Jun 24

An Epic conversation between Steve Jobs and developers from WWDC 97

Apple, Tech with tags: , 6 Comments »

It is always fantastic to get a blast from the past, and DHH linked to a conversation between Steve Jobs’ and developers from WWDC in 1997.

I find it fascinating. Steve was back as an advisor, but not in as CEO yet, so he talks about Apple in a very specific way…. and all throughout his time he keeps saying “my opinion is …. but I am not in charge”.

At one point, he mentions the frustration that people can have when they are perceived in one way, based on an old version of themselves. Or maybe an incorrectly perceived old version. The context for this is how the press or wall street was looking at Apple with year old glasses.

In this video, we get to see an older Steve, with immense skills. It is enjoyable to pick out the genesis of the Apple transformation, and visionary aspects of what happened. It is equally interesting to see where the vision didn’t bear fruit.

My highlights were:

  • It was fun to see Steve talk about Rhapsody and how developers can go cross platform! In response to a developer asking why they should write for Mac he said: “If you could write that software 5 to 10 times faster, and you could deploy it to Mac’s and PCs, would that be of interest to them?” Of course, Rhapsody didn’t work (which is why Steve may have flipped the bit on cross platform?)
  • Steve was spot on when he discussed the “Mythical Man Month”, and how he feels a new stack needs to help you abstract so small teams can do amazing things. He discussed how you can compete with Microsoft with apps as large software becomes hard to scale. He also talks about Lighthouse (bought by Sun, with Jonny Schwartz) and how a small team of 18 people produced an amazing suite of products.
  • Steve was coming out of a world where he had a personal T1, and his home directory lived in the cloud via NFS. He talks about having a computer that is just a keyboard and mouse. The “network computer” was strong in him (and Larry Ellison, and Sun) and he talked about it in a way that is much closer to Chrome OS than to iOS. iCloud is finally getting there, but in a different way.
  • Newton and focus. Focus came up frequently. Steve talked about how he thinks Newton should be shot NOT because it sucks… but because he couldn’t see a way for Apple to maintain MacOS, Rhapsody, and Newton’s OS. He did also talk about how the fact that Newton wasn’t network connected made it useless for him. “The high order bit of connectivity. Being in touch to a network. I don’t think the world is about keeping my life on this little thing and IRing it to a base station. It needs a keyboard, and you need to be connected to the net. So if someone would make a thing that is connected with a keyboard I would love to buy one! I don’t want a little scribble thing.”
  • CLONE WARS: “I believe that Apple should license everything. But I think they should get a fair price for it.” Funny to see Steve talking about licensing.
  • “Being proprietary in everything we do has really hurt us, a lot of smart people don’t work at Apple too.” Love see him talking about proprietary.
  • Steve talked about how engineering management was broken, and so great engineers were not working on the right things. Great technology isn’t the high end bit either. You have to work from the product backwards.
  • Steve cares about productivity. He mentioned how he sees Apple using crap tools (Eudora for email) and that if they would give the org a decent email system they could be 30% more productive.
  • Steve kept saying “it doesn’t matter what I say”. A funny time, before he was CEO, but you can see it unravelling.
  • Fun to see Steve pimping and trying to get devs excited, at a time where they didn’t have the marketshare. Now the game is quite different.
  • Steve is someone with great taste…. but even he wore patched jeans!

A great chat, and I am glad it was recorded for us to see the master at work. I hope that we have many more years of this.

Jun 20

iOS as the perfect projector? More fun mobile design thinking

Mobile, Tech, UI / UX 1 Comment »


I have to say it, I love AirPlay. Being able to use any device (phone, tablet, laptop) to project something to your lovely flat screen is fantastic. Up until now, the focus has been on media (which makes sense) and being able to send anything from a funny YouTube clip, to a movie you have purchased on iTunes, if solid.

But, with an improved AirPlay, the app developer can project whatever they want onto an AirPlay aware screen (or just audio for non-screen output). This has entered my mind into its latest “woooah, how cool would it be if [insert app here] used that feature to project [insert cool idea here]!”

The obvious ideas that people talk about first is gaming. iOS is already a force in gaming, but now that your devices are controllers and can teleport their views to a screen at a whim? Wow. I can’t wait to see the game that personifies having iPhone and iPad form factor controllers and helpers.

There is much beyond media and the games though. TV’s now come as weak app platforms. I have got a Twitter app on my Samsung. It sucks. I never use it. It is also not needed. I should be able to sit down with the Twitter iPad app open on my lap, and display tweetigoodness to my TV. I could have a simple view, but also, isn’t the TV a perfect TweetDeck?

As well as having the iPad as a controller but using the TV as the main display, you can also go with different modes. As you work on an image, you can see throwaways, or old versions, up on the TV for you to look at. The Echofon Twitter client has a Photofon app that shows you images from your Twitter stream, but that could be embedded and a screensaver kicks in.

Now you have these lenses on, I dare you to open up an app and not think about a cool visualization for another screen!

I hope that PhoneGap has a plugin in the works for this in their iOS 5 support (ASIDE: A birdy may or may not have told me that full screen WebViews run with the JIT which is good too) so Web folk can take care of this too. It would be fantastic to have Web views available to project over there.

There is still so much that will be coming too: More TV’s will be AirPlay enabled (so you won’t need an Apple TV); Other operating systems will start to support these modalities (read: industry standard AirPlay please :/); The browser is an ideal projector too, and cross platform; And, then the other screens will also start to accept touch input.

So, I now have another question to ask when I start a new mobile project…. to go with others such as:

  • What goodies can I hide in the scroll over space?
  • What could we put in landscape view here?
  • (hardware keyboard) What shortcut keys could we use, and what action can we type first to
Jun 13

The “I” in iCloud and the “We” in Web

Apple, Mobile, Open Web No Comments »

iOS 5 is a big release for Apple. It is their move away from the PC being the hub, and now we can talk to the big old iTunes in the sky. Android and webOS folk may scoff a little at this. “We have had over the air updates for ages!”, “Those notifications look familiar”, “In fact, my notifications are still far superior!”

It is great to see systems competing, and non iOS systems having advantages, but they shouldn’t get carried away. iOS is still the king. That is where the best apps can be found (ironically even though it is so restrictive), and the UI is still the most responsive and easy to use. Android is looking good and getting better rapidly, and is superior in real ways (e.g. navigation, deep integrations, etc) but again, it has room to grow too.

I was recently watching a tablet user study, and one of the users talked about how they thought that their tablet apps were so much better than the phone counter-parts. Really? Why did they think that? The reasons given were: easier to use, more stable, more responsive, and much more beautiful. Huh? Well, it turned out that this user had an iPad and an Android device. Ahhhhhh.

What struck me about the “cloud” side of iOS 5, was how it squarely goes after helping you manage your devices. The big pain point mentioned was getting content onto your laptop, tablet, and phone. What it lacked was the “we” part of sharing. I am very curious to see if this is a point of view, or a baby step. It is much easy to scale out the problem of “I”…. much easier to shard.

I have the pain that Steve mentioned with my devices, but I also have much more. For one, I don’t just have iOS/Mac devices, so how do I get them in on this action? For two, I have a family, and I want to help manage their world too. The tablet is a very social and shared device for some people. It gets passed around the family table. The same device could have your work email and calendar, as well as games for the kids.

One of the reasons that I bought an iPad 2 was because I could hide it, and the first generation could be the “family one”, leaving me my own. Now, you may think that Apple won here since I got a new device, but it feels natural that another tablet system will actually cater for the user here. I would be shocked if at some point in time, you don’t just pick up a tablet, the camera sees who you are, and you are shown your view into the world.

Beyond sharing a physical device, there is sharing data. Apple thinks in a very app-centric model (which has done very well for them!) and it is hard enough to share between apps, let alone beyond that.

Joshua Topolsky discusses Apple’s truth on the iCloud which hits this home.

While I won’t argue that Apple and others have had tremendous success with native apps and services, it’s also impossible to downplay the importance of the web and what it brings to applications. It’s not just that many of the applications we use are actually intimately tied to the web (even Apple’s own products are able to make quick changes like the switch to iCloud services in iOS 4.3 thanks to markup being used in place of native code), it’s that the web provides something native applications cannot. There is no native application for the Mac or iOS that replicates the shared document editing of Google Docs; there’s no mail application that exists for the Mac which will allow me to access my important information from anywhere in the world with or without a device in hand; there is no photo sharing service for iOS or the Mac which is as flexible or accessible as Flickr. When I need to access music with my Rdio account, I can do it from a plain old web browser, or an Android, iOS, or even BlackBerry application — and the ability to shift between those portals is incredibly powerful.

When it comes to Apple, it feels to me like the company views the web as a technology which undermines rather than enriches its products. It wants you to talk to the cloud, but only through its portals and its gateways, in closed loops and private networks. Is it possible that for the company Apple has become — the lock-in PC-maker, the gatekeeper, the retailer — there’s still a little too much Wild West in the web? Is Apple’s failure with or aversion to web services a byproduct of the desire for complete control over its ecosystem and products? Or is the gang in Cupertino just not that good at the internet?

The Web, though very simple standards (HTTP, URL, HTML, etc) is very much about connecting. This results in applications that can share data (even in the same UI such as mashups), and it is very natural to have a group aspect to the data. This means that we need permissions models around such data, and along with that we have the base APIs being built around URLs.

iCloud APIs on the other hand have an SDK that is built top down. The center of the world is Objective-C, now low level network primitives. This is a very different way to look at the problem, and you end up with obviously iOS-centric (if not “only” right now) views.

Wil Shipley himself links to questions on the Apple Dev Forum around how this system can work. The questions themselves can’t be questioned due to the restrictive systems in place.

There are a couple of social aspects of iOS shining through. Game center is one, but the biggest news here is the integration of Twitter, which is absolutely massive. Having the throne as the only integrated account (and most importantly, not having Facebook there) means that Twitter can take a huge run at social APIs that it maybe wouldn’t have cared as much about before hand.

It continues to be a great time to be in tech. Apple has made many small but important strides in iOS 5. Android “ice cream” is coming. And then we have the other mobile operating systems (Windows, webOS, etc) who are embracing the Web heavily.

When I think about the “we”, I definitely think back to my former thought that HTML5 is a jewel that we need to cut into a weapon.

Jun 09

Helping Set Direction at Walmart; Ben and I and our (surprising!) new role

Tech, Walmart 7 Comments »


Ben and I, and the entire Set Direction team are now part of Walmart. We are now leading the mobile engineering effort and have set off on a journey to revolutionize mobile commerce at the largest company in the world.

Now, you may be a touch surprised. “You just started!”, “Walmart?”

To be honest, if you had told us that our career would take this turn 5 months ago, we would have been surprised too.

Here is what happened. After leaving Palm/HP, we had some hypotheses around the difficulty that developers were having in a modern world that contains a diversity of platforms. Not too long ago, most businesses were building Web sites, and the diversity was around the number of Web frameworks. Many companies are now in a post-Java malaise and there are a huge number of very viable server solutions for developers to choose from.

On the client, you need a Web presence, but may also need to get onto iOS, Android, and even Blackberry, WinPhone, webOS and friends. These new platforms are amazing for developers in that they come with low-friction monetization affordances, but they are very different technically. The Web has the opportunity to be a great cross platform solution (again!) but there are real trade offs between Web vs. native, and it very much depends on the type of experience you are going for, your business needs, and even your personnel.

We set out to explore the entire stack, from the clients all the way to service creation that fits in to the unique needs of mobile. To test out the hypotheses we took on a small number of clients ranging from small startups to the Fortune 50. One of these clients was Walmart where we teamed up with Paul Cousineau (former product director for webOS), someone we rated highly from our time at Palm.

We quickly learned that Walmart was very serious about a quest to use the mobile revolution to make commerce a fantastic experience for their customers: whether that is helping to get the most out of their store visit, or buying goods from Walmart.com (or the many worldwide properties that are part of the Global eCommerce group). We had conversations with executives all the way to the top, and we heard a strong message: there is a belief that the advent of mobile could be larger for commerce than the years where the automobile enabled true reach to even rural America…. a time that launched Walmart on its path to the top.

We got to know other members of the team over the last few months, and a conversation started around Walmart acquiring the Set Direction team to accelerate their vision. We had discussions about the way that we think product should be created, about the role of open source, on how we like to build teams, and Walmart was very much aligned. They really want to build something special here.

This all culminated with us signing up to build a world class mobile group, backed by the fantastic resources of Walmart. We are joined by some other new faces. The Kosmix crew are top notch engineers with careers building mechanical turk, various search engines, and most recently a real-time social genome. Social and mobile can fit hand and glove, and we are very excited to work with them as part of Walmart Labs.

What does this mean for our other activities?

  • We recently launched FunctionSource to cover the Web and mobile space. We have a passion for being part of the community and that won’t change. It has been fantastic to get back into the game post-Ajaxian, and we look forward to doing some fun experiments on f{}. We will be open sourcing the technology behind it, which includes a particular fun “view server” that allows us to enjoy writing the application using CoffeeScript, Backbone, and modern client Web technology…. but serializing that out to “legacy” browser such as…. the Google Bot.
  • Conferences? We love being part of the community. That can be on Twitter, FunctionSource, but very much speaking and participating at conferences and user groups. We have a lot of exciting work to do at Walmart, but we want to share some of that with you and learn from you too!

We have a mammoth task to make the most of the amazing devices that consumers have, and the massive amount of data (internally from Walmart itself, but also externally across the Web). We want to build delightful products using the best technology possible. Walmart also has a global reach, so we need a developer platform that scales.

I am obviously excited to continue to work with my friend and long time partner-in-crime Ben Galbraith as we take on this new challenge. Here you can read his thoughts on our new roles.

Finally, we are looking for like-minded developers to join us on this mission. If you look to take on some hard problems using leading technology surrounded by fellow technologists, we are looking for people like you. We care equally about: the craft of software, building great products, and having great fun along the way.

You will have access to real scale. Our iOS application has millions of downloads, and we recently released an Android application that jumped into the top shopping applications list in short order. And of course, don’t forget the mobile website, with an epic number of users as customers. We have big plans for that experience.

Please reach out to talk more about joining the team.