Platforms for Cooperation.

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 6 weeks ago.

It isn't just murders and violence people watch the news for these days. I heard Glenn Murcutt, the sustainable architect from Australia talk here in Dublin just before xmas. He described how people live in air conditioned homes, drive air conditioned cars and work in air conditioned buildings. They get up each morning and go through the whole process of moving between these spaces, and at the end of the day they sit down and turn on the TV set to find out what the weather was like! I mean, what is the point in that? As we speak I am looking using the web to find out what is on TV tonight. Nicholas Negroponte was correct when he said the TV is the dumbest piece of technology you are likely to find in the whole house - even the microwave oven puts it to shame. What John Battelle has also talked of lately, in his book on Search is the combination of search, TV and purchasing/advertising.

It seems to me like a lot of technologies are combining together in strange ways - where no one technological devices offers the whole package. That was a feature of platforms in the old days. Like the personal computer, was always trying to give you everything out of the box - but didn't. I think the kids nowadays, don't want a solution in a box - like us old folks expect. The solution in a box is a commodity made in Asia these days anyhow. The imported stuff is very good, yet very cheap. If you want to gain an edge, you end up weaving these cheap devices together in some new way. Professor Iansiti raises some good points on this in his Keystone Advantage article in the HBR.

The products must be a part of a greater ecosystem. I guess it goes back to Kevin Kelly's point too, that machine things are becoming more biological. PARC Labs were thinking about this a lot when Gershenfeld, Negroponte and Kelly were doing some of their best writing. At Sun too of course, James Gosling's vision of Java he got when watching the lights at a rock concert. I have posted a short history on java below, which I think is well worth reading in the context of the present discussion. I mean, when you consider what they wanted in a network: reliability. Yeah, reliability, but also the ability to spam and advertise to everyone any time, any place.

I have considered these ideas, of jadgets talking to each other, and extended my concepts even a little bit further in the post below, abouhow long the platform lasts. In a way, I believe that each generation of human beings create their own vision of computing which fits their times and their culture. Each one is unique to each generation - archaeologists like Christine Finn in the UK, have used this notion to get across ideas about archaeology to young kids in schools. Because the kids develop a very keen awareness to the subtle changes in technology and platforms as time goes by. Some of these changes can happen in a matter of months, in contrast to archaeology where you are talking in terms of centuries and millenia. Indeed, one could argue, that kids nowadays learn about the concept of time, by observations of technology. I often wonder what it was like for my parents growing up seeing the first automobiles and TVs etc.

Uplinking with an Alien Computer

Think about the scene in Independence day where Jeff Goldblum could interface with the alien ship. How could David's laptop interface with an alien computer? As near as I can tell, they used that dildo shaped antenna they plugged onto the bottom of the craft to transmit to a satillite that the aliens were using and piggyback on their own signal back into it's source on the mothership.

The key insights into the software that would run such devices came to Gosling at a Doobie Brothers concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. As he sat slouched in front-row seats letting the music wash over him, Gosling looked up at wiring and speakers and semirobotic lights that seemed to dance to the music. "I kept seeing imaginary packets flowing down the wires making everything happen,'' he recalls. "I'd been thinking a lot about making behavior flow through networks in a fairly narrow way. During the concert, I broke through on a pile of technical issues. I got a deep feeling about how far this could all go: weaving networks and computers into even fine details of everyday life.''

Gosling quickly concluded that existing languages weren't up to the job. C++ had become a near-standard for programmers building specialized applications where speed is everything - computer-aided design for instance, where success is measured by the number of polygons generated per second. But C++ wasn't reliable enough for what Gosling had in mind. It was fast, but its interfaces were inconsistent, and programs kept on breaking. However, in consumer electronics, reliability is more important than speed. Software interfaces had to be as dependable as a two-pronged plug fitting into an electrical wall socket. "I came to the conclusion that I needed a new programming language,'' Gosling says.

Which when translated into reality,... this grew to become a very robust industrial strength distributed and object oriented computer language.... At demos, Naughton (a young member on the Green project) would go to the white board to show the scope of Oak, (early 1990s implementation of Java technology) filling the blankness with lines crisscrossing from home computers, to cars, to TVs, to phones, to banks, to - well, to everything. Oak was to be the mother tongue of the network of all digital things.

Initially, Sun tried to market this Oak Technology for TV, set top boxes, but it never took off,... But then,... along came the Internet and it was because of Bill Joy's input, (a veteran of the older Unix environment) that Sun finally saw that the Internet could become Oak's redemption. Joy's support was critical in what became known as the Internet Play, the "profitless" approach to building market share - a ploy Netscape had made famous by giving away its browser. "There was a point at which I said, 'Just screw it, let's give it away. Let's create a franchise,''' Joy says.

How long does a Platform really last?

Do you just count the day a company stops making the part or developing the software? Is it much more than that? Is there something about a platform, that is very important but still left undocumented. A kind of dark and gloomy place, where few people wish to explore? Is there a hidden subconscious in computing? Does computing await it's own Sigmund Freud? Even though a platform dies, for how long does it linger in the minds of people? Does a memory get passed down through generations via person-to-person contact? When reading the Cuckoo's Egg, by Cliff Stoll I read of a quirky thing that European Unix users do in typing code, which west coast hackers would never do. This alerted Cliff straight away to the probability of the hacker being from Europe.

I was reading an discussion thread recently about security. I listened with interest to posters mention people who came from win9x backgrounds not being used to the mindset of security. As distinct from people who have a Linux, a Unix background or even a mainframe background where security is not taken for granted. I have read some articles in the past year written on a Linux magazine by someone who learned in the DOS environment and later discovered what BASH scripting could do in Linux. One person I read about at Pixar, said the final straw came when Pixar discussed a change from IRIX to Windows NT. It was just too much like a step backwards. The BSOD was more than he could handle. That person went on to found his own business and do his own thing. Many hackers who were involved in the ITS operating system project, used it for a long time after DEC had discontinued making the computers it ran on. Some users managed to convert onto Unix, and many of those people may have later changed to Linux.

I myself come from the Apple background. Or rather, when I was getting into computing for the first time, a lot of the guys I talked to and worked with had been using Apple stuff for years. I mean, when i started using computers in 1998/9 I wanted to do everything all at once, on the same computer. I expected the computer to do everything and anything. That is the indoctrination of the Apple ideal - where the personal computer can do everything. Even though I have not touched an Apple system for a couple of years, I still think in that way. I carry within me the legacy of another platform, when I work with windows each day. I wanted to get into digital video, and photo manipulation and music composition. I automatically felt as if that were possible. It is the kind of attitude that can serve you well if you work in an Apple environment. But it is not the kind of attitude that serves you best, if you work with Windows. Windows based workplaces and people have a different outlook, which is not familiar to people who grew up using Apple stuff. Windows people love marking out boundaries to your computing experience, areas where you are not supposed to venture. Apple people tend to hate boundaries and generally ignore them as much as possible.

Many people have spoken about how easy it was on the Amiga platform. File formats were very clear and easy to understand. Software appeared to do what you expected it to do. It somehow managed to make sense. You could grow and learn within the Amiga environment. Many gamers speak about Atari and Commodore having wasted their opportunity to be a part of personal computing. I discovered that DOOM was ported onto many different devices and consoles, besides the PC itself. If you go back far enough, the Apple computer was the gaming platform of choice. Recently, I had a discussion about the demise of PC gaming. People clearly pointed out the benefits of communal gaming experience with consoles. The mobile phone, another contemporary technology shares the same idea of communal interaction of the game console. The PC is generally a private way to game and communicate. In spite of all the publicity and hype about LAN Parties. And hardware vendors attempts to modify the design of cases, fans, motherboards and what not, to appeal to the Lan party go-er's taste.

How far Microsoft have come from selling Windows Mellenium Edition! I mean, the world of computing and media is changing quite fast these days. High-definition digital video and LCD TVs are being promoted by Dell. It is all about large TV screens with Windows XP media edition accessible from a remote control. For an extra few euro, a Dell technician will arrive at your house, hook it all together and give you a tutorial. Dell understand the vunerability of the PC being too private. They are trying to bring it into your living room, and hopefully stop Playstation or XBOX from owning that space outright.

While Scott McNealy talks about the thin client, the Sun Ray per day and how much better the desktop could be if we moved onto the network and paid for our computing needs by subscription. All our devices could talk to each other, and your data would be safe and secure, like putting your money in a bank, rather than locking it in a safe in your home. I went to the horse races yesterday and the bookmakers had digital monitors instead of chalk boards. That really drives it home for me I think. Beside the bookmakers a 10 foot square flat panel screen showed close ups of the horses as they galloped. We are living in very strange hybrids of real and virtual nowadays, and people have to manage somewhere in between all the changes and shocks.

Some After Thoughts ------------------------------------

An obvious reference for my writing above is David B. Brownlee and David G. De Long who co-authored a book about the architect Louis Kahn, published by Thames and Hudson. The ideas I got for exploring hardware and its history in computing, derive a lot from Brownlee and De Long's discussion in that book, about Kahn. Kahn would try to understand what a school started out as - a space underneath a tree in a village, where all the young kids would collect to listen to an older knowledgeable person speak. It was only later, that things become more forumalised and regulated in a schooling system per se. As in the discussion of Alvin Toffler, about the industrialisation of schooling system. Kahn felt it was important for the architect to understand the early essence, the origins of building spaces - if the modern interpretation was to be of any success. For instance, with kids, you tube and parents fighting - you have to go back to the origins - like the light switch, where there were only two bits! The light is either on or off, and see how kids manipulated that to their advantage, and controlled the environment in which adults were trying to occupy.

This is what I mean about the adobe acrobat platform too - sure it Professor Iansiti dealt with the ecological network effects employed by MBAs at adobe to create the franchise as it were. It is a way of looking at business, similar to the ideas in Mark Buchanan's book, on Small Worlds and the ground breaking theory of networks. PDF has been a fantastic success as a business strategy - a role model even. But the translation from physical book to digital book isn't wonderful imo. The origin of the PDF was the book. But the PDF embodies very little of the original essence of that older platform I feel. Ted Nelson talks about this, in the copy and paste translation of software engineers, which was a very poor imitation of what he remembers while working for a newspaper in NYC. Negroponte discusses technology in a similar way in his book Being Digital. About the former lives of tools we find in the digital environment - and how sucessfully or poorly in some cases, their translation has been.

I would greatly anticipate Danah Boyd writing something along those lines. Where we see examples in her writing of other progressions in technology, to allow us to get a handle on the same notion of progression in web applications. Or this sense of history, the layers of archaeology that Christine Finn has explored in her work. Where she talks about the compression of time, into momentary flickers which appear for a second and then seem to disappear again, almost as if they never existed. That is the nature of digital platforms sometimes - they don't have a life inherent in themselves - but they only live afterwards as ghostly shadows and flickers on the cave walls, as echos in later code.

"If changes in one small area are too quickly communicated across a system as a whole, they would tend to be dampened out. New and dissenting ideas need time to accumulate evidence and argument."

Ilya Prigogine, winner of a nobel prize for chemistry.

Boyd has mentioned this before no doubt, as in hacking on live servers - patching code until 4 in the morning - the Ruby, PHP phenomenon of SNS. We have to find another way to respond to the coming and passing of various platforms. To deal with this loss of platforms. I think that my piece about, about How long does a platform really last, offers at least a small philosophical route forward in our thinking about it. The notion that even though a company dies, or a product is no more, a part of it still stays alive - somewhat like Dawkins and Susan Blackmore's idea of the meme. But we have to get past this notion of the god given right of American software companies to exist and last for ever. When history proves that not to be the case. We have to find a different way to deal with their passing - rather than the usual black and white way we deal with the issue. The company is either alive or dead. I guess the network and ecological analogies do help there also, and give us another route to develop our thinking. We can no longer see this huge brand names purely in isolation, but to be alive they have to form a large organism with only creatures and environments.

The way one platform must often serve sacrificial host from which another technology will grow. Indeed there is something very biological about this kind of business. The birth of Unix is described very well in John Naughton's, A Brief History of the Future. I guess the most obvious one of all to web applications comes when you read Alan Deutschman's, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. And compare the loss of that platform of the Next box, with the creation of a new platform - the web itself, remembered by Tim Berners Lee, in his book, Weaving the Web. Ironic given that IBM served as sacrificial host to Steve Jobs and his Apple company. Love what you burn, burn what you love. You will also find evidence of the birth of the PC gaming industry, in Masters of Doom by David Kushner. Where the young John Carmack spends a winter in a northern state using his black next cube, while the ground outside was white with snow. Given the production of space in digital terms is such a biological process, I guess it is no wonder we have characters like Richard Stallman here today. People who must care passionately about the web of regulations and laws concerning the disipline of software engineering.