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web applications versus a balkanized internet: a moral and practical dilemma for software developers with foresight

February 14, 2014

//update: Chris Dixon similarly recently mourned “The decline of the mobile web

//update: This is a great infographic on responsive design by Functional Imperative design partner Objective Subjecthttp://t.co/t7UDPEUSyA

//update: This great recent piece by the indomitable @codinghorror (Jeff Atwood – founder of Stack Overflow) does a fantastic job of advocating in favor of the web over native apps.

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// The debate between native and responsive mobile applications is amongst the most common and important practical questions that software developers currently face. It comes up in almost every discussion I have with potential clients of Functional Imperative, my digital innovation and software development company. Hundreds if not thousands of articles have already been written on the subject (e.g. 1,2,3,4,5) but most miss the bigger picture.

Instead of addressing the practical question whether a native or web app is better for a given client (which in general I believe it is), I examine whether the internet and therefore people in general, will be better-off as a result of native software. This more general, moral and arguably more important argument raises the potential balkanization of the internet as well as issues surrounding innovation and accessibility, standards wars and technology anti-trust. Despite my continuing emotional inclination towards slick, fast, native apps, the internet and our lives are better connected by a responsive, mobile web.

My thesis is that, in its current form, despite potentially offering better UI and more features, native software development limits the accessibility and openness of the internet and particularly the web and therefore should be avoided whenever possible. This is all aside from the more practical downsides of iOS or Java Android apps being more expensive to build, harder to update and less future-proof. Native software balkanizes the internet by creating or reinforcing corporate dominated fiefdoms that do not speak to each other or the web. The rules of these gated software communities are controlled by shareholders rather than their residents or users. Their structure is dictated by the short and longterm ambitions of their corporate creators.

// iOS apps, perhaps the most notorious example, often don’t even communicate with each other let alone allow for access via a world wide web (hereon “web”) search or links to and from the web. If I add content to an app, very frequently this content will remain exclusively within this app or its isolated network. While the same is true of many networks and websites – for example most major social networks curate which content is accessible without signing-in, and many of the most authoritative news sources now limit access and openness through paywalls – there are few more widespread or impenetrable barriers between one software ecosystem and the internet than native mobile applications.

Much writing on the balkanization of the internet and software relates to hardware or political censorship. Here, however, I focus on a software specific phenomena that has massive implications for the future of the internet: Apple versus Google versus Microsoft’s oligarchies populated by third party apps that prevent linking to the web writ large let alone other software ecosystems. Often, once an app becomes extremely widespread, its ubiquity forces a degree of integration (as an example, see Instragram’s progression from an iOS application with an internal network of content inaccessible except via the Instragram app). Nevertheless a significant disconnection is true of the vast majority of native apps that have not attained massive scale and even many that have.

The oligarchs argue their communities benefit from greater integration with their operating systems or hardware and guarantee this by limiting access to many software and hardware features to only native apps. For example, see Baekdal’s extensive explanation of why Apple does not give third party apps access to the latest version of webkit on iOS, thereby ensuring that Safari remains the dominant app to browse on the device. Such constraints exist on almost all mobile devices and are now appearing on desktops as the corporations that are coming to dominate the web create gatekeepers for their software. These “stores”, whether iTunes or Google Play, impose barriers to interconnectivity that are antithetical to many of the best aspects of the world wide web and which could stunt the internet’s growth and accessibility.

// Google’s Sergey Brin claims these “walled gardens” pose a threat to the freedom of the internet. These gated communities are reminiscent of a time when Microsoft beat Apple by opening its hardware and software to third party manufacturers except now the closed systems are winning. Users are opting for ease over freedom and thoughtlessness over connectivity and complexity.

Tripp Watson describes the current predicament as a Google v. Apple standards war and likens it to past standards wars such as those over railroad gauges, 8-Track vs. Compact Cassette VHS vs. Betamax and Apple vs. Microsoft. Trip bets on Google, describing Apple’s current iOS only app focused approach as censorship and arguing that the same close-mindedness resulted in their losing the earlier war to Microsoft. While I don’t disagree with his condemnation of Apple, Google too has an interest in a less open web. Its curation of search results and growing ecosystem of web, mobile and desktop apps and operating systems may be doing more evil than their motto would suggest.

Each oligarch criticizes the other. Sergey Brin states “the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risks stifling innovation and balkanising the web.” He justifiably criticizes Apple’s sequestration of the massive amount of content contained in the iOS community from his greatest asset, Google’s search. Yet his reasoning is too limited. The problem is not just that this content is not searchable, it is that it is often not accessible via the web at all.

Not only is “Google’s core model – built on the open, linked world of the web…under threat from the advance of the iPhone and the app, the Facebook and the Path, the automobile console, the Xbox, the cable box, and countless other ‘unlinked’ digital artifacts“; not only, should Google “be worried as hell as people turn to apps at the expense of search” but we should all be more worried that native applications are limiting the connectivity, the breadth and the openness of the web.

// Moving beyond search, another parallel to the native vs. web app debate is the e-book standard war. As an intellectual property lawyer, I am constantly frustrated by the limitations that copyright and patent laws have imposed on creativity. These constraints are knowingly being reinforced by technology to the detriment of access to knowledge.

On principle, it is hard to argue that the world would not be better off if access to (e)books increased. However, Jani Patokallio’s description of the balkanization of e-publishing shows e-books moving in the opposite direction. Thankfully Patokallio bets on the open web rather than locked down epub standards despite the skyrocketing sales of e-books in a format that locks down their content into a silo, limits their purchasing choices based on where their credit card happens to have been registered, is designed to work best on devices that are rapidly becoming obsolete, and support only a tiny subset of the functionality available on any modern website.

Yet I remain worried. I agree with the benefits Patokallio ascribes to an open web but I worry that these merits will be outweighed by the power of the established oligarchs, whether they are publishing houses or tech companies.

Patokallio states:

On the Web, the very idea that the right to read a website would vary from country to country seems patently absurd. Cyberspace is flat, after all, just computers talking to computers. You, the reader, do not need to concern yourself with where these electrons on your screen are coming from, and neither do I, their publisher, need to care where they are going. And when somebody attempts to artificially block those electrons — say, China and its Great Firewall — it’s the kind of the thing that the US Congress and the World Trade Organization get worked up about.

Yet such organizations don’t care about app stores and network interconnectivity. When was the last time the WTO did anything about China’s Great Firewall? And even if they were to, what are the chances of them acting in reaction to differing editions of an ebook or Apple’s app store?

// Michael Copeland, writing for Wired, presents a compelling argument in support of the mobile web based on a Marc Andreessen thought exercise:

Let’s say we all grew up in tech world where we only used tablets and smartphones. Then one day, someone comes up to you with a 27-inch display hooked up to a notebook. You could have everything you have on your tablets and smartphones, and then some. Except you don’t have to download anything or update it. Everything is the latest and greatest, and just one click away. If you are a software developer, there are no gatekeepers telling you if your latest creation is approved, or when you can add the latest flourish.

Andreessen’s conclusions is that this is

why in the long run the mobile web is going to dominate native apps, and for the same reason that on the desktop the web dominates apps. When the web works for something, it works way better in a whole lot of ways than a downloadable app.

But Copeland is actually arguing the opposite of Andreessen and I. He’s right that Andreessen is conflating two different debates because “you can choose between either type of app (native or web) on either type of computer (desktop or mobile).” And he’s also correct that claiming “the web” is the solution is overly simplistic:

Facebook, bless them, has it right. What’s great about the web is ubiquitous network availability, not running within a browser tab. Websites are just services, and what you see in a browser tab is merely one possible interface to that service. The best possible interface to that service is often, if not usually, going to be a native app, not a web app.

The hard part is that Copeland is correct in claiming that “the dynamic remains unchanged. Web apps are the best way to reach the most possible people with the least effort; native apps are the best way to create the best possible experience.”

Emotionally, I agree with Copeland. Native does offer more functionality and I prefer it. I like the feeling of owning an app and of running an app better than having everything exist in my browser. And native apps often run better in one way or another. I have yet to see the frictionless UI and subtly captivating aesthetics of Path or 500px’s native apps in a web app.

// But the gap is closing (e.g. see forecast.io or nimbletank on iOS) and developers should not always make strategic decisions exclusively based on their client’s short-term satisfaction. The wonder of the internet is its complete interoperability – everything can link to everything – and with that ability comes great hope for an open source world in which open APIs and software will tear down the proprietary software walls that parallel the legal and physical walls created by so many corporations. In order to sustain this hope, developers need to build apps that are not just beautiful and have amazing functionality, but are also ethical, accessible, connected and open. In other words, they need to build web apps.

2013 – 2014: My projects and people

January 2, 2014

Read more…

Across Generations: Sports and Family

July 14, 2013

This article by my brother describes his intimate connections between memory, sport and family.Image

The first NBA memory I have dates back to 1991. I was six years old getting my first glimpse of Michael Jordan’s first title winning run against the Lakers. I was visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins in the north of Israel on a Kibbutz, where my aunt had moved twenty years earlier. My family was living in India at the time because my father had been working there since I was four. Other than hockey, which even toddlers learn to love in Canada, I had not been exposed to many of the North American sports I would soon obsess about in my teenage and adult years. My grandparents, who lived in Winnipeg, had made the trip to Israel because it was the only time they could see five of their grandchildren at the same time.

Earlier in the day the entire family had gone to see my middle cousin Ohad star for the Kibbutz basketball team in a small dingy un-air-conditioned gym in the middle of the small community near the Syrian border in Israel. My cousin was a young Israeli basketball phenom (by Kibbutz standards at least) and led the Kibbutz team to victory while finishing the game with the most points. Later that night, grandma, dad, Ohad, my brother Jake and I all cozied up in my aunt’s small living room to watch game 5 of the 1991 NBA finals.  Ohad taught me about the legend of Jordan, and I became an NBA enthusiast immediately.  The joy I felt that night watching the Chicago Bulls win their first NBA title with three generations of my family was a feeling I will never forget.

In the time that has passed since that night, both my grandparents have passed away. I began to play and avidly watch, not only basketball, but also soccer, hockey, tennis, and football. Although I never turned into an elite athlete, I have become an elite fan. The history of sports, the up and coming field of sports statistics and the joy of continuing to watch amazing athletes and artists practice their craft has filled my life with a pleasure that can be matched by little else.

Perhaps the most important gift sports have provided me is a historical sport life events calendar that I keep in my mind. I remember important events in my life (as I think many other sports fans do) in part by going back to sporting events that I was watching at the same time

I remember listening to the Blue Jays win the World Series on the radio on a drive from Montreal to Ottawa with my family when Joe Carter hit his famous home run in 1993. I remember watching Donavan Bailey win the gold metal for Canada in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. My brother and I watched the race in Austria where I was on my first long trip away from my parents. I was homesick and could not sleep so my brother stayed up with me and watched the race in German on Austrian TV. I remember watching Canada win the hockey gold metal in 2002 and then again in Vancouver in 2010 where I was living at the time. I remember my dad calling me right after the win in 2010, and thinking that he was the only person I really wanted to talk to at the time, because the people I had just watched the game with had not grown up with me and could not understand how much it meant to me. My father was the only person that could understand that when a game means that much to me, I feel relief and not happiness.

I am writing this three days after watching King James, a basketball god and the heir to Michael Jordan’s throne win his second NBA title. I am writing because my father now lives in Spain, and my parent’s arrived in Vancouver to visit my wife and I on Thursday evening at 5pm pacific time, 1 hour before the tip-off of the Spurs-Heat game seven.  I write because for probably the first time since 1991, when Jordan won his first title, I watched the final game with my dad. I write because when the Heat and this generations’ Jordan won the title, I saw tears in my dad’s eyes. Those tears had nothing to do with basketball; those tears were there because like me, my dad remembered that twenty years had passed since the last time we watched a finals together. The last time we watched the NBA finals together, he was also with his mother. I realized that my dad had that same sports-life events calendar in his head. He also attached sporting events to family memories. I am writing this because I realized that our first NBA finals experience might have been as important for my dad as it was for me.

 

By: AJ Hirsch Allen – @ajhirschallen – ajhirschallen@gmail.com

John Beilein butchers what could have been the greatest college basketball game in history

April 9, 2013

No, I haven’t smacked my head and suddenly begun to follow basketball, or any other sport for that matter. Instead this is a guest post by my brother on what sounds like amazing game:

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One of the best NCAA championship games in history was robbed of a fitting end by John Beilein’s inexplicable coaching decisions. Unfortunately, a game that featured the two greatest college basketball teams in the country, a multitude of Hollywood like pre-game and in-game stories, and some fantastic basketball, was decided by coaching. Louisville’s Rick Patino simply did his job; something Michigan’s John Beilein seemed completely incapable of in Thursday night’s game in Atlanta.

            Patino’s decision to bench star player and the tournament’s leading scorer Russ Smith was controversial but his decision to put him back in the game only a minute into the second half shows he knew what he was doing. Patino benched Smith to get a point across: Smith had been playing selfishly. His decision was yet more evidence of Patino’s well-documented close and quirky relationship with his star player. Patino understood how important Smith had been in the teams run through the tournament and how important he would ultimately be in determining the outcome of the championship game.

Patino’s combination of superb coaching and strong relationships with his players were on display throughout the tournament; no more so than when key swingman Kevin Ware went down with what has been described as one of the most gruesome on court basketball injuries ever in Louisville’s elite eight matchup with Duke. The love Patino showed for his players and vice versa following the incident, and the way he used the horrific event to motivate his team to a final four appearance, were evidence of his coaching brilliance.

            While Patino’s fiery and fantastic coaching continued through the finals; Michigan’s cheif strategist succumbed to new depths of ineptitude with a series of unbelievable decisions that in my mind add up to the most horrifically coached game in college basketball history.            

            There were signs of Beilein’s coaching blunders early in the first half but the coaching worsened as the stakes increased. Late in the first half Beilein was forced to put Spike Albrecht in the game following an early second foul on consensus national player of the year award winner, Trey Burke. Albrecht, listed at 5’11 (more likely closer to 5’7), a Rudy Ruettiger look alike who averaged 1.8 points per game during the year, caught fire and put on a first half performance for the ages with 17 points on 6 of 7 shooting.  

Obviously, Beilein cannot be faulted for leaving Albrecht in a little past the point at which he had cooled down. But Beilein decided to leave him in for almost an entire half after he had cooled down. Albrecht, a player who had averaged 7.8 minutes per game during the year, was forced to play 28 minutes against one of the best backcourts in the country. Even after Albrecht failed to score in the first 10 minutes of the second half and began to turn over the ball, Beilein stuck with him. Even though there were Michigan starters and bench players who had gotten Michigan to that point and who were waiting on the bench for their chance to shine, Beilein stuck with Albrecht. Albrecht played 15 of 20 minutes in the second half and failed to score while turning the ball over twice.

            Beilein’s coaching decisions with respect to Albrecht pale in comparison to the decisions he made concerning player of the tournament candidate Mitch McGary. McGary, a freshman sensation picked up his third foul 6 minutes and 10 seconds into the second half and was swiftly taken out of the game by Beilein. McGary inexplicably re-entered the game about a minute later, only to pick up his fourth foul and exit again. The questionable decision to put McGary back in the game was compounded when, during his subsequent 5-minute absence from the game, four of Louisville’s best players, Smith, Hancock, Dieng and Blackshear remained in the game while in similar foul trouble. To fully appreciate the importance of this absurd decision one has to understand that Michigan only has one scoring big-man; they play four guards and a center (McGary). The only reason Michigan was anywhere close to a national title was the outstanding and improved play of McGary. While McGary was out of the line-up on the bench, and Louisville’s foul troubled stars continued to play, Louisville turned a tie game into a 7-point lead; a lead that ultimately proved insurmountable. 

            Unfortunately, personnel decisions were only the tip of the iceberg. The play-to-play, x’s and o’s decisions made by Beilein will go down in history for their complete lack of rationality. Beilein seemed unaware of the concept of an offence-defense substitution. After keeping McGary out of the game for the majority of crunch time, when he finally substituted his star offensive center into the game, it was after a Michigan made free-throw, just in time to play some defense and potentially pick up that fifth foul.

            As Michigan began to fall behind the coaching decisions only worsened. Beilein seemed unaware that Louisville was not in the bonus with 50 seconds left, down four points. Michigan allowed eleven seconds to run of the clock before fouling Gorgui Dieng, a 65% free-throw shooter. Michigan seemed to think they had made an ingenious coaching decision only to realize Louisville was not in the bonus and rather than Dieng having to make high pressure free-throws, Louisville simply had to take the ball out of bounds before wasting another ten seconds.

            With the game slipping away, anything resembling an organized play from Michigan was completely absent. Trey Burke jogged up the court dribbling the ball incessantly with precious few seconds on the clock making sure to throw in three or four fancy crossovers before heaving up a 28 foot three-pointer (the same shot that had bailed Michigan out of poor play calling at the ended of the elite-eight Kansas game). Unfortunately, this time Michigan was down more then three points and the pixy dust that Trey Burke had used to counter his coach’s complete lack of coaching had run out.

In the end, while its unclear whether the better team won, the better coach definitely did, leaving one to imagine what it would have been like to see these two amazing teams coached by equals.

By: AJ Hirsch Allen – @ajhirschallen – ajhirschallen@gmail.com

Thousands of students protest outside my window this midnight…

June 28, 2012

To whom it may concern,

Please find below, as discussed, a short piece that represents a happy medium between my girlfriend, Katherine Gittins’, and my views on Montreal’s student protests. I would be curious about yours as well (see comments section below).

Best,

Jake Hirsch-Allen

—–

Quebec’s student protests were focused on a minor cause and involved poor tactics. The perseverance and passion of Quebec’s students coupled with the heavy handed mistakes of Quebec’s government are, however, gradually prompting recognition of the links between their cause and a broader societal malaise.

I originally thought the “strike” was ridiculous and in many ways continue to view it as irrational. It is hard to reconcile the contradictions of a strike which almost exclusively harms those striking. For example, most students had already paid tuition and will likely have to retake the semester. Their protests have have been poorly targeted and have alienated much of Montreal and Quebec’s populations. Why disrupt a surprisingly effective metro system that is good for the environment and the poor?

The students’ cause, a tuition hike that would maintain Quebec’s universities as Canada’s most accessible, was also low on my lists of political priorities in the face of countless provincial and federal offenses and cuts. Financial and tax reform could provide a more satisfactory response to the tuition increase and would partially fund education on a need or income basis rather than flat subsidies that instead end up subsidizing the rich’s education.

Nevertheless, in spite of their flawed strike, the students have organized a surprisingly powerful and effective protest. They have attracted an incredible amount of domestic and international attention and maintained the media’s focus for months.

From the outset, the protesters mastered the use of symbols. They first cut Montreal’s entire supply of red felt into small squares (their student debt being “carrement dans le rouge”) and are now identified with the color itself. Even nudity is now associated with the protests after thousands flooded the streets wearing only the emperor’s new clothes.

Montreal is the perfect hotbed for such symbolism and such a movement. It rivals Boston for the highest number of students per capita in North America and is the largest city in a province whose latin warmth and progressive activism have regularly resulted in the largest protests in Canada. This is in contrast with the rest of Canada’s political apathy and conservatism.

The Quebec government’s response has added fuel to the protesters’ rage and has resulted in wider support for their cause. La loi 78 forbids spontaneous assembly but has been impossible to enforce. It has been widely condemned for violating Canada and Quebec’s Charters and international human rights law by Quebecois lawyers, Amnesty International and the UN, among others. Mass arrests and cases of police brutality also echo other government overreach in Canada (e.g. G20) and abroad (Egypt, Occupy Wall Street, etc.).

As the government’s responsehas become more draconian and offensive, the strike has morphed from a controversial protest into an increasingly nuanced and broad movement. This is exemplified most recently by cinematic scenes of “casseroles”, individuals and groups walking Montreal’s streets wooden spoon and pan in hand, expressing their views through an almost instantly universally recognized sound.

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The power of this movement is that it captures the zeitgeist of the Arab Spring and the 99%, a philosophical parallel made concrete by recent protests of support by red badge-wearing New Yorkers. And it does so in one of the most politically active regions in North America. Quebecers of all generations and backgrounds are seeing their own discontent with the erosion of social welfare systems, universal healthcare and corporate controlled and corrupt governments, reflected in the suppression of the often much more radical students. Whether this movement will result in positive political change or simply a return to divisiveness and separatism remains up to both the protesters and the police, the government and the people.

Kat’s mom responded with the following insightful comments from France:

On 2012-06-03, at 5:49 AM, Francine Lecompte Gittins wrote:

Views from the Europeans are that the point is no longer merely to express disagreement with the government’s decision to increase the tuition fees, but also to resist an unprecedented authoritarian crackdown.

The European’s perception is behind the ruling class’s frenzied response to the strike is their recognition that it represents an implicit challenge to the austerity measures being implemented by governments in the spectrum of politics.  Europeans fear that the student strike could become the catalyst for a mass movement of the working class against their drive to place the full burden of the capitalist crisis on working people.

In fact, Europe relates Quebec’s malaise to the Greek and Italian governments which were unable to impose the staggering cuts demanded by international financial markets because of popular opposition.  The events in Quebec exemplify this global process. Capitalist governments in the world are responding with state repression to mounting resistance to their class-war program of wage and jobs cuts and the dismantling of social services. They are trampling on democratic rights and criminalizing working-class opposition.

The two vital conclusions being drawn: the working class faces a struggle for political power against the capitalist social order and the defence of democratic rights requires the revolutionary mobilization of the working class.

It is understood that the rising popular movement in Quebec demands not only quality education but a different vision for society … lets hope that a happy medium can be found …

Francine

Despite the inherent difficulties it is interesting to live through these tumultuous times.

Buy a 10x software developer: its the best investment you can make…

April 16, 2012

…or at least that’s Venkatesh Rao’s argument in his recent Forbes.com article, “The Rise of Developeronomics.” His article combines 3 memes that I believe are transforming our economy. They will move the focus of commerce to software and to the individuals that create it.

Rao’s opening paragraphs capture the first meme well, describing the hard time we’re all having with where to put our money these days. He contrasts the current situation with the theory in evolutionary biology that reciprocal altruism and cooperation first appeared as a solution to the food storage problem. Sharing the food you couldn’t eat was a necessity and “the best bank for your excess capital was your friend’s stomach.”

Rao continues:

“Unless you are a professional investor (and probably even then), places to store surplus capital today where it will even be safe and/or not depreciate too fast (let alone generate a return) are getting incredibly hard to find. The stock market seems to be a secular, bearish bloodbath. Volatility and unexpected temporary rallies are making short games dangerous. Even staying liquid in dollars seems to have its dangers, due to threats of devaluation and unfamiliar new terms like “quantitative easing” which us average investors are starting to hear for the first time. The Euro isn’t exactly a great alternative at the moment. Investing in gold and similar commodities seems to require a somewhat apocalyptic mindset and decisions about whether or not you want access to the actual metal if things go to hell (which isn’t to say such a mindset isn’t justified at the moment).”

Rao’s solution? Invest in software developers. Every industry needs them and even when the current bubble bursts there’ll still be far more demand than supply. This is how he describes the current developer frenzy:

“In the midst of a thoroughly gloomy labor market, the genuine desperation you see in the software talent wars is almost surreal. Almost every day, I see big companies, little companies, entrepreneurs, wannabe entrepreneurs and even venture capitalists join in the hunt.”

This description is similar to an Economist magazine summary of “The new tech bubble“:

“some start-up firms are dangling multi-million-dollar pay packages in order to tempt star programmers from Google, Microsoft and other big companies. They are chasing scarce skills when the broader technology industry is on a roll.”

I agree with Rao’s description of the current situation as somewhat fantastical but it’s not surprising if one plots the increasing importance of information technology and more specifically software over the past couple decades.

Another Economist article entitled “Another digital gold rush” describes three forces that propel the software revolution forward “First, technological progress has made it much simpler and cheaper to try out myriad bright ideas for online businesses. Second, a new breed of rich investors has been keen to back those ideas. And, third, this boom is much more global than the last one; Chinese internet firms are causing as much excitement as American ones.”

Yet the Economist also characterizes some descriptions of the current upheaval as over the top: “Some excited people have likened this technological upheaval to the Cambrian explosion 500m years ago, when evolution on Earth speeded up in part because the cell had been perfected and standardized.”

The internet or software revolution, at times compared to a Khunian paradigm shift and at a minimum the most significant recent development in human technology, necessitates a rethinking of some economic principles.

In his description of the new role of developers in our economy Rao explicitly dehumanizes and objectifies developers, describing them as the objects of an all-encompassing capitalist game that we are all playing whether we want to or not. One interesting dynamic that he mentions, for instance, is the tendency for software to benefit extremes in company size. Not only are the Googles and Facebooks of the world capitalizing on the increased importance of 1s and 0s but software has also been the primary engine behind the massive decrease in the amount of capital and time required to create a startup, even in other industries. This has resulted in an attraction to the poles where the best entrepreneurs and developers succumb either to the comforts of “gilded-cage workplaces full of gourmet buffets, high-tech nap pods, and daycare facilities” or the freedom and unrealistically slim chance of a windfall at a startup. This latter career choice has become doubly attractive due to the totally overblown publicizing of the relatively few individuals who have gotten rich quick (while I’ve seen many stats on how few startups make it, I’d be curious if proportionally more are making it big since software has done so).

Eric Ries’ book, “The Lean Startup“, perhaps the most popular meme in recent tech startup lore, describes the myriad benefits of small teams focused on fast moving software projects requiring little capital and with massive potential. Applying Toyota’s “lean” methodology to product development including its focus on constant cyclical validation, constant QA and a culture of transparency, this movement has brought significant attention and benefits while reinforcing unrealistic hopes.

One symptom of software’s overwhelming influence about which I was unaware is how early talent war’s are beginning. Apple, Google and others are encouraging students as early as middle school to adopt their technology, doing their best to breed a new generation of iOS or python coders. Just as Google’s investment in Python (one of the three languages the company uses for its work) was in part a strategic bet on the growing talent pool in this under-valued language, so too, my developer-friend Matthew Huebert informs me, PowerSet mined Ruby for young talent.

I think Rao is wrong when he says that this is creating a have/have-not talent divide “that will soon surpass the infamous geopolitical North/South divide in importance” yet he is dead on in noting that it is unprecedented and significant.

Rao cites three reasons for the talent wars:

1. “software development talent is incredibly hard to assess upfront, and its value can be highly situation-dependent, which means intake volumes and intra-industry churn have to be high (since a potential star may not flourish in your environment).”

2. software skills can afford social and economic mobility – the former fad, in my opinion may not endure as long as the latter. Nevertheless I agree with Rao’s statement that “Stock options are simply not as effective in limiting mobility as the power of Russian nobility to whip serfs into immobility once was.”

3. the most important and interesting reason is the third meme I went to discuss, the 10x phenomenon, about which I’d like to learn and write more later. The concept of the 10x engineer is attributed to the now octogenarian software engineer Frederick Brooks, who described why a good programmer is an order of magnitude more productive than an average one (see here for a longer discussion http://www.quora.com/Is-the-concept-of-a-10x-engineer-valid/answer/Tom-Park).

More specifically, Rao explains why the 10x phenomenon applies to software developers in a way that it doesn’t other engineers:

“Other industries turn x’ers into 10xers primarily using software tools (a mechanical engineer equipped with CAD software suddenly becomes a 10x mechanical engineer)… [Yet] the 10x phenomenon, and the [software] industry’s reliance on it, doesn’t seem to get engineered or managed away because the 10xers keep inventing new tools for themselves to stay 10xers.”

While I still don’t completely understand this particularly allegorically interesting paragraph:

“As Alan Kay, a major pioneer of today’s software-eaten planet, pointed out recently, the Internet doesn’t have stop, shut down, or rewind buttons. Once it was turned on, history was essentially rebooted. Software began eating away at the pre-software layers of civilization on the planet, and depositing software-infused layers instead.”

I do find compelling questions about how the internet is changing history. There is no question, software and the internet are dramatically changing how history is being re-written resulting in the medium having a perhaps unparalleled effect on our stories. This relates to what Matt describes as his “random thought” that “software is a very “mental” thing… it changes how we manipulate & categorize the world at a deep level in our minds.” Like him, I too am “very curious about the psychological and sociological consequences of the software revolution.

I do not agree with “David Kirpatrick’s now famous line that every company is now a software company” and think Rao returns to hyperbole when he suggests we will replace the BC/AD distinction with BI/AI (Before Internet/After Internet). Yet I do think this hyperbole is representative of sentiment within the software industry and is perhaps indicative of a problem with its over-exaggerated sense of self-importance. While this narcissism has so far done the software industry well, I worry that it is perhaps the clearest harbinger of a bubble.

The Economist tempers these fears though with the reasonable statement that “irrational exuberance rarely gives way to rational scepticism quickly. So some bets on start-ups now will pay off.” Here the magazine echoes the National Venture Capital Association’s claim that today’s tech firms have robust business models and healthy revenues. It suggests this plus the fact that they are trading at price-earnings multiples “nowhere near as frothy as they were before the last bubble burst in 2000″ should limit excesses in valuing private firms.

I remain a sceptic. I think a middle term bubble is foreseeable and favour the Economist’s portrayal “of signs of irrational exuberance among some investors.” Instead of the indefinite exponential rise or a short term crash foreseen by many I think the software revolution will likely be experienced as a bumpy economic progression for the better.

Matt recently responded to my thoughts on this issue with the following:

“Frothy excitement and narcissistic personalities may be positive signs of a short-term bubble, but are they reason to suspect that the underlying change is weak? Tech is hard for outsiders to understand; I would imagine it difficult for people who do not understand tech deeply to be able to see how much change is coming.”

Spurred in the short term by mobile, social, cloud, platform, apps and data driven advances, we may see significant efficiencies across markets and in societal, environmental and international developmental work.

From new forms of financing, think angel networks and impact investing, to dramatic new uses for internet-based technologies, the latest tech bubble and software more generally will increase standards of living. One brilliant example is Ushahidi’s free, crowd and open sourced software (LGPL) for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Other good uses of technology closer to home include open data initiatives from Montreal Ouvert to Open North and Buzz Data to Vote Compass increasing transparency and accountability through technology.

In sum I see software as the latest significant social evolution – a technology that like glasses or the engine have sped human progress and given us new powers. Our current bubble is ironically a sign of software’s long term importance and is the best support for developeronomics.

 

This post was first published on MontrealTechWatch

The abbreviated story of my friend and colleague, Ilan, wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt for allegedly spying for Israel

January 11, 2012

The original article, published in the Washington Post, can be accessed here.

——–

In Egypt, jailed but not broken

By Ilan Grapel, Published: January 1

Five months in an Egyptian jail gives a person a lot of time to think. When you are not pacing or trying to catch an hour of afternoon sun through the barred window, there are thoughts of home, family, the freedoms Westerners take for granted, what exactly got you into the mess and even why you came to the country that locked you up. Two months after my release, as I watch news of the Egyptian military’s violent suppression of protestsand raids on nongovernmental organizations, I still think of my first hours of arrest, when I was handcuffed and blindfolded.

When I went to Egypt to spend the summer working at a nongovernmental organization that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers from Sudan and Iraq, I was no stranger to the Middle East. I had studied Arabic in Cairo and spent more than two years in the Israel Defense Forces. I hoped that my summer would prove that my Zionist ideals could coexist with support for the right of human migration and sanctuary. I also hoped to convince the Arabs I met that my Zionism did not have to be antithetical to their interests and that we could work together for peace.

But in post-revolutionary Egypt, my attempts to educate and interact with the local population led to my arrest, to solitary confinement and eventually to the threat of five simultaneous life imprisonments for “espionage” and “incitement.”

On previous visits, the friendships I developed overpowered the omnipresent anti-Israel propaganda of the Arab world. Some former adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood actually wished me luck when I left to do reserve duty in Israel. Most Egyptians I met and chatted with over coffee ended our conversations by admitting to holding misconceptions about Israelis. This reinforced my hopes for common ground.

So during the summer I emphasized my Israeli background, even when I entered Egypt as an American. I identified as a Zionist Israeli to all of my Egyptian friends, taught them Hebrew and showed them Israeli movies. In return, I received lessons in Arabic, Islam and Egyptian culture.

Some who do not know me considered my actions peculiar or harmful. But that condemnation only underscores a particular abyss into which the Middle East conflict has descended since once-influential Zionists and Egyptians considered cooperation to be beneficial, as did the early Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Dawood Barakat, the former editor of the Egyptian daily al-Ahram.

On June 12, two dozen state security officials barged into my hostel room, handcuffed and blindfolded me, and transported me to their general prosecutor.

People ask, “Were you scared?” I was terrified and confused. Over time I also became angry and lonely. The initial 14 days were the “best” part of my imprisonment because there was at least human interaction. The prosecutor and I bantered about politics, religion and the Middle East conflict. The conversations were jovial, mostly innocuous, save for some random accusations: “Security reports inform us that you were smuggling weapons from Libyan revolutionaries into Egypt,” or my favorite — but perhaps irrelevant — charge: “Ilan, you used your seductive powers to recruit Egyptian women and that is a crime.”

 

After these first two weeks, the interrogations ended, but my detention continued. Thus began my solitary confinement, which became the true ordeal — near-complete isolation, interrupted just twice a month by consular visits that lasted only 40 minutes. But thanks to the work of so many U.S. and Israeli government officials, I was not lost in the system. My parents and U.S. officials got me books, which I read slowly because I did not know whether I would get more or how long I would be jailed.

People ask, “Were you tortured?” I was not beaten — but consider what it’s like to spend nearly 150 days (3,600 hours) alone in a 10-by-10 room with a bed and chair, a small barred window and no idea what would come next.

 

People ask, “So what do you think of Egypt and your mission now?” My answer is constantly evolving. As my detention and recent events and repressions in Egypt make clear, the revolution brought only superficial change. The junta’s focus on external actors represents a desperate attempt to avoid culpability and abdication of power.
Hosni Mubarak’s notorious state security forces still arbitrarily arrest Egyptians without real charges or trials (as they did me), denying anything resembling due process. Prosecutors and judges go through the motions of court proceedings, but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces really calls the shots.

Was my trip reckless or “wrong”? No. Despite the peril, the U.S. government sends Peace Corps volunteers to volatile regions because of the benefit of grass-roots diplomacy. Hasbara, the Hebrew term that refers to efforts to explain the Israeli viewpoint, has much to gain from such a strategy, given the pernicious myths about Israel and Jews prevalent in much of the Arab world.

My hasbara provided a viewpoint that changed the mentalities of former Muslim Brotherhood members, the prosecutor and my guards, whose last words were “Shalom, we hope you forgive us.” Israelis and Arabs can continue to maintain the status quo of mutual avoidance or they can dare to coexist. To those who wrongly held me, I say simply, I forgive you.

The writer is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen and law student at Emory University. He was held in Egypt from June to late October on charges of spying.

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