Tag Archives: Computers

Wordcamp Seattle 2011: The Beautiful, Ugly World of Open Source

Hagget Hall during Wordcamp Seattle 2011

Seeing actual Automattic employees at Wordcamp Seattle gave the event a different vibe than the ones I had been to before. When you watch Scott Berkun or Andrew Nacin talk about the software and the open source community that created it, you get the feeling that they’re not just making money from this neat little serve-side toy. They are making a TON of money and changing the face of publishing on the web  while they are at it.

Whether I was learning about plug-in development best practices or the trials of the theme marketplace, every presentation I went to stressed the importance of the open source community in moving the industry forward. However, I found the most interesting talks of the day were at the lunch tables. It turns out all is not well in the worker’s paradise of open source.

Automattic is the company that runs the WordPress project. It decides which features are included by default in the next release of WordPress. This could be a bad thing for the community. As Trevor Green from Azure Creative pointed out, while the software is open source, the WordPress brand is not.

For instance, their plug-in called jetpack installs a slew of features that some say could be handled more competently by other plugins. Because Automattic has such a strong hold over the WordPress.com brand, a plugin like jetpack could discourage further development.

I have no delusions that Automattic is secretly planning to turn WordPress into a closed-source gulag. That would be spaying their golden goose. However, their momentum as a corporation and within the community makes it impossible for them to make a move without affecting the software ecosystem. Could the same thing happen to other open source projects, like Ruby on Rails? Rails 3.0 already includes its own test suite by default. Could edge out “competitors” like cucumber or rspec?

It’s fascinating that even in the game of open source, there are still winners and losers. For smaller developers, it’s just another chapter in the constant battle against commoditization and obsolescence. If we want to eat, we’ll just have to move on to some other more open framework.

Much thanks goes to Trevor Green and Torey Azure from Azure Creative, Curtis Mchale from SFN Design, Srinivas Penumaka of ReadyPulse , Christine Rondeau of Bluelime Media, Jacie Landeros, and all the other attendees at WCSEA for providing such scintillating conversation.

Trade Secrets

The nature of knowledge has become an interesting question lately. Knowledge used to take up space in the form of printed books. Now, a simple thumb drive can hold an entire library inside its RAM chips. MIT now posts course notes online for free, whereas before students would have to pay thousands just for the privilege of taking such notes. Many of the world’s websites are powered by Linux, an operating system that is free to download and completely open to anyone brave enough take a look inside its inner workings. If you want to be a knowledge worker, it’s not enough to have specialized knowledge. You must demonstrate that knowledge through blogs or collaborative websites like github.

If you ask me, I think that trade secrets are about to become obsolete. The idea that information can be controlled by legislation or ill-conceived software protection will soon be considered nonsense. Fortunately, this will not put an end to knowledge workers. While the human brain can never store as much data as a computer can, the ability to combine that data and use it to solve a problem is still the sole province of the good old wet noodle. It doesn’t matter that any knowledge, be it legal, medical, or mechanical, can be accessed from any computer anywhere in the world. It still takes time to learn the information well enough for it to be useful. Humans can also categorize and prioritize all the right observations that correlate to the right kind of knowledge. Computers can only work with the data they are given. Even as computers get more complex, humans are still necessary to make sure the computer is solving the right kinds of problems. If or when human-like AI is invented, hopefully we’ll have a whole different set of problems to work with, like the coming robot revolution.

How To Be A Programmer

There was an interesting little round table discussion at Wednesday’s Fraser Valley Ruby Brigade meeting. What is the greatest knowledge resource for programmers? The answer was a unanimous, resounding “Google”. I did say the discussion was little.

It’s well known that the freelancer’s greatest enemy is self-doubt. Anything less than a Tony Robbins level of enthusiasm can leave you with small wages, dull work and a series of hanger-on, dead-beat clients. I find that the problem of self-doubt in programmers is quite peculiar. Because our field is constantly changing, the result produced by 10 hours a year ago can be done in 5 today. In another 6 months, the task will be able to be completed in seconds. On last year’s digital watch.

Now, some programmers will look at this wonderful ability to look up code on google instead of slogging through a problem via trial and error and think, “my god, my skills are becoming obsolete!”, when really they are just able to do their jobs better. The carpenter was not undone by power tools and the dentist (thank god) was not undone by the pneumatic drill.

The ability to make software work, to ask the next question the user may have is something too nuanced to be left to machines. Software is little more than decisions we’ve already made carried out by a series of tiny blinking lights. Even after 50 years of the electronic computer, there are still many, many decisions that still need to be made.

Open Source Rant

Is it just me, or do open source software packages have this tendency to overload features until their control panels look like the dashboard of a 747? Granted, there are some open source products out there that are truly great. Simple to use, easy to customize and a cinch to navigate. But if you’re looking at what looks like a casualty of the feature creep wars, chances are it’s an open source product. Most of the setup involves turning off all the various features you are never going to use. It feels like the product of the same insecurity that informs Microsoft’s attempts to catch up to Mac OS. Someone ought to tell the developers of Blender or Zen-cart that people aren’t turning close-source products because they have more features. You don’t need to find a new user interface paradigm to wrest control of the market from Microsoft and Apple. All you really need is to stay open source, free to download for all.

The Device That Shall Never Be Known As iPad

Click to see official picture gallery

Image Courtesy Gizmodo

The Apple Tablet was presented yesterday, providing the It workers of the world with a much needed extended coffee break.

No sooner did Steve Jobs hang up his turtleneck for the day when all the complaints started rolling out. It doesn’t have a camera, it doesn’t have a phone, it doesn’t have HDMI. Would you get a load of that closed software architecture? You’ll have to blow a raspberry on Steve Wozniak’s tummy before you can even look at the sdk! On and on and on.

I’m not going to be lining up for this gadget any time soon, no matter how Starship Enterprise-like it may or may not be. I also realize it wasn’t made for someone like me. This is for people who have money, but can’t be bothered to futz with the iPhone’s rate structure or are intimidated by a MacBook. Unbelievable, I know, but they exist.

When you are in the computer industry, it’s so easy to forget no one has any idea what we’re talking about when we say something innocuous like “spreadsheet cell”. The more our trade is arcane and exclusive, the more our world is held back by people who don’t understand the potential of the devices they sit in front of every day at the office. It’s the reason we don’t have things like 3G voip services and voicemail boxes that “fill up”. I don’t care how many features this tablet doesn’t have. If it teaches people how to use and trust technology, I’m all for it.