Thursday, 8 November 2018

I'm not a robot

We’re technologists, we’re the magicians that make the modern world work. We perform at the intersection of creativity, engineering and craft. Surely our roles are safe from the robots that are coming to claim the jobs? Actually, no, we’re not.  We live in a world where intelligent systems are getting better and better at working with humans. While the ingredient lists for Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson and the AI-written script for the AI in Progress Bar might be amusing novelties today, they are serious first steps towards a broader approach to augmenting humans.

The way we create software has already changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. Access to endless libraries and repositories on line mean that someone else has already done almost everything you can think of component wise. Vast hoards of open-source software avoid manually digging the foundations without recourse to commercial vendors. We take this for granted today, but it is all very new. Building software has become clicking modules together and wrapping them in layer of specific code to do what was required. No need to continually reinvent wheels.

Three more waves of change are already happening. The first is with smart tools that automate the creation of much of that custom layer. Robotic process automation, RPA, describes a set of tools that watch how people use existing applications and then layer faster, easier interfaces over them. This lets staff be more productive rather than fighting with the usually horrible interfaces enterprises inflict on them. It also removes the need for developing new interfaces to these systems and, perhaps more importantly, it uses actual usage data to optimise delivery rather than what the developers think would work best.  UIPath is a specialist new entrant, while existing process-software vendors are also playing for example Pegasystems Infinity.

The second wave of change is the move towards self-service development, simplifying the process of creating typical apps to the point where those with basic computer skills can build what they need. While this isn’t new – Visual Basic is a classic in this area – however the tools are getting smarter and better at integrating with existing backends. AlphaSoftware’s TransForm is a perfect example. Start by simply typing in a list of the information you want to capture, and it will build you an initial app from that. It’s inspired because that’s the first step anybody is going to make no matter how it is built. TransForm also recognises that fitting in with IT is key, and it allows full extension through a configuration language, while data handles offline storage and backend connections.

Lastly, there is finally a whole new set of specialised programming languages emerging for the bits that do need human construction. Dedicated to a given task, compact rather than verbose, and designed to have mechanical sympathy with cloud architectures, these languages will allow humans to keep up with automation for a while. Some of these languages are new, such as Golang, others, such as Erlang and R, are finding wider adoption after being in use for decades. New languages allow the creation of domain specific languages, for example Kotlin to make programming faster, easier and with fewer bugs.
But watch out even here for automation, as new, automatic frameworks emerge. Google’s AdaNet is machine learning to build better machine learning algorithms – automatically. AutoML – a software robot that builds software robots.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Modern Magic, Modern Magicians

Arthur C Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It follows that those who master those technologies must be some kind of magician, and unfortunately empirical observation confirms that this is often that case. This can be a problem, because many people like to hide behind that kind of role, keeping those who are not gifted in that way in the dark and dependent.

Before looking at digital technologies such as AI, let’s have a look at motor cars. Used to be that in order to drive a car you needed to have a deep understanding of how the whole mechanism worked. Those who could afford a car could also afford a driver whose job was to keep it in running order as well as taking the owner places. Only enthusiasts, what we would now call early adopters, would tinker with their motors and get their hands dirty.
Nowadays, hardly anybody who drives understands how their machine works. Owners of new cars have little or no knowledge of all the complex engineering that is literally under the hood. Especially no clue about quite how much software there is now involved.  But it doesn’t stop them driving more-or-less successfully, of course, until something goes wrong. The only time they consult a specialist, a magician, who can fix the hex and get the magic flowing again, is when it goes wrong.

Radios followed the same trajectory, from hand-assembled crystal sets to disposable product, and now personal computers too. Only gamers are interested in building their own custom computers, the rest of us are happy to accept pre-configured slabs.
But what about software? The need for consumers to be software magicians has long past, and most consumer-facing software has grown to be much easier to use than it was. Mobile apps have also contributed enormously to software ease of use. Generally speaking this is because, like cars and radios, many millions of people have the same requirements.

Enterprise needs are often unique, or at least somewhat special; a mix of common and specific. This means that magicians have to be involved, but that is changing too. More and more of the ability to cast those software spells is being automated. Just like many other jobs, the robot magicians are replacing humans for routine work. And let’s face it, much of what we do is routine.

So where does that leave the magicians? Working on the gnarly problems that the robots can solve yet for some, and for others looking to see how they can add value and equal the quality of experience offered by consumer software. My next post will expand on that theme.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Bridging the gap between business and technology

Ever wondered why normal people can't grasp how technology can help them? As technologists the benefits of new approaches are usually totally obvious and we rush to adopt them, leaving the business poeple with the real needs looking sad, lonely and nervous? Well, that's the Concept Gap - the gap between the need and the tech. I'm starting up a technology advisory service to help both sides - business and tech vendors - to bridge that gap, and the company is

Alizeti is Concept Gap's first customer, where I am defining the technology for the next generation of a major sports service. As we get started I will be publishing material in the form of whitepapers, blog posts and videos. That means that this space will see more writing.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Going Digital

I'm on the move, and on St Andrew's Day, when people are celebrating all things Scottish, I am proud to say that I am going to be building a new Scottish presence for digital consultancy Chelsea Apps Factory. CAF, as we are more normally known, has grown from it's original plan of building just apps in Chelsea to a full-service digital agency. Strategy, structure and long-term thinking is what has attracted many flagship clients to use us for their enterprise mobile work.

Watch this space for renewed bloggage!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Joining Gartner

I've not blogged for a couple of months now and thought I should explain why: I've joined Gartner as an analyst, or more specifically a Research Director working in mobility with a particular focus on mobile apps, mobile app platforms and mobile strategy.

Gartner rules prevent me from commenting publicly on areas we cover and for very good reasons. Unguarded analyst remarks have been used by the press and vendors and can have unintended consequences on share values and sales. People take our views very seriously and having met more stunningly intelligent, articulate people in the last few weeks than in a very long time, rightly so.

So this blog will now occasionally feature me commenting on things unrelated to mobile: cameras, books, films, art, theater, running, exercise and other cool things that I come across. I may appear on the Gartner Blog Network in the new year depending on how busy we are. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Chasmic Angst

The tragicomic outpourings over the iPhone 5 continue, with the entirely unsurprising record preorders being taken as final proof of the sheep-like nature of iPhone users or the unquestioned supremacy of the device to the faithful depending on which zombie army you hear. This comes on top of howls of pain from techie fanbois seemingly expecting everything from projectors to time travel, and the hoots of derision from Android users who've been taking panoramas for a year now and rightfully take exception to claims of novelty. Perhaps saddest of all are pundits (and I'm looking at Robert Scoble here) diluting their equity by attempting to talk up the unremarkable, although the fanbois attempting to justify both the proprietary nature and prices of Lightning cables and adaptors may come bottom equal.

All this noise is drowning out the silent entry to a new era. We may, finally, have reached the infamous and quite possibly mythical Year of Mobile, although it would probably be safer to stick that label on 2013.

This is because it would seem that Apple has now crossed Geoffrey Moore's chasm. The fact that the device is boring, has the same Fisher Price interface as four years ago and doesn't do anything new or interesting is what they like about it.  Early majority users now feel comfortable splashing out on one of these devices in the misguided view that it's a stable, safe purchase.

Large numbers of normob users will have a dampening effect on genuine innovation so the Apple fanbois had better get used to it. Of course life would be easier for them if they hadn't spent the last few years being objectionable to all other mobile users and if Apple stopped claiming originality where none lies.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Photoshop Fixation

Yesterday's Apple launch of a device with a slightly larger screen has lead to howls of horror from graphic designers and a part of the app dev community. Oh no, they cry, not another set of screen dimensions for which we need to make a separate UI!


This kind of comment has been going on forever. Before mobile it was desktop apps, and it has always existed on the web where many designers prefer to work to some imaginary fixed size than make the most of the available screen. I feel like I've been fighting the same battle over and over since the 1980s. I even completely automated it for the Java ME world of smart and feature phones that existed before the iPhone and Android.

I can't resist saying this again, sorry. When the iOS SDK first came out I looked in vain for the API that returned screen dimensions. Checking the sample programs they all used literal hardcoded numbers, not even proper constants. I really was shocked, but apparently the powers that were had decided that 320x480 was what the masses wanted, now and forever.

And so Photoshop became the mobile UI prototyping tool of choice.

To understand why this is so wrong it helps to go back to the basics of art training. A good knowledge of anatomy - bone structure and musculature - is fundamental to being apply to paint, sketch, draw or sculpt people. Artists have to understand what's going on below the skin to make their work look good. The same is true for designers: prettiness is not everything, it's got to hang on the bones and move with the muscles.

At least this time round I'm not the only person wanting people to design adaptively. The responsive design and progressive development movements have understood that relative design and intelligent adaptive coding can not only address a few dozen pixels here and there but create optimal user experiences across widely varying screen resolutions.

The rest of you had better take heed and get with the program: there are more and more form factors coming to market. Making your pretty face fit the head it appears on isn't that difficult. Just get on with engineering it.