Skip to content

Goals upon goals upon goals

As I read Ed Finkler’s piece on losing excitement in technology, I found myself recognising pieces of my own story. The prospect of a new language or framework no longer seems like a new toy, an excuse to stay up all night studying it, using it and learning its secrets as I would have done a few years ago. Instead I find myself asking what new problems are introduced, whether they’re worth accepting over the devils we know are in our existing tools and how many developer-decades are soon to be lost in reimplementing libraries that have been in CPAN for decades in a new language and delivered via a new packaging system.

Because, as I alluded to when not really talking about Swift and as more eloquently described by Matt Gemmell, our problems do not, for the most part, come from our tools and will not be solved by adding more tools. Indeed a developer’s fixation on their tools will allow the surrounding business, market, legal and social problems to go unchecked. No change of programming language will turn customers who don’t want to pay $0.99 into customers who do want to pay $99. Implicitly unwrapped optionals might catch the occasional bug in development but they just aren’t worth a 100x increase in value to people on the sharp end of our creations.

What will be of benefit to them? I think we’re going to have to go through the software equivalent of the consolidation that the consumer goods industry has already seen in hardware. Remember the introduction to the iPhone?

An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator, these are NOT three separate devices!

Actually it’s none of those things. Well, it is, in that it’s all of those and more. Fundamentally, it’s a honking great handheld control unit with hundreds of buttons on, just like Sony used to make for their TV remotes. One of those buttons will turn it into a phone, one will turn it into an iPod, one will turn it into a web browser, another lets you add other buttons that do other things. They don’t all do their things in the same way, and just to keep things interesting the buttons will arbitrarily change location and design and behaviour every so often. The Sony remotes didn’t do that.

The core experience of an iPhone, or Android phone, or Windows phone—the thing you see when you switch it on and wait long enough—is a launcher. It’s the Program Manager from Windows 3.0, packaged up in a shiny interactive box. Both Program Manager and today’s replacement offer the same promise: you’ve got a feeling that you left a button around here somewhere that probably starts you doing the thing you need to do.

So we still need to make good on the promise that you have just one device, by making that one device act like just one device (preferably one which works properly and does what people expect, which is what I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on). How we get there will be the interesting problem for at least another decade. How our tools support that journey will be a fun sideshow, certainly important but hardly the focus. The tools support the goals that support our goals that support the world’s goals.