Automation vs. ownership

“Where once workers enjoyed their work but were unable to produce enough to give themselves leisure and material satisfactions, now they are gaining the leisure and material satisfactions while losing the enjoyment of work.”

-Melvin Kransberg & Joseph Gies, By the Sweat of Thy Brow (1975)

Don’t reinvent the world

“Our job is not to reinvent the world; it’s to take stuff that we know exists already — but hardly anyone’s got it — and get it out to them.”

-Steve Jobs, 1997 [link]

It’s all about managing complexity

When I was working on a natural language processing system at Johns Hopkins during the summer of 2005, I remember having a minor epiphany: I realized that the strategy our research team was using was essentially just a way of converting an intractably complex problem into a series of computable smaller problems. It didn’t take me long to make the jump to realizing that this is an essential part of all science and engineering.

I was reminded of this when watching a Steve Jobs video recording from 1997 (via daringfireball). Steve is talking about why he thinks better developer tools and APIs are so important to progress (around 25 minutes into the video):

It’s all about managing complexity. It’s like scaffolding, right? You erect some scaffolding and if you keep going up and up and up, eventually the scaffolding collapses of its own weight. That’s what building software is. It’s how much scaffolding you can erect before the whole thing collapses of its own weight. It doesn’t matter how many people you have working on it — doesn’t matter if you’re Microsoft, with 500 people on a team — it will collapse under its own weight.… These [new developer tools] allow you to not have to worry about 90% of the stuff you worry about, so that you can erect your 5 stories of scaffolding, but starting at story number 23 instead of starting at story number 6. You can get a lot higher.

This is related to the fundamental notion of abstraction, and to “the mythical man-month” (which Steve also references). It’s a good reminder.

In a related section, Steve responds to a question asking about how visual programming tools might fit into this. His answer (around 42 minutes in):

Here’s the deal. The way you get programmer productivity is not by increasing the lines of code per programmer per day. That doesn’t work. The way you get programmer productivity is by eliminating lines of code you have to write. The line of code that’s fastest to write, that never breaks, that doesn’t need maintenance, is the line you never had to write! So the goal here is to eliminate 80% of the code that you have to write for your app. That’s the goal. So along the way, if we can provide vizi-this and vizi-that and visual this and visual that, well that’s fine, but the high-order bit is to eliminate 80% of the code. When you ‘draw the line’ in interface builder, you’re eliminating code of one form. But that only goes so far. Maybe we can go further. I’ve seen a lot of demos of things that try to take it all the way back into the algorithmic part of the codebase, and none of them have ever been any good. If there are any good ones out there, show them to me — I’d love to see them.

In other words, abstraction is far more important to productivity than whether a language is visual or textual. Making languages visual is only a win if it can help solve the “higher order” issues: bugs, maintenance, and complexity. Steve’s 1997 claim is that he has not seen compelling demos of this in the visual programming space.

I think this is crucially important to keep in mind when thinking about visual programming languages that could be generally adopted. They have to provide an advantage in terms of abstraction. It seems that so far the opposite has been true: abstraction has been the main weakness of visual programming systems.

The pieces for educational software

Who do you need in order to make outstanding educational software?

  • Artistic and child psychology experts from children’s TV
  • Curriculum designers and subject experts from textbooks
  • Interaction designers and programmers from computer games and apps
  • Teachers who know the kids and can test prototypes with them

What pieces do you need to bring together?

  • Psychological: “flow”, storyline, context
  • Aesthetic: beautiful, interesting, simple
  • Emotional: for a purpose
  • Reliable: solid programming
  • Convenient: internet, app store
  • Low-cost: software product that runs on widely-available devices
  • Effective: learning goals are met

Once the disruption in education takes hold, software with all of these pieces will prove very popular.

Technology alone is not enough

Steve Jobs, concluding the March 2, 2011 iPad 2 media event:

I’ve said this before, and I thought it was worth repeating. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts — married with the humanities — that yields us a result that makes our hearts sing.

And nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices. A lot of folks in this tablet market are rushing in, and they’re looking at this as the next PC. The hardware and the software are done by different companies, and they’re talking about speeds and feeds, just like they did with PCs. Our experience, and every bone in our body, says that that is not the right approach to this; that these are post-PC devices that need to be even easier to use than a PC; that need to be even more intuitive than a PC; and where the software and the hardware and the applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than they do on a PC.

And we think we’re on the right track with this. We think we have the right architecture — not just in silicon, but in the organization — to build these kinds of products. And so I think we stand a pretty good chance of being pretty competitive in this market, and I hope that what you’ve seen today gives you a good feel for that.

Words for the wise.

iPad 2 will cost $399

I decided I would make some predictions about the upcoming iPad 2, since it’s hard to remember in retrospect what I (and the rumors) got right. Predicted iPad 2 specs:

  • Updated design that is slightly thinner and slightly lighter.
  • Same screen dimensions and resolution, but display is slightly brighter and fused to the front glass.
  • Slightly longer battery life.
  • Low resolution front-facing camera for video chat.
  • Low resolution rear-facing camera for augmented reality applications.
  • Dual-core A4 processor (“A5”?) clocked at about 1 GHz.
  • 512 Mb of memory.
  • SSD storage options of 16, 64, and 128 Gb.
  • Ships with iOS 4.4 (iOS 5 waiting until iPhone 5).
  • Supports to-be-announced iMovie for iPad ($9.99).

But I’m also going to go out on a limb and predict that Apple will cut the entry-level price of iPad 2 to $399.

Why is this possible?

From a component perspective, the iPad really is essentially a big iPod Touch. iPod Touches currently cost $299 for 32GB of storage. I can find component estimates for the latest iPhone 4 and the original iPad.  The main differences are (iPhone vs. iPad):

  • display ($38 vs. $95)
  • case ($20 vs. $35)
  • battery ($6 vs. $18)

The most expensive part by far in the original iPad was the touchscreen display, estimated last April to cost $95. This cost was largely due to the 9.7-inch capacitive touch sensor having only entered mass production just for the iPad. A year later, with tens of millions of these larger touch sensors manufactured, the cost has presumably come down dramatically, even when offset by new technology that fuses the display to the front glass panel. Let’s estimate that the touchscreen part now costs roughly $65 ($27 more than the iPhone retina display).

Assuming the other component prices are comparable to the iPod Touch (which seems reasonable to me, since they are essentially the same chips), the total price differential is just $48. So even with a large margin of error, it seems that Apple can afford to price the iPad at a retail price premium of just $100.

Steve Jobs has repeatedly said that Apple wants to price the iPad very competitively. The product’s tagline is still: “A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price.” If they can afford to cut the price further, I think they will.

There is also some recent believable speculation that Apple will release another line of iPads in September. This will likely be a premium line with a higher entry price point (perhaps $599) that includes a retina display and correspondingly upgraded processor, graphics chips and memory. In other words, selling a cheaper iPad does not limit Apple’s ability to sell expensive iPads in the future, just as selling cheaper iPods and Macs has not limited Apple’s ability to sell more expensive lines of iPods and Macs.

Apple’s primary advantage in the tablet market is software, not hardware. By carefully optimizing iOS software for the specific chips built into iOS devices and by nurturing their platform of media, apps, and services, Apple has managed to squeeze an incredible amount of customer value out of relatively cheap and underpowered hardware (made even less expensive by Apple’s strategic use of cash reserves). I believe we have only scratched the surface of what is possible on the software side, even when relying on just the basic hardware of the original entry-level iPad.

Apple has stated that they do not currently know how to make a quality laptop for less than $999, but if they did, they would. It looks like they do know how to make a quality iPad for $399, and if they can, they will. The iPad does not need better hardware specs to be high-quality. Unless Apple has dreamed up truly amazing new functionality (which they occasionally do), I think consumers will prefer a lower price for an already high-quality product. A $399 iPad will really be hard for competitors to beat.

Update: Most of my co-workers think Apple will release a new iPad at $499 and lower the price of the original iPad to $399, as they have been doing with iPhones and have done in the past with some Macs. They don’t think there is much incentive for Apple to cut prices on the latest, greatest iPad. I wouldn’t be surprised if my co-workers are right. However, I still think my scenario above is not out of the question.

Update 2: My co-workers got it mostly right; the iPad 2 was launched with the same prices as the original. Original iPads are available starting at $399, but only while supplies last.

Scale successes

“What is the ratio of the time I spend solving problems to the time I spend scaling successes?”

-Chip Heath & Dan Heath

The Innovator’s Dilemma

After reading Disrupting Class and several articles about disruptive technology on the asymco blog, I decided I should go to the source and read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen, published in 2000. It’s one of those books that seems fairly obvious in retrospect — now that ten years have passed and its lessons have largely been absorbed into business practice and culture.

The book is based on Christensen’s PhD thesis, which originally looked at technology and business trends in the hard disk drive industry. He found that some technologies (such as improved read-write heads) served to “sustain” existing product lines and cement the dominance of existing companies, while other technologies (such as smaller form factors) ended up “disrupting” existing products to the extent that once-dominant companies sometimes went out of business in just a few years.

The reason these companies failed was not that they were poorly managed, but because the disruptive products were in completely separate markets (and accompanying “value networks”). The existing companies were simply not designed to compete in those new markets. For example, 5-inch drives were sold to minicomputer makers, while 3.5-inch drives were sold to personal computer makers (with shorter design cycles, higher volumes, and lower profit margins). The existing minicomputer customers had no need for 3.5-inch drives, so the 5-inch manufacturers saw no market and no need to produce them until it was too late and other startup companies were already dominating the emerging market for personal computer hard drives (3.5-inch).

In other words, the businesses of making and selling 5-inch versus 3.5-inch drives were so different that being the dominant expert in hard drive technology was not actually much of an advantage. In fact, it was a disadvantage because the whole organization was designed to compete in the old business and naturally fought attempts to undercut that business.

But how do you know if a given product idea is going to be disruptive?

One clue: disruptive products are usually simpler, less powerful, and have smaller profit margins than existing products. So they need to find markets that value product attributes like convenience, reliability, and ease of use over sheer power. For example, business accounting software in the nineties was driven by the needs of large enterprise customers and so was quite complex and powerful. Quicken disrupted this market by creating a simpler, cheaper product based on its personal finance software. This was so much easier to use that it quickly gained an 80% market share among small business owners who did not need all those extra features.

What makes technologies “disruptive” rather than just “niche” is when they progress far enough to compete up-market with existing product lines. For example, Quicken continued to add features so that larger and larger businesses were able to use its software, pushing out the old software companies to only serve the largest enterprise customers. Potential disruptive technologies should have a plausible development plan that will eventually displace existing products up-market.

The big take-aways are:

1. If you want to start a new company, do it with a product idea that is likely to be disruptive. Otherwise, you have very little chance of making any headway against existing players.

2. Generally the only way to manage disruptive technologies from within an existing company is to create a totally separate organization with the sole purpose of going after that disruptive technology. If you don’t keep it separate enough, resources will inevitably be borrowed to take care of existing business and the new products will languish.

Apple has a better record than most for its ability to disrupt its own products before competitors get the chance. Horace Dediu makes a good argument that the iPhone should be seen not as “a better phone” but as a disruptive technology for personal computers: a simpler and more convenient way to accomplish computing tasks such as email and web surfing. The inclusion of a phone capability just makes it all the more convenient. I know at least one person who decided to get an iPhone instead of a new laptop; and Apple’s iPad is even more competitive with laptop computers. iPhones and iPads will continue to “move up-market” by adding the ability to conveniently handle ever more computing tasks. As this happens, Macs and other desktop PCs will increasingly be seen as high-end tools for power users.

Collective intelligence depends on social skills

Researchers from MIT and elsewhere recently published a study where groups of two to five people had to solve various problems such as “visual puzzles… negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments.”

They found that “the average and maximum intelligence of individual group members did not significantly predict the performance of their groups overall.” However:

Groups whose members had higher levels of “social sensitivity” were more collectively intelligent [i.e. those groups had better scores on the problems they solved together]. “Social sensitivity has to do with how well group members perceive each other’s emotions,” says Christopher Chabris, a co-author.

The study was billed as a way for managers to form better teams. But the more important point to me is: social intelligence is critical in business. When students enter the workforce without well-honed social skills, the teams they’re a part of are less effective and make worse decisions.

As another of the study’s co-authors said, “What individuals can do all by themselves is becoming less important; what matters more is what they can do with others and by using technology.” If this is true, effective schools will need to prioritize social intelligence in the curriculum.

BASIC was designed for students

I’m not sure when I put this article about CS education reform into my Instapaper, but I learned something new:

In the early 1960s, the professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz developed BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) at Dartmouth College because they thought educated people, and future leaders of America, should have some first-hand experience with computing.

I like this precedent of developing tools for students first, and business markets later. Focusing on students (and particularly “100-level” classes) is a great motivation to keep things simple and easy to learn. When/if the technology eventually gets powerful enough to compete with other tools, it will win because real people might actually want to use it.