we are in an exactly similar battle we saw in the early desktop days, companies fighting on choice.  Companies fighting to gain momentum.  The companies who chose choice gaining the most momentum.  The companies choosing to remain consistent losing that momentum, but maintaining a reliable reputation and great experience.

Are the Fanboys Learning?

There was a large group of people who chose the consistent, closed, better experience without ever having taste of the choice.  This group of people are now tasting that as what used to be neutral ground, Google, has built Android and entered this battle themselves on the premise of choice.  Now these users, who were users of both, are being forced to make a choice, and they’re experiencing something they’ve never experienced before: freedom.

I read fascinating posts like Louis Gray’s and his reasons for switching to Android, yet battling to leave Apple entirely, and I notice a struggle to leave that experience entirely.  He knows the good taste of the experience Apple provides.  At the same time he finally sees the choice the decoupling of software and hardware can provide.  He’s finally seeing the advantages of an Operating System embraced by the masses.  He’s not alone in this struggle.

The “Choosers” Finally Taste Experience

It goes the other way too though.  There are many out there (such as Robert Scoble), myself included somewhat, that finally realized what a beautiful thing Apple was from the iPhone.  We went with the masses over to the device and discovered what a beautiful thing having a nicely coupled experience could be.  We were brought over to Macs and iBooks and MacBooks and iPads, and were brought to wonder what in the world we were missing in our world of “choice” before.

At the same time we’ve seen the “choice” world.  We know what choice means, and we know it means more struggle.  We know it means more configuration and more bugs and more problems with the OS not always working properly with the hardware it was installed on.  We know not all the applications will have the same consistant experience we get with the Apple experience.  We haven’t given it up, but we do know which one we like better.

We’re at an interesting crossroads right now.  Right now I carry at all times in my pockets an iPhone 4 and an Android-based Evo.  My wife runs a Pre, which I also carried on my person for quite awhile.  While, as a developer and blogger, I choose all of them, I always fall back to one.  I always fall back to the one that’s most convenient.  I always fall back to the one where my applications will be most reliable.  I always fall back to the one that works best with the overall experience of technology in my home and in my life.  I fall back to the one whose batteries aren’t dead.  No matter how hard I try, the Apple experience seems to keep winning me over.

I don’t care if any company has momentum.  I’ve stopped caring about Choice.  In the end it’s about efficiency.  It’s about productivity.  It’s about what makes me the best person I can be and what I can feel most comfortable using with the least amount of effort.  It’s about “choosing” the best experience that I know will continue to be reliable over time, and has a reliable track record in doing so.  For this user, at least so far, I will continue to fall back on experience.

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When the Choice is Mobile, My Choice is "All of Them"

The web is a competitive landscape.  It’s an environment with lots and lots of type-A personalities all competing to be the dominant players.  It’s full of opinionated people, entrepreneurs, and bloggers, who all have their opinion on a subject.  Everyone wants to be right.  That’s why, when you see a landscape, such as mobile, where a single player such as Apple has such a passionate community that will fight tooth and nail for it, it’s a big target for critics, and those behind it will fight back.  When a player such as Android comes along with a serious threat to the popular guy, people will do all they can to choose sides and either go with the popular guy, or pick the underdog.  On the web, it seems it always has to be one or the other.  However, I think you’ll find the true, perhaps more silent Geeks, will be the ones on the sidelines choosing “All of the above”.

I grew up in a home where we couldn’t afford a Mac.  We had Apple IIs at school, and I had several distant relatives with Macs and I’d play thoroughly with those when I had the chance.  In fact, a lot of my first programming experience, learning BASIC, was on those very Apple II machines I got to use in elementary school.  At the same time I remember playing Commodore 64 at my friends’ homes and being fascinated with the different types of architectures and different styles of programming that went with those architectures.  I was fascinated that some systems took cartridges, some took floppy disks, and others took tape to read (and eventually store) data.  In those days it didn’t really matter what system I was on.  It mattered that I was able to get the job done and learn from each.  I was fascinated!

Later on in High School, I remember some of the classrooms having PCs, some having Macs, and all of them having varying different operating systems and computer architectures.  I’d come home to an even cheaper system that I would then spend hours upon hours trying to read other peoples’ programs and try to understand what they were doing in languages such as Pascal, Assembly, BASIC, and even a little C++.  The thing is, as a developer and passionate geek it didn’t really matter to me what system we were using.  It mattered that I was learning new things and studying new architectures and figuring out how to code and what those architectures did.

I took that same mentality as I went to college.  I sold computers at a Tandy-owned Computer City store (they later went out of business), and I remember always being jealous of the people that could afford the one or two Macs that we sold.  They were so cool!  They could read text aloud in a human-sounding voice, and had such a different look and feel that fascinated me!  At the same time, I remember vivid conversations with co-workers about the release of IBM’s OS 2 Warp we were getting ready to sell, and how cool it was to finally have a 32-bit operating system on the market.  We had similar discussions and envy about Windows 95, and I remember having fun beta testing it with a friend of mine (who now works for Microsoft, ironically).  I remember how cool the SGI machines we sold were and how cool they were for rendering graphics and other high-end stuff.

Later on I discovered this thing called Linux.  I remember wanting to know all I could about it.  Finally, an operating system I could afford that let me tinker with its insides and see what it did underneath.  I wasn’t this excited since the old 8080 kits you used to be able to build your own computers from!  I remember learning how to compile the entire OS from scratch and the difficulties that entailed, yet at the same time how I could do so many cool things that I just couldn’t do on Windows.  Later on I even remember tinkering around with the short-lived BeOS.

Finally, only about 5 or 6 years ago I finally bought my first Mac (an iBook).  It was probably the first time I could actually afford one.  It was a beautiful experience!  It was one I will never forget.  Everything, from the packaging, to the operating system, to the little fading light when it went to sleep had me hooked.  It was the perfect desktop operating system for me at the time.  I learned all about packaging, branding, and experience from that.

Today, you’ll find me using all kinds of different operating systems and technologies.  Technology fascinates me!  While you may find me using Mac on my desktop, and trying out my new iPad, you’ll also see me setting up Windows 7 for my kids and my family.  You’ll see me tinkering with the parental controls and helping them understand this world called Windows.  At the same time you’ll see me using Linux for my web servers, and at various companies I’ve worked for it made even more sense to use Windows for those servers.  Some day I might even use Google on my desktop or even on a server.  I will certainly try each and every one out, oodling at all the cool features and unique pieces of each.  Let’s face it – new technology, no matter where it is, is pretty dang cool!

While I may carry an iPhone today, and I will probably buy the iPhone 4, I also own a Palm Pre.  You can also find me carrying and trying various flavored devices of Android through work.  I just asked Sprint for a demo unit of the Evo I could review for you guys.  You may even catch me carrying a Blackberry device, or even Windows Mobile (which at one time was my favorite phone as a user).  You may see me tethering my iPad off my Palm Pre, or using an Android tablet device with a jailbroken iPhone.  The fact is, as a developer, a blogger, and an entrepreneur, but mostly a geek, I need to understand all of them.  I need to learn how each operating system works.  I need to know the basics of coding on each so I can make educated decisions.

I will never pick just one.  I will never pick just 2.  As a true geek, I have an obligation to try them all and enjoy the cool features of each.  Will I disagree or be negative about specific components of each? Certainly, but as with any technology, I will always have elements of each I particularly like and really admire.  I would be hurting myself, and those I write for (both from a blog and software standpoint) if I ever picked just one.  Picking one would be the negative choice.

Next time you see a Geek, ask to see their phones – you will always know the true Geek as the one that pulls out each and every phone or embedded device they’re playing with at the moment.  That’s the type of Geek I want to be.

Pornography and Choice – The Dilemma Over the Future of Open

I’ve been following the Ryan Tate late-night rant (language) over Steve Jobs’ desire for a world “free from porn” and his objections therein (while still not completely sure the purpose for his rant).  While pornography was only one of the things Jobs highlighted, Tate, who has no children of his own, seemed to focus on it, considering a world “free from porn” an infringement on his own privacies.  I’d like to take a different angle and share my own views, as a parent of 4 children, and how I really feel the web as we know it infringes my own freedom as a parent.  It also infringes on my children’s own freedom, in the the native choices technology-wise that I have access to in order to protect my children and my family from pornography.  That’s right, I said it (well, I’ve said it before) – the web, while open, is not entirely free.  Let me explain.

Let me start with the point that, while outside this blog I may have my own opinions and beliefs, I am not saying in any way or form whether porn is “evil”, or “not evil”, or whether it is “good”, or “bad” for society.  That is not the purpose of this article, and I’ll leave that for you to decide.  One thing I think we can all agree on however is that, for good or for bad, pornography affects us all, and, as an individual, or father of 4 children, I don’t have much choice in the matter.  Let’s face it – whether I want it or not, my children are going to see porn, probably many, many times in their life, perhaps way before they are old enough to even know what it is.  As a parent, at least the way the open web works, at a native level I don’t have any choice in that matter.  Is that freedom?

Right now we live on a very open web.  It’s a vast web, linked together from website to website, which enables sites like Google and MSN and others to index that content and provide answers to many questions.  We have a whole lot more knowledge because of that.  At the same time it’s a very wild west atmosphere – the very “Net Neutrality” we are all fighting for is keeping any sort of control that parents and families so desperately want for their children from accidentally stumbling on things they don’t want to see.  This is probably why much more closed environments like Facebook are thriving – we’re being given some level of control, as parents and individuals, over this very open atmosphere.  We need an open way to fix this problem.  Or maybe closed is the only solution…

Let me share an example:  My daughter, who is 9 (not even starting puberty yet), told us the story of her friends at school talking about various sexual topics.  She told us about one friend, a boy, who wanted to know what sex was, so he Googled “sex” on the internet, something he knew how to do from school when he had a question about how something works or what something was.  Needless to say, as parents, at age 9, we were fortunate enough to have our daughter ask about this before Googling herself, but we were now forced to give “the talk” to a 9 year old.  I can only imagine that boy’s parents – I hope he talked with them about what he found.

As a father of 4, I’m scared to death what my kids are going to have to go through.  I certainly don’t want to shelter them from the world, but at the same time I want to be the one introducing them to the world, not the world getting to them first.  We need innovation in this area.  I’m worried it’s an area that gets little attention because the innovators in this space either aren’t parents themselves, or have no objections to their children seeing it.  The thing is, this isn’t a “good” vs. “bad” battle.  This is a battle about true “freedom”.  This isn’t about anyone telling you that you can’t watch porn.  This is about those on the web that don’t want to watch it or come across it being able to avoid it entirely, as a native component of the web.

Right now all the solutions out there are hacks.  Solutions like (my favorite – I’ll be doing a review soon) Net Nanny, Norton Internet Security, and others are great at helping parents to monitor what their kids are doing and even protecting them from things their parents don’t want them to see, but in reality they’re just solving a problem the web should have solved in the first place.  Pornography, sexual content, violence, or anything else we, as parents and individuals want a handle over should be elements that are handled at the core of the web.  The web needs elements to identify this type of content, and ways to punish those that don’t identify their content, taking away the overall freedom that is inherent to the web.  The web should be about choice.  It’s not at the moment.

At the same time, operating systems, like Windows, OS X, the iPad, Android, and the iPhone, all need to have layers built in that give parents and individuals more control over the content they want to see.  I should note that Facebook, at the moment, has no way for me as a parent to monitor what my child is doing on the site – I can’t let my kids on it until I have that control.  Don’t even get me started about Google Chat.

I’m not quite sure what the solution is, but we need innovation in this area.  Perhaps XRD or the new JRD and identifiers for content are the solution.  Maybe Google and Microsoft and others that index this content could reward sites with higher search rankings that properly identify their data.  Maybe a “.xxx” TLD is the solution.  At the same time we have to take into account chat, and how people interact online.  Maybe verified identity is the solution in this area.  On the open web we can’t give up on this effort though, or the more closed solutions, like Jobs inferred with the iPad, are going to win, and rightfully so.

Steve Jobs is right, whether Ryan Tate likes it or not – as a parent I am not free on the web right now.  The only freedom I have is to just turn off the computer, keep my kids from learning technology at a young age, and hope they don’t see it at school, or at a friends’ house, or the elsewhere (which they will).  Freedom is about choice – we should all have the choice in this matter, and that choice just doesn’t exist on the web at the moment.  I hope the Open Web can fix these problems before Apple, or Microsoft, or Facebook do it in a closed environment.  Either way, I welcome the extra freedom I will get from it.

From one parent to another:  Thank you Steve, for trying to make my life as a parent a little more “free”.

Facebook to Developers: "You Decide"

By the time I hit publish on this 5 other bigger blogs will have probably already covered this, but this deserves some praise.  One reason I love the Facebook Platform is because they really seem to care about API developers.  They do things the “right” way.  For instance, they have a beta site where they always release new bug fixes and features before they go live on the site.  They always release new API features in “sandbox mode” before going live with them.  No other platform releases new features and updates in this manner!  Just today they upped their game even more, giving developers full control over this process by letting developers decide when new API features go live.

The service gives developers a new “Migrations” option in their application settings, enabling them to choose when things go live.  The first one of these they launched has to do with a bug they’ve fixed which formats empty JSON strings correctly.  To enable the feature you just go to your “Migrations” section for your app, and select “on”, and now all empty JSON strings will be formatted in the correct manner.  The power of all of this is that you get to decide when these features go live, but you can start trying them immediately!

Of course, all features will eventually go live, but what this shows is that Facebook is willing to keep developers aware of changes before they go live.  Facebook won’t be launching features into the wild out of the blue like many of their competitors do quite regularly.  Previously, changes would go live, and while they would often show on the beta site, developers had little notice and little time to test them before putting them into production.  These changes would break many apps the minute they went into production.

IMO, this small feature changes the game for many other app platforms.  NO OTHER major app platform does anything like this.  Kudos to the Facebook platform team for continuing to change the game in regards to API development.  Since the Facebook platform launched, they have always been ahead in changes like this.  I can only hope other API platforms can follow suite in giving developers more control like this.  No one likes their applications to break because of simple API changes.