Monday, April 30, 2007

We're All Nodes Now

Sometime in the last year, I became a node in a network.

I got a preview of it when I carried a Sidekick, and left myself logged into AIM 24/7. I'd wake up to collected IMs- fragmentary missives from those too lazy to write an actual email- stacked up on my device. I'd answer those from the logged in and defer those from the disconnected, and go about my business.

At that point I was like a store and forward server- always available, but with an expectation that my network activity was sporadic and time insensitive. I might ping back in a second, an hour, or never.

The qualitative shift came when I turned in my personal Sidekick for my corporate Blackberry. Suddenly, my network participation was sponsored by my employer, and a new set of expectations came along. I received an email from my superiors one Monday that I was expected to have my Blackberry on all weekend, and to respond in a timely manner to messages and emails. The network was imposing an SLA on me.

Now that SLA has gone down from 'timely' to 'instant'. In my position, I often participate in conference calls or meetings, and when I'm leading those meetings it's generally considered impolite to take a phone call and ignore the people sitting in the room with me. No matter to the other nodes trying to get in touch with me- if I don't pick up the phone, they send me an email or a text message demanding that I call back or pick up the next time they call.

The fact that e-mail, voice mail and text messages allow for asynchronous communication is meaningless to many of my fellow nodes. Secure in the knowledge that I have my Blackberry with me, they try every port available to yank my attention from the here and now for their remote intervention (someday, I'll finish my post about why the telephone, until very recently, was the worst invention of the millennium).

I typically don't respond instantly to these triple pings- if I didn't pick up the phone in the first place, there's probably a good reason. Furthermore, the frantic attempts to demand my attention often drop a return call to the bottom of my priority list, somewhere behind feeding my cat. At that point, I'd rather respond with an email, composed asynchronously and on my schedule, than get on the phone with a demanding node.

I'm a bad node.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

So Funny, I Forgot To Laugh

Why is it technology nerds think it's funny to change the name of an object of your derision to make fun of it?

[This post was inspired by, but is not directly about, the NBCU-Fox joint venture I'm involved in; it has generated a ton of commentary online, with a slew of 'funny names,' like Clown Co., MeeTooTube, NBCFoxTube, etc.]

I first ran into this odd phenomenon when I cajoled my Mom into spending the then-princely sum of $399 for a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer. I thought it was pretty slick, since it connected to my TV and allowed me to manipulate ANY ONE of eight colors on the screen, with an astounding 64 pixel resolution (for the entire screen, not per inch).

My elation at this device was dampened when I was informed by a fellow at school that I in fact had a 'Trash-80.' This bit of techno smackdown was delivered with a sneer.

Never mind that this kid wore flannel shirts that reeked so bad you imagined they could reproduce on their own. I was crushed- not only had my formerly cool computer been taken down a notch by this nascent technology commentator, but he had used its OWN NAME AGAINST IT! How subversive.

Years later, along came the Internet, and now I could communicate with millions of nerds, minus the pleasure of smelling their flannel. Imagine my surprise when I found that the practice of clever name changing was alive and well, and flourishing!

Off the top of my head, here's some of the more memorable fake name slams:

Micro$oft (Yeah, they make money, and therefore they suck!)
Nutscrape (for the Netscape browser- what did it ever do to offend anyone?)
Internet Exploder
Crapple Computer

These all share a single attribute: They are absolutely unfunny. They do not bestow a burst of insight, leading to laughter. They do not make you chuckle when you suddenly make the connection. They are embarrassing to the people who use them in earnest, and they are embarrassing to you, since you don't want to look like a spoilsport by pointing out that the person who just uttered a funny name is most likely a raving idiot.

These stupid, unfunny, soul-deadening silly names have been bothering me for so long, I was sure someone else must have written volumes about how stupid they were. However, I was unable to dig up any previous body of work on the suckyness of this 'humor' and its practitioners. Part of the problem was that I had some trouble even fashioning a search for it.

My first try:

'What do you call it when someone changes a name to make fun of something?'

came up with absolutely no usable results. I then ran my clumsy query through my, uh, brain and condensed it to:

'name change mockery'

This got me closer, but still no deep Internet store of derision and hatred; no extensive body of work deconstructing these alleged jokes and the alleged jokesters who use them.

I guess you have to start somewhere. I call on all bloggers to post up your opinions on this asinine 'Name Mockery'- unless, of course, you're one of the a-holes using Immovable Hype.

Har har har

Monday, April 2, 2007

Is this DRM's Katrina?

The thing about those levees surrounding New Orleans was that they didn't have to collapse all the way... just one little section gave way, and the lake came rushing in. The force of the torrent eventually collapsed the rest of the barriers, but it must have started with a single drop somewhere...

This morning's announcement that EMI and Apple would offer DRM-free music would have been unthinkable just a few months ago- Jobs' original anti-drm manifesto was greeted with derision by many in the content industry.

I believe this is the pivot point...that in a few months, the unthinkable will be actually spending money, time and effort to encrypt files that are being purchased by those with no intent to steal anyhow (duh, they're already buying it), especially when there is an easy way to illegally copy and distribute the software using existing, widespread technology. Anyone can rip any CD using iTunes and post it anywhere- all the DRM on the iTunes music store wouldn't put a dent in that.

What WILL put a dent in that is punishing those who egregiously break the existing laws of copyright violation, while easing back on the witch hunt aimed at the people you should be rewarding - the ones who buy music in the face of easily available (and illegal) downloads.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Windows in a.... window

Although I buck the corporate trend by using a Mac as my primary machine at work (I'm one of four in my 55-person group), I still need to occasionally use internal websites or utilities that function only on Windows.

In the past, I've had to go so far as to find a Windows machine that someone wasn't using and borrow it for five minutes to fill out a form, approve a ticket or take a 'preventing violence in the workplace' course. Unfortunately, tincupping for IE time on coworker's computers didn't help support my smugly superior Mac user attitude.

Thankfully, the fine people at Parallels have come to the rescue of my frail Apple ego. With Parallels Desktop for Mac, I can boot up Windows in a window on my desktop, and launch Windows apps like Internet Explorer and go about my business of learning why I shouldn't batter my subordinates.

Sounds like a good setup, right? Well, it gets better. Recent versions of Parallels allow me to shrink the Windows window down to the specific application windows I'm using- this is called 'Coherence.' This allows me to use Windows applications without having to look at the rest of Windows:

Since the distinction is rather subtle in this mode, that's a screenshot of IE running in Windows, acting like a windowed application within Mac OS X.

An interesting artifact of this method is that it's actually a better experience running Windows in this mode. Since all the hardware is virtual, Windows doesn't have to fuss about installing drivers for this screen adapter or that USB device- Parallels manages the inputs, and makes everything on my Mac look like a plain vanilla PC to Windows.

The lack of hardware predictability has always been Window's main downfalls; the Mac OS has the luxury of a limited set of hardware profiles to support. By relieving Windows of the burden of playing a technological twenty questions every time I want to change a setting, its user experience goes from actively frustrating to merely goofy.

Microsoft benefits by selling another instance of Windows (I had to pay full price for it, something like $300) since it doesn't come pre-installed with Parallels, as it would on a physical PC. Since I'm not trying to make Windows work with a homemade PC using a video card manufactured by Frank's Discount Electronics and Fishing Lures, they don't have to spend money on a support person to tell me it's not Window's fault that the machine isn't working.

Of course, this does throw a wrench into Microsoft's plan to be the software that runs everything everywhere- on my hardware, Windows is a effectively a very complicated and bloated application runtime environment, like the Java virtual machine or the Flash plug-in.

One of the arguments coming from the Mac camp against virtualization went something like this: When Macs can run Windows apps, no one will bother writing Mac specific apps, and that will eventually lead to the end of the Mac software market- we'll be forced to use Windows versions of everything from Adobe Photoshop to SpaceWard Ho!. That might have been the case when Macs had proprietary, unique, expensive hardware- but now that Macs have Intel inside like the rest of the club, and the cost differential between Mac hardware and its PC equivalent has narrowed or disappeared, I'm seeing a different dynamic at work.

The logic I'm hearing nowadays is 'Since Macs can run both Mac OS and Windows, why would I buy a machine that can only run Windows applications?' Hardcore developer colleagues of mine are now switching over to MacBook Pros, confident they can still boot Vista to do their industrial work, but switch back to the Mac OS to organize their photos or videos with the iLife suite, or do super-easy video chatting with iChat and the nifty built-in camera on all Mac laptops.

Apple loves this, since they make very little money off their OS anyhow- it's mostly a shiny toy to get you to buy their computers. If they can add 'Windows' to the list of applications that run on the Mac, then they've got the world's largest software company effectively marketing their machines.

There's a few ways this story can go from here, but I'll leave the wild-eyed extrapolation for a future post. Suffice to say this is starting to evolve along the same lines of other tech vs. tech stories- as the technology behind a market advantage becomes widespread and commoditized, other qualities, such as brand, ease of use, reliability, and customer focus begin to reassert themselves. Steve Jobs should be thanking Gordon Moore and his eponymous law for chips that are powerful enough to render moot the OS as the overriding definition of the computing experience, and let task-based applications float to the top based on their merit.