Friday, March 27, 2009

Info Q Too, Buddy!

A friend forwarded to me an InfoQ page on tech trends to see in 2009, and I gotta be honest, the article just irritated me.

First, it's an ugly page. For a tech site, InfoQ is pretty hideous and cluttered and lacks... navigability. Now, to be fair, there are lots of hideous tech sites out there, but most of them are forums. This is a 'zine site, so it should look better and be more readable.

Also, it's just bad writing--not because of its flawed grammar and vocab (although don't think I didn't notice those). It's the style and tone of it. This article was not intended to be understood, it was intended to be referenced and linked-to. In fact, I feel vaguely guilty for including a link to it. The author never posits an original idea, instead s/he refers liberally to other articles, and these are never really qualified or explored.

They also happen to be mostly rubbish, far as I can tell anyway. Why am I up in arms about this? It's not like there isn't plenty of other bad writing on the web. But this article came to me through industry professionals. This is in line with a lot of the business-oriented thinking, and that bother's me.

Let's cite some examples, shall we?

"Cloud computing... will be 'ground zero for the famous OS platform wars'."

For the uninitiated, Cloud Computing is the idea that more and more applications are being hosted on the web and that your computer is a point of access to the cloud rather than a place where you actually do work (okay, it's substantially more complicated, but that's a good gist). Several applications apply this paradigm: Steam, Google Docs, DropBox, etc. But the beauty of these (excluding Steam) is that they're platform-independent. You can write documents on Google Docs from your PC at work or your grandmother's Mac. So, rather than being 'ground zero', cloud computing is making the platform wars irrelevant. This will be doubly true as mobile technology becomes more ubiquitous. Now it's Mac/Windows/Linux. Next year it'll be Mac/Windows/Linux/Windows-Mobile/Android. And we'll see even more programs hosted on the web and written in multi-platform languages.

"Dynamic languages that 'enable a large boost in productivity' due to the 'trade-off in run-time performance."

First, that's not a sentence. Second, trade-off between run-time performance and what? Third, every six months the tech media embrace whatever dynamic language they think is supposed to kill Java (which is notably not dynamic). But nothing ever does. Java has a strong community, a huge library of software and API's behind it, and widespread applicability. Even if a dynamic language came along that was vastly superior, it would have a lot to overcome before it ever became the gold standard. I'm not saying that dynamic languages won't become a big thing, but I'll believe it when I see it and the 'trade-off between run-time performance' isn't even a complete thought, let alone an argument.

"Mashups, that are 'extremely common in the consumer space' and would finally be ready 'for prime-time in business'."

God, where to start. Mashups are not new, nor are they particularly interesting. Seeing a Google map embedded in a real-estate website is technically a mashup. Using Flickr in conjunction with your Facebook page is a mashup. Yeah. And. So. What? It's kind of like going back ten years and saying that someday people will be using word processors to write documents and then attaching those documents to their electronic mail messages. It's true, but it isn't exactly ground-breaking. Also, why is it "finally" ready for business? What's changed? And exactly what is the difference between the 'consumer space' and 'business'?

And this is nitpicky, but why are we talking about something being ready for prime-time? In the age of video-on-demand, "ready for prime-time" is an outdated paradigm. But you know what? I just thought of something. How is the trend towards video-on-demand and the success of services like Hulu and YouTube going to play out for telecom companies that have a stake in both regular cable and high speed internet connections? How is the switch to HD going to affect all this? Those are excellent questions that are tech-related, relevant, and have nothing to do with cloud computing and dynamic programming languages!

Because here's the thing (I could give more examples, but we'd be here all day): this entire article, and by extension the entire way of thinking that sits behind it, is an attempt to predict future behavior by thinking about high-level concepts in a vacuum. But most technologies that come along are there in response to a specific problem. HotMail came about so people without a web connection at home could still have an e-mail address. New tech. These new tech's then become co-opted for other reasons and introduce new problems: now everyone has an e-mail address; some people have lots of them. Wouldn't it be great to be able to sync them up. Okay, now your Hotmail account can pull messages from your ISP-provided e-mail address via POP. Then the cycle continues. Now I'm sending a ton of little bitty messages; here's a message service--now you can view conversations in a single window. Wow, I wish my e-mail was like that; here's GMail. Etc, etc, etc.

Getting back to mashups: I was involved with a business that ran a Blogger blog but ftp'd the contents to its own server in order to capitalize on the SEO benefits and drive traffic to the site. One mashup used. This same business deliberately did not use Google Maps with its service but instead developed its own proprietary map so we wouldn't have to pay licensing fees to Google. One mashup avoided. Both choices were made for explicitly practical reasons. At no point did anyone ever say "You know what we need? We need some kind of mashup!"

No one arrives at innovation by thinking about higher-level computing concepts absent a context. But in these business-ese papers, the rationale almost always seems to be "this thing is good, so it will be the next big thing". Lots of good things fail. Lots of bad things excel. Just look at previous "big" things: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. None of these are "good". They're actually pretty stupid, when you think about them. But they caught on. The whole social-networking Web 2.0 phenomenon is a bit silly and came about through frivolous exercises. But it's big, it's here to stay, and now businesses are start to wonder how they can incorporate that kind of paradigm into their business model.

Christ on a cracker.


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