Monday, July 09, 2012

Podcast Afterthoughts -- brain inertia

If you are thinking about something or working on a problem and take a break, your brain keeps at it subconsicously. We all come up with ideas and solutions to problems while showering, sleeping, running, etc. Your brain has inertia.

Similarly, ideas pop into our heads after a good conversation. I have been having weekly conversations about tech topics with my colleagues on the podcast, Yet Another Tech Show (YATS), and, as with any good conversation, I think about it afterwards.

Podcast comments allow us to continue the conversation after it has been recorded, but they are mostly driven by users and are often superficial. Maybe the podcast show-note format should include links to afterthoughts by the participants.

To play with the idea, I jotted down some afterthoughts from our last podcast (YATS 15).

YATS 15 afterthoughts

During YATS 15, we spent a lot of time talking about the features of different phones and tablets, but I think that is only of interest in the short term. In the long term, phones and tablets will be commodities like PCs. I don't care whether I have a Dell or HP laptop because the software I use runs equally well on comparable configurations of either.

Today we fuss over phone and tablet features, but we are headed for a future in which much of our software and data is in the cloud, leading us to worry less about the features of our phones and tablets and more about the offerings of our cloud service vendors and about vendor lock-in.

We only touched briefly on services and lock-in during YATS 15, after noting that Microsoft had announced free Office 365 accounts for educational institutions. Schools now have two free cloud service choices -- Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365. Students will learn to use one or the other and be somewhat locked in after graduation -- like a free sample of a drug.

The first level of lock-in will be familiarity with the programs and user interface. The differences between Google Apps and Office 365 will diminish over time, but user familiarity will remain important. (Although the user interface gap between Mac OS and Windows has diminished since 1984, many users are reluctant to switch).

Program features and file formats also lock users in. Let's consider word processing for example.

I did my first word processing with unit record equipment. You punched your document into 80-column cards and ran the deck through an accounting machine that was wired to print them. If you made an error, you removed the bad card, re-keyed it, and ran it back through the accounting machine.

When PCs came out, I got a copy of Electric Pencil, the first word processing program for the Altair. Next it was Magic Wand then WordStar. WordStar was fast and did everything I needed. I was satisfied with WordStar, but reluctantly switched to Microsoft Word when a client told me I had to deliver a report as a Word document. I still use Word because nearly everyone else does.

But, like WordStar and Word, the Google Docs and Office 365 word processors create incompatible files and both are incompatible with Word -- Déjà vu all over again. (I still have the manuscripts of two books and a ton of reports and articles stored in the venerable WordStar format).

There are two general ways out of this kind of lock-in -- file conversion and standards. I wish I had a program to convert my old WordStar files to Word files (or that Word could import/save WordStar files), but I don't. Word for Office 365 and Google Docs word processor could be built to import/save each other's files, but different and evolving feature sets would make that tough to maintain and the companies probably would not see it as good for their business.

Standards may be de-facto, created by a dominant player, or open. In this example, we have three important file formats -- desktop Word, Google Docs word processor and Word for Office 365. Desktop Word is a de-facto standard today, but its dominance will decline over time as we create more and more cloud documents. Open standards are good for interoperability and fostering competition, but they may retard progress if adopted too early and companies (like Apple) might ignore them for business reasons.

Well, enough about word processing. I don't know how akk this will all shake out, but I do think that cloud features and interoperability will be more important than device features in the long run. (Don't forget, I am only using word processing as an example -- the same goes for other applications).

One last point -- during our YATS 15 conversation, it was suggested that today's phones with multicore processors and maybe 2 GB of RAM and 64 GB storage might be powerful enough for anything we want to do with them, but I don't buy that. It reminds me of a consulting job I did for WordStar. They were about to introduce a new version (WordStar 2000) and I could not convince them to build it for 64 MB of memory -- they were sure that 32 MB machines would be around forever. While I believe that device differentiation will become less important in the future, the power of our phones and tablets will continue to grow as we invent new applications.