The Mythical Man-Month

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1975, a computer scientist named Fred Brooks published one of the seminal texts in the literature of computing. It had the intriguing title of The Mythical Man-Month and it consisted simply of a set of essays on the art of managing large software projects. Between its covers is distilled more wisdom about computing than is contained in any other volume, which is why it has never been out of print. And every government minister, civil servant and chief executive thinking about embarking on a large IT project should be obliged to read it – and answer a multiple-choice quiz afterwards.

How come? Fred Brooks was the guy who led the team that in the 1960s created the operating system for IBM’s 360 range of mainframe computers…

Software as pure “thought-stuff”

In my lectures I often describe software as “pure thought-stuff”, which makes sense to geeks, but not to anyone else. This talk by Bret Victor provides a wonderful visualisation of that idea — though it’s also about a lot of other things. The first ten minutes convey the message about thought-stuff.

Thanks to Quentin for the link.

Remembering Dennis Ritchie

My Observer tribute to Dennis Ritchie.

It’s funny how fickle fame can be. One week Steve Jobs dies and his death tops the news agendas in dozens of countries. Just over a week later, Dennis Ritchie dies and nobody – except for a few geeks – notices. And yet his work touched the lives of far more people than anything Steve Jobs ever did. In fact if you’re reading this online then the chances are that the router which connects you to the internet is running a descendant of the software that Ritchie and his colleague Ken Thompson created in 1969.

The software in question is an operating system called Unix and the record of how it achieved its current unacknowledged dominance is one of the great untold stories of our time…

Will we lose our App-etites?

This morning’s Observer column.

Google has launched a new online tool that may eventually make you wish you’d never been born. It’s called App Inventor, and it’s a kind of DIY kit that will allegedly enable non-techies to build applications for Android smartphones. “To use App Inventor,” says Google, “you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires no programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app’s behaviour.”

There’s a nice video that illustrates this point. It opens with an attractive young woman and her cat, who’s walking all over her computer keyboard. So she takes puss on to her lap and sets to work…

The iPhone and telephone-number profits

This morning’s Observer column.

The significance of the iPhone – as regular readers know – lies in its operating system. It's really a powerful Unix computer that fits into the palm of your hand. That means it can run very sophisticated software – such as a browser that actually makes it feasible to read web pages and even books on a small screen. Add to this the fact that it is also permanently connected to the internet and you have what the rest of the industry is starting to recognise as a game changer.

Actually, the PC business is also beginning to wake up to the threat of the iPhone. How come? Well it turns out that iPhone users make less use of their laptops and desktop computers. The reason is obvious when you think about it: much of what we do on the net is pretty routine – checking email, accessing websites, Googling, accessing Facebook or Twitter. If you can do all that without booting up a computer, why bother?

The iPhone is also transforming the market for software…

The new market for software

Fascinating Ars Technica piece on hos the market for software is changing as the iPhone consolidates its strangelhold on the smartphone market.

In addition to giving away some nice swag to celebrate the countdown to one billion App Store downloads, Apple also created a list of top 20 paid and and top 20 free applications. The list gave us a good idea of what iPhone users like and what they are willing to pay for en masse (the lists appear to be region specific, so many of you will be looking at the US list).

To make the list a bit more interesting, however, MacRumors has collected sales numbers for some of the apps from a variety of different sources. While none of the numbers are 100 percent up to date, they are a reasonable approximation.

Since not all developers are open with their sales numbers, the article only talks about four of the top 20 applications numbers. The number-two application, Koi Pond by the Blimp Pilots, has made an estimated $623,000 (after Apple’s cut) from about 900,000 downloads. Number three, Pangea’s Enigmo, is harder to pinpoint because it has fluctuated in price over its App Store lifespan. With an estimated 810,000 copies sold, however, Pangea has made at least $561,330 on the one application alone. PocketGod, number 12 on the list, has earned an impressive $350,000 since its release in January with somewhere around 500,000 sales. The last application with any numbers is iShoot, which at number 19 on Apple’s list has reportedly made the author $800,000 in just five months.

While the numbers are in no way indicative of the whole, it makes it quite clear that it is possible to make a comfortable living developing solely for the iPhone. Even with mildly popular applications, we would estimate that a developer could squeak out a living if they were any good…

LATER: Nice email from a reader with a link to an Irish Times story about one of his students, Steven Troughton-Smith, who “has emerged as Ireland’s most successful software developer for Apple’s iPhone, generating revenues of up to $1,000 a day.”

Graphing tools

I hate the charts produced by programs like Excel, and so am intrigued by a new product from the Omni stable — the GraphSketch tool. The blurb claims that it:

helps you make elegant and precise graphs in seconds, simply by sketching what you want. Specifically designed for reports, presentations, and problem sets where you need to produce sharp-looking graphs on the fly, OmniGraphSketcher combines the data plotting power of charting applications with the ease of a basic drawing program.

I’ve just downloaded it and it works as advertised. Only runs on Macs, I’m afraid.

The sound of serious money

This morning’s Observer column.

At this point, those of us who have been watching Mr Jobs strut his stuff for decades began to yawn. Then something happened that made your columnist sit up. On to the stage strode John Doerr, the driving force behind Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers of 2750 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, California – the world’s premier venture capital firm. Mr Doerr said that he was so taken by this apps store idea that he was setting up a $100m fund to invest in people who were interested in developing software for the iPhone.

In retrospect, it may have been a pivotal moment in the history of the computing industry. Doerr, you see, has great judgment and a long history of spotting winners before anyone else. Companies he backed in their early days, for example, include Amazon, Compaq, Electronic Arts, Google, Lotus, Macromedia and Sun Microsystems. So if he thought there was something in the apps store idea then perhaps Jobs’s hyperbole might be justified.

And so it has proved…

The bean-counters’ sword

This morning’s Observer column

In the summer of 1978, a Harvard student named Dan Bricklin was cycling along a path in Martha’s Vineyard, when he had a big idea. As an MBA student, he was being taught to do financial planning using a large sheet of paper ruled into a grid pattern. One entered numbers corresponding to sales, costs, revenues and so on, into cells on the grid, did some calculations and entered the result in another cell. This was called ‘spreadsheet analysis’ and it was unutterably tedious because the moment any of the numbers in the sheet changed, everything else that depended on it had to be recalculated – manually.

Bricklin’s big idea was that all this could be done by a computer program…


John Dvorak’s engaging rant is here.

Dan Bricklin maintains some enthralling pages about the background to VisiCalc.