Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why Macs are more popular now

Last May I attended the mesh conference in Toronto, where Jay Goldman pointed out that of the large number of laptops in the audience, around 90% were Macs. He also remarked that it had been the same at the Toronto BarCamp held the preceding weekend, while at an Ottawa BarCamp he’d attended it was only around 10% Macs.

The Ottawa figure is easy to understand: most computer technology people in Ottawa (not telecom people) get most / all / a lot of their business from the federal government, and being “compatible” with the feds is good for business. The federal government is a Windows shop.

Most people who use Windows are looking for compatibility not with the Canadian federal government, but with desktop applications they might want to install and run, most of which are available for Windows but often not Mac OS.

What do Web 2.0 people need to be compatible with? Mostly the Web, of course. Yes, some desktop apps are needed (like a browser!) but such necessities tend to be available for both Windows and Mac OS (not always from the same vendors). So Web-oriented people have the freedom to use either Windows or Mac OS, or GNU/Linux for that matter. And their #1 choice is the Macintosh.

(There are additional reasons for most people to prefer Windows: they need people who can help them out when they have computer problems, and most of those people are familiar with Windows and not Mac OS. Also, Windows machines are priced lower than equivalent Macs. Neither of these is an issue for the Web 2.0 elites.)

As more people become Web-based and not OS-based, there is the potential for a large shift in popularity from Windows to Mac OS. Particularly now that buying a new Windows machine means getting the excessively-featured (as usual for Microsoft) Windows Vista. I may make the switch myself when I get my next laptop.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

When the only computing jobs left are named Steve

In the late 1970s / early 1980s I worked my way through university on a co-op program. I worked for an online services company (which served the business market, since online services were far too expensive for consumer use at the time). One day my boss Walter Keirstead and I went to visit a prospective customer. This conversation ensued:
Walter: I see that you use computers here.
Customer: Yes; how can you tell?
Walter: Because you have such large wastebaskets.
I tell this story as an example of how while the computing industry was working hard to improve productivity it was also reducing it. A project to reduce labour down the road usually increased labour for a while. And it wasn’t all about eliminating people’s jobs; there were new products and services being created that weren’t practical, or often even possible, without automation.

I wonder whether this force is now slowing. With Web 2.0, and with the increasing decentralization of organizations, the focus in software is shifting from large monolithic applications intended to do everything imaginable to less ambitious apps that come off the shelf at a low price and don’t even need installation. And on the hardware side, Web 2.0 reverses the trend of building and wasting massive amounts of computer power: as in the 1970s, centralized servers that cover a variety of users can load-balance very effectively.

Building the public Internet does continue as a large project, but in the highly industrialized countries I find it remarkable how much of the job has already been accomplished — in less than ten years. Internet television still lies ahead, though, and perhaps that will be a rare bright spot.

What will happen when the process of automating jobs has largely been accomplished? What’s left then is the creation of new products and services — which requires customers who are looking to spend money, not cut costs. And then we are at the mercy of mass social mood as expressed in such things as “consumer confidence”.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Making feeds friendly

As usual I am appalled by the inability of the geek world to make its wares accessible to the masses. It’s bothered me for years that the terminology around feeds is so unhelpful.

I think the concept of feeds is perfectly understandable for most Internet users. Instead of having to keep checking back on a page to see whether it’s changed, and then having to figure out what part is new, you can “subscribe” (which is free) to its “newsfeed” (or “feed” for short). Then to read what’s new you use a “feed reader”, which shows you anything that’s new and nothing that isn’t. No more wasting time checking for news that isn’t there.

So why do people keep talking about RSS? What does that stand for? And whats this syndicate stuff I see sometimes on blogs — is it dangerous? Whats an aggregator? Whats XML?

Yeah, well, that’s just us geeks. Never mind us. (Really. If you doubt me, let me just point out that “RSS feeds” sometimes don’t use RSS at all, but Atom instead. There.)

All people need to know is feed, subscribe (and the orange button that means “subscribe to feed”), and that they’ll need to use a feed reader (like Google Reader — yes, Google makes one, so they can quit worrying about whether this is a safe thing to do).

One variation: blog reader is often a useful synonym for feed reader: oh, youre reading a bunch of blogs now? You should make life easier for yourself by using a blog reader. (Today, most people use a reader for blogs only, but I expect that to change as other kinds of useful feeds gain in popularity.) Reader is fine too.

If I’ve missed any terms that need to be included in the feed terminology for the masses, please comment below. Otherwise, this is my call to action to stick to just the terms that are in boldface above.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A boost for laziness

Many years ago when I was a professional computer programmer, I remarked to my father that all the best programmers were lazy. This got his attention, as he is an incredibly self-disciplined person with an unbeatable work ethic. I explained that in programming the best solutions are usually those that involve writing the smallest amount of software. To come up with such solutions can take considerable thought and creativity. But people who like to think, as good programmers typically do, don’t consider thinking to be work, so the result is good for everyone: they have to do less work, yet what they produce is superior. (Except of course when clueless bosses say things like “I want you to finish one module a week, starting the first week.” For lots more on these issues see the classic book The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks.)

Web 2.0, by giving creative and thoughtful people outlets that don’t require going through organizational gatekeepers (such as corporate or governmental or editorial), similarly makes it possible to accomplish more with less “work”. The result is a shift in the average nature of producers, toward the more “lazy”.

I was reminded of this by Toronto Transit Camp, which took place a few days ago. It was a BarCamp-type event organized by a few volunteers, run fairly cheaply, and thanks to the support of sponsors free to attend. The objective was to come up with concrete suggestions for how the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) could improve its (currently horrible) website (which I refuse to link to). The event was attended by several TTC brass, including its new chairman.

Contrast this with how the TTC had been planning to proceed:  bureaucrats would write a long RFP, etc., etc. Lots of process and lots of overhead, taking most of the effort and expense and leaving little for the actual ideas being sought. And locking out those unwilling to do such “work”.

I don’t think the meek shall inherit the earth, but the lazy might.