How to Tie Your Shoes

This week marks the official start of the big corporate re-alignment project that I will be flying to New Jersey to participate with next month, and one of my colleagues who has been an integral part of the LMS project is in attendance for some of the preliminary, non-technical meetings that will set the tone and direction for the coming year. Given the high hopes a lot of people are pinning on this project, it's interesting to hear that the LMS that I've worked on over the last two years has been gathering a lot of attention. So much so that my colleague has been asked to deliver some demos and walk-throughs of the project and how it's impacted school operations across Japan. Given that he's been the main project lead since development officially started in 2016, this is an excellent opportunity for him to show off the fruits of his labours. However, as the sole developer of the system, people have reached out to me via email and Skype to ask a number of questions about the future of the project and whether it can be adapted to work for schools in different countries.

"Of course it can be adapted to work in other countries," I tell them. "It's just software."

Wearing Nice Shoes

A lot of people want to know what's next for the project and whether it can survive going from being developed by a single person to a team of people around the globe1. Some want to know whether something designed to be used in Japan can really be used in countries like Mexico, Colombia, and Switzerland. Others think it's an interesting concept, but wholly unnecessary given that we had software that sort of kind of did a small bit of what the LMS is capable of. What I find most interesting is that the questions being asked are the wrong ones. Wrong not because they're born from the typical tunnel vision that afflicts organisations around the world, but wrong in the sense that they skirt around the actual question that people are hinting at but never directly stating:

Why are people — particularly managers and teachers — excited about this tool?

It's this why that should be asked again and again because that's really the only way to understand why so much of the other software that's been created for this company by very smart people around the world has failed to live up to the needs of the people who actually do the work. This isn't to say that the project I worked on is necessarily better. From a technological standpoint, it's downright archaic in how it accomplishes its purpose. From a business process point of view, however, it's perfectly aligned. Considering how I worked in the classroom for almost a decade before developing the LMS with the support of some very smart people, this shouldn't come as a surprise at all. Too much of the software companies rely on are created by people who mean well, but don't fully understand how the processes, people, and cultures within an organisation mesh together to create the businesses that customers interact with. Or, in the case of my employer, students.

One of the key ideas that I hope to share with my global colleagues when we meet in New Jersey is this notion of asking why until we reach the real reason behind a project or a feature request. It's something a former colleague/mentor of mine taught me, and it's been incredibly useful over the years despite the plethora of software projects I've created that served nobody but me.

So here's a simple question: why do so many of us tie our shoes with a knot?

Taking this question all the way back will have us ask fundamental questions about the kinds of shoe we buy, the reasons we buy them, the goals we hope to accomplish, and eventually the reason we wear shoes at all. A lot of the people I've worked with — no matter how smart — have often stopped asking why at the first or second level. When it comes to solving complex problems, this is just not good enough. Problem solvers and solutions providers need to go much deeper than one or two levels. We need to reach the core. Otherwise, anything we create to solve a problem is just an incomplete idea.


  1. to add a little bit of fun, the project needs to change from being a self-hosted tool on a LAMP stack to being written to run completely within the Salesforce ecosystem; a platform I've never worked with. It should be interesting and lead to even better opportunities going forward.

Indistinguishable from Magic

When out and about during the day, I like to watch people interact with the technology that surrounds us. So much has changed in such a short amount of time that comparing the tools we enjoyed in the 90s to the devices we take for granted today can be quite amazing. Thinking back even further, there was a time when the average person could repair just about any item they purchased without requiring a PhD in a science-related discipline. Those days are long gone and will likely never return, which means generations of people will grow up not really understanding how the things they use actually work. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, nor is it necessarily a good thing. This is just the way it is.

A Lithographic Sheet of Intel Haswell-series Processors

The integrated circuit is a perfect example of something that the vast majority of people do not understand. Most software developers couldn't tell you how one of these things really works yet, without them, there wouldn't be any need to develop software. Yet the same could be said about a lot of the food we eat, too. Do most of us really know how the meal we ate went from being alive somewhere on the planet, to dead, to processed, to packaged, to shipped, to delivered, to bought? Probably not. It's too complex and, for most people, irrelevant.

We live in a remarkable time. The vast majority of people over the age of 20 are quite literate in at least one language, and we have access to vast sums of knowledge that span thousands of years of study. For most of us, though, we focus on just a narrow band of subjects and learn them well enough to accomplish the basic tasks asked of us. Some people dig deeper to learn more. They go on to solve some wonderfully complex problems, such as designing the next in-demand CPU … essentially teaching a rock to "think".

For the vast majority of us, though, we are surrounded by tools that are taken for granted and pretty much indistinguishable from magic.

The Audacity of Scope

Earlier today I was looking at some hardware. I am very interested in leaving the world of Apple behind and switching back to Linux. In order to do this, though, I will need hardware that does not fight me every step of the way. So, with this in mind, I went over to the 古いパソコン section of a big electronics retailer around here. Since most people in Japan think used stuff is just trash, you can usually find really good equipment for a fraction of the price of new. Case in point was a Toshiba "ultrabook" from last summer that typically sells for north of 200,000円 that was available for 79,500円. It's in mint condition. The only "problem" is that the unit was a display model … and a Toshiba. After walking around for 45 minutes I came to the conclusion that, if I am to be truly happy with any technology purchase, I should probably just build the whole thing myself. There's a lot of "choice" out there for people who are price sensitive, but when you're only options come attached with adjectives such as "affordable" and "recent", one would be forgiven to give up hope of finding something that is worth the money we work so hard to earn.

I don't think I'm asking for too much. I'd like to have a tablet that is light, responsive, and can take SD cards without dongles. I'd also like to have a notebook that has a decent processor, can accept 16GB of RAM or more, a high-resolution screen that is bright enough to toast bread, and human-accessible components that are easy to upgrade or repair. As with most consumer electronics, there are some products that can offer some of what I'm looking for, but not everything. Tablets are incredibly depressing, though, with Lenovo's Yoga 2 being the closest thing to a machine that fits my ideal device, though the HP devices do come close.

The more I think about what I want, though, the more I wonder just how much of an edge case I am. Would it be possible for me to design a tablet and notebook that "doesn't suck"? Would it be possible for me to manufacture it for a reasonable price? Would it be possible for me to fund the project through IndieGoGo or Kickstarter?

The idea does have merit. Even if it's nothing more than a thought experiment, the exercise would give me the necessary perspective to either build my own hardware or learn to live with what exists and make it work as well as possible. Believe it or not, Apple does not have a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to hardware. While I may not be Jonny Ive, I do like to think of myself as someone who knows what he likes and doesn't like.

So, yeah … this is something I'm going to think about for a while. I'll get some sketches down. I'll think about the software that will work with the hardware. I'll see where the ideas go. There are three major players in the tablet and notebook space right now, but this needn't be set in stone.

Business Models and Interfaces

Nobody ever said it would be easy, but three people are now taking part in a conversation discussing the feasibility of a conversational podcast application; , , and I. One of the things that I am enjoying the most about this staggered conversation is the extra information that comes across when we use our voice. Inflection, nuance, and intonation are insanely difficult to convey in text alone. Have something to say? You're more than welcome to join in. Be sure to mention me on App.net if you do.

Yesterday Joanna brought up some concerns with the UI concept I laid out in yesterday's podcast with a specific use case I hadn't thought about; listening in the car. As a driver's attention must be on the road 99% of the time they're behind the wheel, any interface that relies on touch would be a poor solution. One option would be to employ something a little "Hey Siri" like. When a person is listening, they can say something like "Marker!" or "Drop marker!" and the application would do so. This feature would likely only be possible when the phone is charging or connected to a dock to ensure the battery isn't drained too quickly, but perhaps an override could be made available for people who want to jog and listen to podcasts, too.

At this stage in the game, why not think up new interface paradigms? It's not like we have any existing designs to nostalgically cling to or anything.

Joanna also asked the following question:

Re. bandwidth. If Jeremy comments on something in a 3-hour podcast I didn't listen to and I want to hear that snippet, I don't want to wait for the whole file to download. I just want the one snippet. Fair use to clip?

Maybe I wasn't too clear with yesterday's episode, as I was standing in the park battling wind and a noisy warehouse loading dock. In my mind, when a podcast is commented on, the actual audio from the original podcast(s) is dropped into the new podcast. So if I'm commenting on a 3-hour podcast, but my comment is only 2 minutes long and the inserted segment is 1 minute, the entire podcast would be just 3 minutes. Nobody should be forced to download a massive number of podcasts from all over the place, as it's just not feasible … especially for people like me who prefer to pre-download their podcasts while on WiFi to save on cellular data.

That said, the show notes would have links to the original files with time-indexes to specify exactly which part or parts of the podcast are referenced. I think this would work with fair use as well as appease some of the podcasters who would undoubtedly complain about "lost downloads"1.

A few hours ago Jeremy Cherfas also responded with a little bit of feedback, the biggest one being that he 100%, absolutely despises my idea of a tap-and-hold to record with the fury of a thousand suns! Well … that's a slight exaggeration, but he did offer a solution. Marker dropping, which I had alluded to in Joanna's feedback. By dropping markers, a person could go back and move the markers backwards and forwards with more precision to get the exact audio extract that they'd like to use in their response. This sounds fair, though it does increase complexity. Both options will need to be tested and, as they're pretty much the exact same thing from a data point of view, there's no reason why an application couldn't implement both methods. It's just software, after all.

The second point Mr. Cherfas discussed is something that a lot of application developers contend with: business models. In order for something like this to be worthwhile, the application will have to be made with the intentions of turning a profit over time. This means charging at least $5, and possibly more. I don't have a problem paying for applications as it often means that the software I'm getting is of better quality and won't disrespect my ideals quite as easily2. As for all the people who would undoubtedly scream blue murder that this sort of application isn't free, they're not my target audience at this time.

That said …

There should be some sort of demo available, shouldn't there? Any application that is priced outside of the impulse buy threshold3 is likely to see very little traction no matter how good it is. Like I said yesterday, it's been quite some time since I've written an application for iOS, and the last one was really for a client who needed a dead simple tool that used an interface that they designed in PowerPoint one Saturday morning4. How should a demo be made available? A separate application with restrictions? Should the app be "free" with a mandatory in-app purchase after a certain usage threshold has been reached? It's not an easy question … and neither is the one involving a continuous revenue stream. Once an application is sold, it's sold. Updates are free.

Can a person really earn a living this way?

Looking at this with optimistic eyes, let's say the application is a smashing success. I build the tool and sell it for $7.49 or thereabouts and a thousand people jump on it. After Apple takes their cut I earn some $5,000, or two month's wages at the day job. How long will it be before clones are made and offered for free? Would I want to continue to invest time in an application that has naturally dwindling usage numbers? Most applications "die" not because the developers run out of ideas, but because the Cost to Earnings ratio no longer makes sense.

Yes, the first line of code hasn't even been written and I'm already thinking negatively about something. That said, pragmatism is important. Yesterday I talked about taking a month off work to make this application a real thing. This means raising a number, like $2500~$3000 USD in order to pay for rent, food, taxes, deductions, insurance, and all the other things adults need to cover. My cost of living is a lot less than a person living in most parts of North America, so this isn't an unrealistic amount of money to raise. The people who invest the cash would, of course, receive a copy of the application as part of the fulfilment package. Once these people have received their apps, what would sales in the AppStore look like? That's the impossible question that must be answered.

So what's next? The logical choice would be to get in touch with some other podcasters and talk to them about this idea. Is this something they'd be interested in using? Is this something they'd like their listeners to use? Remember, this application would be a podcast listener as well as a recorder. This could introduce a lot of people to podcasting right on their phones, and it could into a great promotion tool for existing podcasters who want to publicly comment other shows that may be less known. There is a lot of potential behind a tool that could simplify podcast commenting ….

All in all, this application is actually pretty exciting to think about. More exciting than a lot of the other tools that I'm working on — though they're exciting, too. Will others find it just as exciting?

I'm about to find out.


  1. "Lost downloads" is an odd thing to complain about, though, as you cannot lose something you wouldn't have had in the first place … but I digress.
  2. Don't track me. Don't show ads. Don't get in my way. I'm really not that hard to please, so long as developers don't introduce too much friction in their applications.
  3. Which seems to be "Free with In-App Purchases" at this point.
  4. I wish I were kidding.

Homescr-app.net

Lasar had an interesting idea earlier today. With all of the people sharing pictures of their mobile phone home screens, why isn't there a service that we could upload the pictures to and have the apps automagically listed next to the image? With all of the crazy websites out there, why wouldn't someone do this?

Can people earn affiliate revenue from Apple and Google's stores? If so, this is a potential goldmine waiting to be had.

Distillation

Patrick Rhone has an interesting idea going on called The Unrecorded Podcast and it actually solves a problem that I've seen cropping up with some of the longer-running podcasts; the rambling in particular. What Mr. Rhone brings to the table is distillation.

The premise behind the project is simple. Patrick Rhone, CJ Chilvers, and Dave Caolo will sit down in a typical podcast setting, complete with a schedule, occasional guests, and even show notes. But here's the interesting bit: the conversation will not be recorded. The conversation will truly be the unrecorded podcast. What we'll see afterwards is a summary of the show notes in the form of an email newsletter.

Genius.

Ideas That Need To Stop

While reading some articles this weekend I was struck by two recurring themes said by different people in different ways, but each carrying the same meaning. These two ideas, while completely valid in the minds of millions, are like cancers. Some people have a stronger resistance to the destructive concepts but, over time, they begin to take root in people's consciousness and flourish like any other long-running recurring concept in our mind.

They need to stop, and we need to actively put an end to these two ideas:

  • Electronics are meant to be replaced every six to twelve months
  • Companies need to "do the right thing" and take a huge loss rather than consumers needing to investigate their purchases

Waste Not, Want Not

While reading a post on Engadget regarding Samsung's new 9 Series notebooks, one common theme was seen in the comments: computers (and all electronics) should be cheaper and replaced on an annual basis. The argument started with someone taking on the standard Windows vs. OS X argument, which was then carried by another person who replied:

"…I left Windows and jumped on the Apply hype wagon for several months and then left. The hardware is overpriced, a lack of support by third parties, and there is an elitist aire about it all. There are other OS just as good or better today, and hardware with twice the power and options for half the price. Sure the machines wont last as long but who cares-at half the price and with annual tech advancements I dont really care if my hardware lasts several years when its just about outdated to begin with. Id rather buy an affordable windows machine every year or two over an overpriced trend." -- Michial Brown

Character for character, that's what Mr. Brown wrote. I'm not sure how someone who is incapable of using an apostrophe can afford a new computer every year or two, but fortune often favors the foolish. That, and idiots tend to have a lot more money than people who try to find a better way of using resources.

Electronic WasteSpelling and grammar aside, this idea is not unique on technology sites. There are literally thousands of people that say the very same thing on various technologies with different timescales. Android phones are supposedly replaced every six months. iPhones every year. Notebooks every spring. Desktop computers every two years. TVs every five.  It's a never-ending cycle which results in incredible waste. This planet does not have an infinite supply of rare earths, precious metals, or plastics … yet millions of people in wealthier nations are tossing away equipment that is not functionally broken. These items either collect dust in a closet, or leak corrosive products into the soil after being destroyed by garbage processors.

Yet we still see billions of people without adequate drinking water because there isn't enough money for the $150-a-year pump and filter kits they need …

It's disgusting how much we waste on sub-par crap rather than investing our hard-earned money into products that will actually provide a decent life-span. People can spend their money however they choose, of course. I don't believe that we should forfeit the freedoms that a billion of us have for the sake of five billion others who couldn't imagine living with access to resources like many of us take for granted … but we should make the most of the things we do purchase to ensure the world remains that much cleaner.

Free Upgrades For All!

Free Upgrades For Everyone!The second item came from an author that I've slowly grown to enjoy reading on TechCrunch; MG Seigler. An American reader asked him if they should buy the iPhone 4 on Verizon as soon as it comes out, or wait until summer to see if the iPhone 5 will support both Verizon and GSM-based networks. MG responds by wondering if AT&T will have exclusive access to the iPhone 5 in the US for an amount of time, and then follows up with this gem:

"Does Verizon do the right thing and give all early adopters of the iPhone the standard discount to buy the iPhone 5 at the subsidized price if it does come this summer to Verizon as well?" -- MG Seigler

Since when has it ever been a company's responsibility to give discounts to impatient customers with buyers remorse? Maybe it's just me, but I hate it when people complain about how their new product has already been replaced by something newer while it's just a few months old. The Interweb is loaded with sites talking about upcoming products, release schedules, features, benefits, negatives, and everything between. Sure, Apple products are very, very difficult to predict, but this does not mean a person can't quickly research their purchase beforehand and say "Oh, Apple typically releases a new iPhone every June. Let's wait until Steve Jobs gives his presentation in April or May to see what's announced."

Is our lust for things so unquenchable that we can't "make due" with whatever the heck we're currently using for another few months? MONTHS!

People go for YEARS without basic medical care in some nations around the world, but some over-privileged are complaining because they have to go a dozen weeks with a 9-month old phone.

Boo-Freakin'-Hoo.

We humans need to start realizing that just because there's a big world of shiny things on the market does not mean we need to possess all of those shiny things. Not only is this a very bad habit with a horrible ROI, but it's a very bad habit that's attributing to the further pollution of our world. We need to ask our electronics to last longer and, if that means we need to pay a bit more up front for a quality device that will survive our usage patterns for a long time, we need to be willing to accept the price tags that come with being a little more responsible.

Just because we can do a thing does not necessarily mean we must do a thing. We all need to learn this lesson; myself included.