Tech companies’ greatest asset

This morning’s Observer column:

Arthur C Clarke’s adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” may or may not be true, but what is definitely true is that computer software has magical properties. It’s pure “thought stuff”: a programmer has an idea; they encapsulate it as a string of symbols that are then fed into an inanimate machine. And then the machine executes the instructions encoded in the symbols. And it obeys those instructions faithfully, unquestioningly and without tiring. Which is why being a programmer is a bit like being Napoleon – except that, unlike Bonaparte, the programmer doesn’t have to worry about victualling the troops.

As with any other line of work, there’s a spectrum of ability in programming that runs from barely competent to genius. At the top end are people who are not just 10 or 20 times better than the average, but a million times smarter. So to call them programmers is like calling Christian Dior a dressmaker…

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Remembering the first ‘Killer App’

This morning’s Observer column:

Tidying my office the other day, as one does at this time of year, I came upon a shabby, brown, dust-covered, A5 plastic ring binder. It was the kind of thing one throws into a skip without a moment’s hesitation. Except this wasn’t something to throw away, for embossed on the spine of the binder was “VisiCalc”. Inside was a 5.25in floppy disc and a glossy manual. And as I stood there looking at it I had one of those epiphanies that James Joyce was so keen on. I was suddenly transported back to late November 1979. I had bought an Apple II computer on a research grant – the more expensive 32k model, which had an external disk drive. An academic colleague who was on sabbatical at MIT had sent me a postcard saying that he had seen an Apple II running some weird software for business planning that was driving people wild. So I asked him to get me a copy and it arrived via FedEx.

VisiCalc was the world’s first spreadsheet program. It was written by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston and came from an insight Bricklin had one day while attending Harvard Business School….

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Why some software can’t be a black box

This morning’s Observer column:

For anyone interested in what is laughingly known as “corporate responsibility”, the Volkswagen emissions-fraud scandal is a gift that keeps on giving. Apart from the company’s Nazi past, its high status in German life, its hitherto exalted reputation for technical excellence and quality control, and its peculiarly dysfunctional governance, there is also the shock to consumers of discovering that while its vehicles are made from steel and composite materials, they are actually controlled by software. We are already close to the point where that software may be more valuable than all the physical materials that make up the vehicle, and, if Apple and Google have their way, that imbalance is set to grow.

Volkswagen’s chicanery was discovered by good, old-fashioned analogue detective work…

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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.”