Wednesday 9 February 2011

In Memory of Ken Olsen

Ken Olsen passed away on February 6th, 2011 after a long and productive life as an entrepreneur, scientist, philanthropist and educator. Unfairly if he's remembered at all, it's primarily for having said that that there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home. He said that in 1977. Even having the thought in 1977 was radical when you think about it.

Without Ken Olsen there would have been no Digital Equipment Corporation, and without Digital, the whole shrinking, connected computer might not have happened, certainly not as quickly as it did.

While Digital's computers might seem laughably enormous to us now, they were actually very small for the time, heralding in a completely new era of computing where users actually got to see and touch the computer they were using. Prior to that you had to submit your supplication to the great machine in its temple via the priests of data processing.

I never had the privilege of meeting Ken when I worked at Digital although those who did had many stories. I'll leave them to tell those tales. I have two favourite memories. The first was Ken's belief in doing the right thing. It's a shame that that ethos was lost in the myriad layers of self-aggrandising middle management.

Finally, my favourite memory of Digital computers was the clock speed control on a relic we had at the University. I think it was a PDP-7 which was already 15 years old or so when I was a student. To help debug your programs you could turn a knob to slow down the clock from the breath-taking top speed of 8khz (yes, kilohertz) so that you could see the registers changing as the instructions were executed. Brilliant.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Having Crystal Balls

I like reading fiction set in the near future, usually the ones which are slightly dystopian where many things are the same but some have changed dramatically. I've even written one myself.

I particularly like John Spencer's three Charley Case books, set in a California towards the end of this century but written in the 1980s. The big change is that an earthquake has turned Nevada into a sea and pushed most of Los Angeles under the ocean. What remains is an island. Charley is a private detective who habitually gets into cases that are too big to handle and the books are full of one liners and written in a clipped style.

There are many things that Spencer predicts that seem reasonable: projectile weapons continue to be used but with increasing sophistication, medical systems allow resuscitation of the recently deceased assuming all the bits are still attached, huge cars running on synthetic gasoline, huge gap between rich and poor, and people living much longer.

But the reason I'm writing about this is that there are a few things that are already hilariously out of date yet with some features that we don't have. A case in point are phones. Charley is always having to beg access to people's phones. The idea of the ubiquitous telephony that we already have just didn't occur to the author.

Yet Charley's phone has a message capability that allows the other party to push him information that would otherwise require him to write it down. A potential client can push him their address without hassle. This same concept happens in Gibson's Virtual Light where flight information is pushed to the courier's phone after an initial voice call.

Now why don't we have that as part of our comms flow? Because we have segmented businesses, of course, where voice and data don't mix because the business units providing them don't mix. Because audio and RF engineering don't talk to the people making the network stack.
Computers are little bit more advanced than phones, with their name being chomped down to comp which is pretty cool. His domestic comp controls his kitchen. His friend in the police force has what sounds remarkably like a character cell terminal on his desk and habitually has to use mounds of prints outs. They even have trolleys for pushing print outs around the police station. The idea of wireless networking, tablets and on-screen reading didn't make it into this version of the future.

The reason that I'm talking about all this is to highlight how incredibly difficult it is to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. Whether we are looking at analysts projections for market size or novels doesn't matter. Many people would argue that they are both fiction anyway.

While we can generally predict what technology can do, you need to have balls of crystal to be able to predict behaviour and applications. We also have a curious tendency to overestimate the immediate effect of technology while underestimating the long-term effect. We've all seen the shape of the adoption curve, and I think it is wrong. There's a long nose and either a small drop to nothing or a huge take off when it moves into mainstream. But that's the subject for another blog post.

The only Charley Case story still in print is Quake City published by Jim Driver's wonderfully-named The Do Not Press. The cover of the first book bears no relation at all to the content. The female police officer on the front of the second book, remarkably, actually represents one of the characters although at no point is she in uniform and toting a gun.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Lonely in Location

Another couple of comments on location-aware systems.

First an update to my last post - Foursquare has a setting so that it opens on Places and not Friends by default. This is much better, but doesn't change what is presumably the way the Foursquare designers expect it to be used.

Next is that a few people have put together systems that show hot locations, using the rather unscientific method of taking check ins from the last half an hour to get round the lack of a check out option. An example of the is MisoTrendy which combines a witty name with a simple mashup between Google Maps and Foursquare. It shows "trending" venues on a map.

Unfortunately the main information you can take from this is that very, very few people actually check in anywhere at all. Edinburgh only has occasional traces of activity, even London has only 15 people currently checked in. Checks on other major cities where it is not the middle of the night showed equally low levels of activity.

So I fear that anybody trying to use is likely to continue to be sad and lonely.

Update: Just found Ratio Finder which identifies ratios of the sexes in locations as long as you are in San Francisco or New York, based on the much more amusing Wee Places which draws maps of your checkins with some cool animations. Is it long-term useful? Probably not, but it is pretty and briefly amusing. I suspect that it proves the old wisdom of the third place: home, work, and somewhere else you hang out.