Goodbye, Computer: Where the Puck Was Going
Just over three years ago Steve Jobs closed a keynote with notice that Apple Computer had changed its name to Apple, Inc. My first reaction was that they were taking the business more towards the iPod model and away from Macs. Later, I wrote that I saw Apple taking the direction towards digital appliances and what that meant for watching movies at home. I’m happy the Mac is still central to their strategy, but in the iPad we see more of what Apple sees: the general purpose computing paradigm is a dead end.
Lots of techies are upset, seeing the future of making software as a Facebook experience: whitewashed, right angles and the turfing out of anything not deemed to fit by corporate interests.
How did that happen? There were plenty of chances to make things easy and for everyone, like the marketing copy we keep slapping onto our product descriptions. But we blew it.
When anyone could install any software, we never learned constraint. We couldn’t resist stuffing capability in over usability, to let go of options that only spoke to our peers, to reduce non-technical people to ‘users’. We dared everyone to climb higher while only a few of us knew how to land on our feet.
We wrote our tools first for each other, dismissing customer requests that didn’t interest us by saying they can customize with APIs or CSS or complex gestures, knowing full well most people couldn’t without our help. We hid poor quality behind clickthrough agreements, knowing that customers didn’t read them, and relieved ourselves of real responsibility.
Apple took the opposite approach: consumers can play, too, no matter their technical skill. The App Store approval process took over the chore of vetting the software’s trustworthiness because we did such a crap job of it ourselves. Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this result of the easy-breezy Android Store process: a rogue app that phished for banking info made it through. What techies lose in flexibility and direct access, the rest of the world gains in enjoyment, productivity and security.
As the disruption settles in, techies wear on their sleeves what fear of change really is, the fear of loss: loss of options, and loss of status as high priests. Techies have invested a sense of worth in a mastery of complex devices, and now The Normals will have the same capabilities. The barbarians are at the gates, ready to throw money at us for a better experience. And someone went and let them in. Those bastards.
The reconfiguration of the landscape that the iPad signals is a wakeup call to the tinkering bullshit that has mostly been product-making in software. What counts now isn’t capability, but reliability, polish, vision and professionalism. There are opportunities emerging to a much wider market than we’ve ever experienced, but we needed stronger lines to colour within to get there.
As we let others dictate the hardware environments we create within, we now have to accept that the software environments are also managed for us. This comes with advantages: we get access to the mobile data infrastructure, licensed content and massive resources like EC2 or S3. It’s a growing web of partnerships that defines the new environment.
We shouldn’t be surprised, really. We’ve been conceding control over our software environments since updates over the Internet became the norm. We implicitly accepted the new deal with every update we installed, and over time the temperature of the pool we all swim in changed without us noticing.
I call this new way of working Managed Platforms, where the platform is not released to developers but instead is actively managed with approval processes and other gatekeeping tools that create a policy-based buffer between code, hardware and people. The partnership between platforms like Apple’s App Store or Facebook’s application infrastructure and developers is a new relationship that doesn’t devalue developers. Why else make every iPhone app run on the iPad from day one, turning it from Apple’s content delivery device to a robust creation device under different rules? While they’re taking some of the keys back they’re also bringing us in to drink from the big revenue firehoses that only large companies could enjoy until now.
Jobs ended his name change announcement with Gretzky’s famous quote about skating not to where the puck is, but to where the puck is going. We now have a good idea of where the puck was headed, and how far ahead Apple was looking. How well we do as independent designers and developers in the era of managed platforms will depend on how far ahead we can look, and how well we skate.
Photo by Engadget.