Saturday, January 12, 2013

Goodbye Aaron

I heard this morning that Aaron Swartz has committed suicide. He was just twenty six. That's far too young by anyone's measure.

It's unclear how much the pressures of the unreasonably harsh federal prosecution for the JSTOR incident might have weighed on him, because it's been clear that he was depressed for some years. Like many of us that suffer from bouts of depression he had good weeks, and bad weeks. But the legal mess he was in can hardly have been a light weight to bear.

We've had several well known people in the community commit suicide over the last couple of years, and it's jarring. From the outside they look like the best of us, the brightest, sometimes with the most to lose. From the inside it can look much bleaker.

People in our community grew up geeks, many grew up friendless and carry that burden into adulthood. They have real trouble reaching out when they need help; to the friends they're not sure they really have, to the family they often regard as having not been there for them when they were at school. As a result the community is littered with people that suffer depression, that struggle every day with it, and with Impostor Syndrome. No matter how accomplished people look on the outside, and despite past records that should make those accomplishments as evident to them as it is to the rest of us, they suffer. Often in silence. 

I didn't know Aaron well, we had exchanged a few words on a couple of occasions, but I should have had a chance to fix that. He was twenty six and he was at the start of things, not the end.

If you feel like you can't go on, if you feel like it's too much to bear the weight of your life alone. Please, don't do this, please reach out to your friends, your family, to strangers if you must. If you can't face your friends with the news that you hate your life. Because there is always someone that's going to miss you. Always.

Goodbye Aaron.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The inevitability of smart dust

This post was first published on the O'Reilly Radar.

I've put forward my opinion that desktop computing is dead on more than one occasion, and been soundly put in my place as a result almost every time. "Of course desktop computing isn't dead — look at the analogy you're drawing between the so called death of the mainframe and the death of the desktop. Mainframes aren't dead, there are still plenty of them around!"
Well, yes, that's arguable. But most people, everyday people, don't know that. It doesn't matter if the paradigm survives if it's not culturally acknowledged. Mainframe computing lives on, buried behind the scenes, backstage. As a platform it performs well, in its own niche. No doubt desktop computing is destined to live on, but similarly behind the scenes, and it's already fading into the background.
The desktop will increasingly belong to niche users. Developers need them, at least for now and for the foreseeable future. But despite the prevalent view in Silicon Valley, the world does not consist of developers. Designers need screen real estate, but buttons and the entire desktop paradigm are a hack; I can foresee the day when the computing designers use will not even vaguely resemble today's desktop machines.
For the rest of the world? Computing will almost inevitably diffuse out into our environment. Today's mobile devices are transition devices, artifacts of our stage of technology progress. They too will eventually fade into their own niche. Replacement technologies, or rather user interfaces, like Google's Project Glass are already on the horizon, and that's just the beginning.
People never wanted computers; they wanted what computers could do for them. Almost inevitably the amount computers can do for us on their own, behind our backs, is increasing. But to do that, they need data, and to get data they need sensors. So the diffusion of general purpose computing out into our environment is inevitable.
Everyday objects are already becoming smarter. But in 10 years' time, every piece of clothing you own, every piece of jewelry, and every thing you carry with you will be measuring, weighing and calculating. In 10 years, the world — your world — will be full of sensors.

The sensors you carry with you may well generate more data every second, both for you and about you, than previous generations did about themselves during the course of their entire lives. We will be surrounded by a cloud of data. While the phrase "data exhaust" has already entered the lexicon, we're still essentially at the banging-the-rocks-together stage. You haven't seen anything yet ...

The end point of this evolution is already clear: it's called smart dust. General purpose computing, sensors, and wireless networking, all bundled up in millimeter-scale sensor motes drifting in the air currents, flecks of computing power, settling on your skin, ingested, will be monitoring you inside and out, sensing and reporting — both for you and about you.

Almost inevitably the amount of data that this sort of technology will generate will vastly exceed anything that can be filtered, and distilled, into a remote database. The phrase "data exhaust" will no longer be a figure of speech; it'll be a literal statement. Your data will exist in a cloud, a halo of devices, tasked to provide you with sensor and computing support as you walk along, calculating constantly, consulting with each other, predicting, anticipating your needs. You'll be surrounded by a web of distributed sensors and computing.
Makes desktop computing look sort of dull, doesn't it?

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The fifth horseman never gets invited to the good parties

This article was originally posted on Google+.

Yesterday +MG Siegler argued on +TechCrunch that Samsung is the fifth horseman of technology, filling in for the ailing Microsoft, when the four horsemen: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google go riding.

I have to disagree with the underlying assumptions. We're at yet another tipping point in technology. A few years ago we moved from the beige box to the black rectangle, but the black rectangle won't be with us for as long as the beige box.

That black rectangle, the ubiquitous form factor of today's smart phone, is a transition device and it's going to disappear quickly as the speed of technological change is accelerating rapidly. Of the four horsemen only Google seems to be working on alternatives with +Project Glass. It's possible the others, including Samsung, have working hardware, but the successor to today's smart phone is going to be all about context and user interaction.

I've stood up in front of audiences before and argued that our smart phones have our lives on them, the next generation of mobile technology is going to stand between us and our lives and add context. It's hard to do that without a lot of information about the user.

It's also going to be a big leap for the horsemen to make. Despite getting into hardware recently Amazon is about selling content, Facebook has never done hardware and I don't think have this sort of paradigm shift in their corporate bones, Apple has, but without Steve Jobs I don't think they'll have the guts to kill the iPhone and innovate. Samsung, the fifth horsemen that never gets invited to the good parties, is a box shifter. They know hardware, but they don't know design, and they don't know anything about their end users. Their customers are other companies, like Amazon, not you and me, the eventual consumers.

So out of all of them Google  seems to be the only one positioned to move forward, and it'll be a big leap for them even so. The developer release of +Project Glass later this year is going to be crucial. If I had the money to lose making a wager, I'd wager that it'll be some startup you or I haven't heard of yet that makes the leap to the next ubiquitous form factor.

Either way, it's going to be an interesting year...