Thursday, May 18, 2006

In the darkness bind them...

I was taken by a snippet from Tim O'Reilly's commencement speech at SIMS a few days ago...
Internet pundit Clay Shirky memorably summarized the shift to network computing with a story about Thomas Watson Jr., the head of IBM during the birth of the mainframe. Watson famously remarked that he saw no need for more than 5 computers worldwide. Clay noted, "We now know that Thomas Watson was wrong." We all laughed as we thought of the hundreds of millions of personal computers sold today. But then Clay socked us with the punch line: "He overstated the number by four." - Tim O'Reilly
Although there actually isn't any evidence that Watson ever actually said anything of the kind, I was struck by Shirky's comment on the famous misquote.

Walter Mossberg has also recently argued that the desktop era is at an end, which brought a response from Bill Gates, predictably arguing that there was life in the old model yet, and I was really interested to see this picked up by Slashdot where the comments for once were predominantly in Gate's favour. As regulars on the site should know, this is more than a little unusual, but it's not hard to figure out why for once the assembled hordes are supporting Gates.

I've often argued that the desktop computer is a dead end, and like the VCR its a piece of technology whose time has come and gone. This isn't a popular opinion, either with Gates, who amassed a fortune selling commodity software for commodity boxes, or to the Slashdot hordes, who see a computer as a general tool and don't like the new world of single use devices. These devices tend to be designed to do one thing, and do it well, and although there are exceptions, the new generation of devices generally run proprietary code and are much less hackable than your average desktop machine.

Both the new generation of embedded devices and the emerging Web 2.0 infrastructure is all about the interfaces. We are now treating both devices and software as black boxes, and the utility and the user interface is in the mashups between these interfaces. While, perhaps through familiarity software mashups are more common, some people seem to get it. Black box hardware doesn't mean no hacking, it just needs a slightly different toolset.

The days when you could produce cool stuff just by playing around with a stand alone machine are pretty much over, the secret is now in the sauce...