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Saturday, August 29, 2009

There's No App For That!

There are now about ten thousand downloadable iPhone "apps". The tailings of a mad geek-scramble of mini-application coding and cloud-mashing, the gold rush of the 2000's. Low hanging fruit in the nerd orchard that is Silicon Valley.

Every C or Java savvy software engineer, hacker, and video gamer under 35 is trying to second guess the fickle fad-addled twenty-something market of multi-task-ers that will pay a buck or two for the opportunity to buy pretty-code-as-trinket, binary-pet-rock, boolean-back-scratcher, brickabrack-party-favor. The wave of the future? Gold rush for the new killer mini-application?

A month ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Tahoe camping with my parents and my sister's family. I don't really know how it happened, but I started saying "There's An App For That" (Apple's iPhone byline), every time someone said something of that didn't quite ring true. Pretty soon, my 9 year old nephew caught the bug and began mocking truth stretchers the same way. I don't know why this tickles me. As a student of social trends, my attention gravitates to behaviors that to-easily resonate, those memes that are to the human mind what complexity theorists call "grand attractors" (the attributes of an environment or system that have the greatest and most rapid effect on action and outcome… in our solar system it's the sun, not Pluto). We humans are embarrassingly susceptible to certain patterns of language and inane cultural cues.

Back to the "app". The word is of course diminutive for application. Where applications are big do-everything information workshops, apps, are single purpose narrowly focused seemingly useful algorithmic hacks that each do some particular information access task in some sort of (usually) intuitive and fluid way. But each of these apps, as useful as it may be in a given and highly particular situation or context, is like one of the 10,000 little doodad accouterments you can find in a fine cooking equipment store… they might be nice, they might indeed do the job better than anything else could, but you wouldn't want to have to find them in a kitchen with 10,000 other tools hanging from hooks and stuffed into drawers.

Imagine a robot as swiss army knife. That is what a thousand apps are in a devise that isn't anything more than drawers and hooks for the storage of applications. The swiss army knife is really just two pinions from which swing a whole bunch of tools. It knows nothing of those tools, just how to store them and swing them out for use.

In the same way that a cooking store is better when it has in stock every tool you could ever want, the more tools it has, the harder it is to find what you are looking for, the usefulness of any one iPhone app is diminished with the addition of each new app. In the parlance of cooking there is a hierarchy of tools by complexity: kitchen, work station, major appliance, appliance, tool, and utensil. If the OS is an kitchen, and the application is the appliance, then an app is something small like a tool or a utensil. A garlic press, like most kitchen tools has a single purpose. It is a highly specialized devise, the design of which has been fine tuned through multiple design and test iterations to smoothly and reliably function as the user would expect in highly specialized and somewhat exceptional situations (once in a while). There just aren't that many things other than garlic that you want to peel, smash, and extrude. Compare this to the average utensil - knife, fork, spoon - which is meant for repetitive use across a range of activities. You have to go find a tool, but a utensil stays in your hand, or right near by all day long. You probably only have one of each of your tools, but you have multiple copies of each of your utensils. There are an almost unlimited number of potential tools, yet very few types of utensil.

It should be clear that iPhone apps are much more tool-like than utensil-like. And because most apps aren't very flexible or reconfigurable, they aren't in them selves appliances. The entire iPhone, as a devise, is often called an appliance. In this sense, it is of the class of appliances that is more akin to a food processor - the user can switch blades, for different tasks - so maybe in this sense, the blades are like apps and the iPhone truly is an appliance.

And that suggests an even more apropos metaphorical comparison… the people I know and their food processor. Almost nobody I know uses theirs. It sits there in the cabinet while they laboriously chop their vegetables by hand. Taking the thing out, collecting all of the parts, setting it up, finding the correct blade, installing that blade, plugging it in, preparing ingredients for processing, cleaning it afterwards, drying it, putting it all away…forgetaboutit!

The iPhone has a distinct advantage over the food processor - it has a primary use - as a phone - which keeps it within reach and always at hand. In the sense that an iPhone is a telephone, it is a tool - a tool that can transform itself into a multi-use appliance!

My argument isn't whether or not it is a good appliance, or whether the tools that can be attached (apps) are useful or well integrated, my argument goes to the difference between a well appointed kitchen, and a well staffed kitchen. Do you like food, or do you like cooking. My assumption is that there are far more eaters than their are cooks. Sure, everyone likes a great kitchen. Through the normal attrition that is gradual consumption, your kitchen slowly ends up containing more and more tools, but most people would, had they had access to more money, gladly trade in the whole kitchen in exchange for well prepared meals in a nice restaurant or brought to you in front of your TV.

If I had to dig a ditch, a good shovel is better than a bad one, but what the hell am I doing digging at ditch? Just how great would a shovel have to be before digging a ditch becomes something I choose to do?

I remember when personal computers became available. I watched grown men, highly successful, executive level professionals, choose to type their own letters simply because the technology was so cool and new. The same guys who wouldn't be caught dead typing their own letters on an IBM Selectric typewriter were firing their secretaries, and hand typing their letters in a far more complicated word processor on an IBM PC, just because they could change the font and the the color, size and style of the text. I am a big fan of fairness and equality, and shutter to think of the opportunity squandered during the age of woman as secretaries, but I can hardly conceive of the size of the gap between a word processor and a human secretary.

I shouldn't pick on the iPhone, in the sense that it is an information appliance, it isn't any different than any other computer. Just stores applications for later execution. What I am picking on is fact that a computer of any form factor, is just too stupid to act a anything other than filing cabinet. If you want a machine or appliance that will help you figure out what app to launch, well, there is no app for that, and there probably shouldn't be. The iPhone has taken the store-access-launch metaphor to the slippery silky extreme you would expect of Apple. This may in fact and ironically be exactly why it is becoming so clear where computers need to go next and how far they are from the fundamental technologies that will be necessary to go there.

[ more to come… ]

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