Archive for January, 2010

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Surfing The Waves of Technology

The company vilified by some as being too closed to be successful in the long run has— in the long run, defined and distributed the dominant model for human-computer interaction. The reality is that all products that brandish the so-called open systems label are operating within the parameters set by Apple.

And while it’s certainly true that Apple didn’t create any of these interaction modes out of whole cloth, they codified them, shipped and sold the products that have turned them into defacto standards.

A de facto standard is a custom, convention, product, or system that has achieved a dominant position by public acceptance or market forces (such as early entrance to the market). De facto is a Latin phrase meaning “concerning the fact” or “in practice”.

In the beautiful silence emanating from Apple prior to the January 27, 2010 announcements a curious thing has happened. The full attention of the technical intelligensia has been focused on what’s missing from our personal and social computing experience. The announcements will be an interesting test of the ‘wisdom of the crowds.’ Theoretically, the predictions and analysis of the thousands of individuals writing about what will be announced could be distilled into either exactly the device Apple intends to release, or a blueprint for an even better device. My bet is that we will be surprised.

Of course, we can point to Xerox Parc, or Doug Engelbart, and say none of these things are new. But moving ideas from the lab to the street is a matter of knowing which dots to connect. In an interview, Jobs talks about recognizing the valuable waves of technology:

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.?

In order to connect dots, you need to be in a position to do so. Sometimes we tend to overlook the core skill set that Apple has amassed. Here’s Jobs talking about what Apple does:

“Well, Apple has a core set of talents, and those talents are: We do, I think, very good hardware design; we do very good industrial design; and we write very good system and application software. And we’re really good at packaging that all together into a product. We’re the only people left in the computer industry that do that. And we’re really the only people in the consumer-electronics industry that go deep in software in consumer products. So those talents can be used to make personal computers, and they can also be used to make things like iPods. And we’re doing both, and we’ll find out what the future holds.?

So, while we live in an era of “organizing without organizations,” can we expect distributed organizations harnessing the crowd to produce, sell and ship products at the same level as Apple? Crowds have a difficult time indicating what should be left out— and this is a key to superior industrial design. Here’s Job’s on Apple’s design process:

“Look at the design of a lot of consumer products—they’re really complicated surfaces. We tried make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through.?

In 2007, Apple changed its name from Apple Computer to Apple. In some sense, this signaled the end of the era of the personal computer. The computer has begun its migration and blending into other devices— some existing, others yet to be invented. Here’s Jobs on where the revolution is going:

“I know, it’s not fair. But I think the question is a very simple one, which is how much of the really revolutionary things people are going to do in the next five years are done on the PCs or how much of it is really focused on the post-PC devices. And there’s a real temptation to focus it on the post-PC devices because it’s a clean slate and because they’re more focused devices and because, you know, they don’t have the legacy of these zillions of apps that have to run in zillions of markets.?

While there have been tablet computers for quite a long time, they were primarily designed as an evolution of the personal computer. In thinking about Apple’s announcement, the previous frame of reference is wrong— just as it is for those who believe the iPhone is a telephone. In looking at what’s missing from our social computing environment, we think we know the set of dots that need to be connected. But if we sit with the problem long enough, a whole new set of dots will come into focus. Here’s Jobs on vision and design:

“There’s a phrase in Buddhism,?Beginner’s mind.? It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.?

PLATO: The Seed Of The Social Computing Fabric

Plato, the philosopher, captured the sense of the Socratic Dialogue as a process of exploration and teaching. Dialogue becomes the medium through which philosophical thinking is distributed. The computer system called PLATO created a social computing fabric through which educational experiences were allowed to unfold.

The preliminary discussions about what would eventually become the PLATO system began in the shadow of the cold war and the 1957 launch of sputnik. The first PLATO system was launched in 1960 and operated on the Illiac 1 computer at the University of Illinois. Eventually the PLATO system would evolve through four architectures. The system that enabled what we would recognize as social computing was launched as the 60s rambled to a close:

In 1972 a new system named PLATO IV was ready for operation. The PLATO IV terminal was a major innovation. It included Bitzer’s orange plasma display invention which incorporated both memory and bitmapped graphics into one display. This plasma display included fast vector line drawing capability and ran at 1260 baud, rendering 60 lines or 180 characters per second. The display was a 512×512 bitmap, with both character and vector plotting done by hardwired logic. Users could provide their own characters to support rudimentary bitmap graphics. Compressed air powered a piston-driven microfiche image selector that permitted colored images to be projected on the back of the screen under program control. The PLATO IV display also included a 16-by-16 grid infrared touch panel allowing students to answer questions by touching anywhere on the screen.

It was also possible to connect the terminal to peripheral devices. One such peripheral was the Gooch Synthetic Woodwind (named after inventor Sherwin Gooch), a synthesizer that offered 4 voice music synthesis to provide sound in PLATO courseware. This was later supplanted on the PLATO V terminal by the Gooch Cybernetic Synthesizer, which had 16 voices that could be programmed individually or combined to make more complex sounds. This allowed for what today is known as multimedia experiences.

Recently PLATO was thrust into my attention again through Jon Udell’s conversation with Brian Dear about the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the system via ITconversations:

Jon Udell / Brian Dear on PLATO
Plato Turns 50

Brian Dear is working on a book on PLATO and is involved in PLATO HISTORY, remembering the future, the celebration of this innovative system at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Dear began using the system in 1979. In an excerpt from a conversation on the WELL, Dear describes how PLATO planted the seed of social computing:

PLATO was the first computer system, network really, that scaled with lots of people.  It was bigger than ARPANET at least for a while, with many capabilities at a level of usage that we wouldn’t see until the 1990s.  A PLATO user didn’t use a computer, they “belonged” to the system.  It was a community.  For me, I was drawn immediately to this sense that a computer wasn’t for number-crunching or lonely things like word processing, spreadsheets, or video games, the way Apples, Commodores, etc were being used, but it was a “place” where you could meet, interact, stay in touch, get answers to questions, and share and make discoveries.

While PLATO is not well known, even among the current set of social technologists, there are some interesting threads and connections to the current story of our networked real-time computing environment. When we think of the roots of modern computing, we look to Xerox Parc and Doug Englebart’s Augmentation Research Center, but as personal computing expands into social computing, PLATO deserves a place in that pantheon. From the undependable Wikipedia entry we see the connections forming:

Early in 1972, researchers from Xerox PARC were given a tour of the PLATO system at the University of Illinois. At this time they were shown parts of the system such as the Show Display application generator for pictures on PLATO (later translated into a graphics-draw program on the Xerox Star workstation), and the Charset Editor for “painting” new characters (later translated into a “Doodle” program at PARC), and the Term Talk and Monitor Mode communications program. Many of the new technologies they saw were adopted and improved upon when these researchers returned to Palo Alto, California. They subsequently transferred improved versions of this technology to Apple Inc..

The direct link from Plato to the present future of computing runs through a young man from Chicago who began attending the University of Illinois in 1973. Abandoning the punch cards that were the staple of computer science at the time, he was drawn like a moth to the glowing orange gas-plasma screens in CERL (the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory).

Ray Ozzie, now Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, threw himself into the world of Plato. In fact, Plato Notes, was a strong influence on Lotus Notes. Ozzie has understood software from the beginning as operating in a networked social computing environment. But more than that, it gave Ozzie insight into the potential for human contact through this new medium:

One incident in particular introduced Ozzie to the magic that comes when people connect via computer. He had taken a part-time assignment helping a professor finish writing some courseware. The prof lived on the other side of town, so Ozzie collaborated with him remotely. Ozzie came to know and like his boss, save for one annoyance. “He was the worst typist ever,” Ozzie says. “He was very eloquent on email, but on Term Talk it was just dit-dit-dit, sometimes an error, but agonizingly slow.” At the end of the project, the man threw a party at his house, and Ozzie discovered the reason for the typing problem: The professor was a quadriplegic and had been entering text by holding a stick in his teeth and poking it at the keyboard. Ozzie was floored. “I remember really questioning my own attitudes,” Ozzie says. “I had been communicating with him mind to mind.

During the day, the Plato system was dedicated to the task of educating students, but after 10pm the programmers and users were allowed to play on the system.

The Plato system is still alive and has been transplanted to the World Wide Web. You can find it at:

For those of you in the Bay Area, the 50th Anniversary of Plato will be celebrated at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on June 2nd and 3rd, 2010. Dr. Donald Bitzer, the founder of Plato, and Ray Ozzie will be in attendance. I’ll definitely be there to help remember the future of computing.

Pencil Sketch #3

Pencil Sketch – 20100120

Twitter Lists, Track and Broadcasting

I’ve been trying to understand what Twitter lists are good for. Both Twitter’s new retweet feature and the list feature are imports from FriendFeed. Even in its current state, FriendFeed continues to be the R&D department for social media.

The thing I find uninteresting about lists is the fact that they’re mostly static— they simply serve as a kind of personal taxonomy. These Twitter users belong in this category. This is where we begin to feel the loss of track + filters. The assembly of a network of connected micro-messages around a set of keywords and run through a filter does what lists do dynamically and in real time. With the release of Twitter’s streaming API, nicknamed birddog, it’s possible we’ll start to see track-like features return— at least for subsets of the firehose. Manually curated lists at the level of classification are just a replay of RSS readers.

There are those who will say that if you’re using Twitter in a one-to-many broadcast mode, you’re not doing it right. But I think it’s pretty well established that Twitter is ambiguous and flexible enough to accommodate many modes of use simultaneously. Twitter lists strike me as a particularly good tool for news organizations.

If the New York Times or CNN has a team of journalists, photographers, videographers and radio journalists covering a breaking story like the earthquake in Haiti, a Twitter list would be a compact way to deliver coverage. Hyperlinks within the tweets could send readers off to breaking news, in-depth backgrounders and ongoing live conversations. CNN’s list and the New York Times’s list would be differentiated by who was on each coverage team and the editorial approach of each news organization. The list would exist for the duration of the story.

Rather than serving as part of a taxonomy, or classification of Twitter users— the list would define individuals with a common purpose— covering the Haiti earthquake, or the Senate race in Massachusetts. Each news organization might have a set of active lists ongoing at any time. The more specific and real time the list, the more valuable it would be.

Of course, someone might create a list of all the news organizations covering a breaking story. But I think the effect of this would be to dilute the value of the stream rather than enhance it. You could also make the argument that the hashtag and the wisdom of the crowd would ultimately provide equal or better coverage. However, it’s not necessary to choose between one approach and the other. Each will ultimately include elements of the other.

The television medium is destabilizing and being absorbed into the real-time Network. While newspapers and television used to consider the Internet as a medium for the re-purposing and re-use of content, soon the reverse will be true. The real-time Network will be the primary publication vehicle with television and newspapers becoming containers for re-use.

And, of course, I use the word Twitter as a synecdoche. (A specific class name used to refer to a general set of associated things)

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