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Geekism

Why is there no decent Mac word processor?

The late Isaac Asimov famously resisted computers for many years. With good reason: Until relatively late in his life, they couldn't have kept up with him. His workspace was infamous. He kept several long tables in the attic of his town house, arranged in a big "U", with an IBM Selectric (the fastest typewriter available then or since) every few feet. Each smaller workspace was set up to work on a different project, or part of a project. When he got bored working on one thing, he'd simply roll over to another project.

I got into computers to use word processors. That's not true: I got into computers to manage prose. That was really my dream: To manage prose, which meant managing ideas, managing text, searching seamlessly through stuff that I'd written, changing on the fly, getting rid of hard copy, automating tedious tasks.... I imagined a day when I'd be able to store large amounts of text and search through them easily. I imagined a day when I'd be able to effortlessly switch back and forth between projects the way that Asimov would wheel from one Selectric to the next.

That was in the mid-80s; I'm part of the way there. I use (and have used for something around ten years) a multi-tasking computer that lets me keep multiple projects in progress (dare I say "a la Asimov"?); with wireless networking, I can get connected to the Internet in a surprising and growing number of places; I have a small, light, powerful laptop that lets me do real work when away from an "office."

But I still don't have the text tools that I really want. OS X 10.4 has nice meta-data-aware indexing, implemented in a fairly efficient way; it also has good solid multitasking and power management. But it's still lacking one thing:

It doesn't have a decent word processor.

What would a word processor need to have for me to regard it as "decent"? At a high level, it needs to fulfill three basic criteria:

  1. It has to have good usability characteristics.
  2. It has to support all of the basic, required business functionality that people nowadays expect from a word processor.
  3. It has to be able to interchange files with no meaningful loss of information or formatting with the people with whom I need to work.
Those are actually pretty loaded criteria. Let's break them down a little:
  1. Usability: By this I mean that it has to stay out of my way and let me work. It has to not require that I do a lot of things with the mouse. It has to not place unusual constraints on me, like saving everything into some proprietary "project" or "drawer".
    1. Good interaction performance: Screen writes need to be fast and free of artifacts, document navigation actions like page up and page down need to be quick.
    2. It must be easy to do basic, standard things like move to different points in a document. There are conventional ways of doing this that might be CUA, but are probably just convention: Ctrl-End to move to the end of the current document, Ctrl-Home to move to the beginning, Ctrl-Up-Arrow to go back one paragraph, etc. You will find these conventions honored on the majority of Windows (and *nix) editors and word processors, with spotty acceptance on the Mac.
    3. It must at least be possible to de-clutter the visual field -- to remove extraneous noise. As an example, many find word processors have for many years offered a "full screen" mode that brings that page to your focus and blocks out all other programs. That's an extreme example; Word and OpenOffice 2.0 have a "draft mode" that's pretty good in that regard.
  2. Features: Again, pretty loaded, but at a minimum I think a useful business word processor absolutely has to support the following -- these are things that I have found myself using again and again in preparing business documents, and they save incredible amounts of time:
    1. Automatically formatted (and numbered) lists and outlines. This might seem picky, but if you don't understand the need for it, you haven't really created many complex business documents. Consider a project plan document, that might have a list of things in order. On review, the order changes. If your list has 50 items, you might need to change 50 ordinal numbers. (This has been available in MS Word, WordPerfect, StarOffice/OpenOffice, and many others for many years.)
    2. Section-sensitive headers and footers. I.e., start a new section, you can change the presentation or content of the headers and footers.
    3. Automated tables of contents.
    4. A simple way to format the first page of a simple document differently than the subsequent pages. This has been possible for many years in Word, WordPerfect.
    5. It must implement style-based formatting at at least the character and paragraph levels; more than that (such as page styles) might be overkill, since my experience so far suggests that they don't interoperate well. Furthermore, though, it must be possible to import styles from other documents or from some kind of repository. The feature is dramatically less useful without that capability.
  3. Interoperability: The software must, must, must be able to both import and export files -- files, not text, but files (this is important, guys, please listen) -- in one or more widely used formats. For practical purposes right now, that means that it must be able to interchange files with Word 2000 and later versions on the Windows platform. OASIS OpenDocument format compatibility would be nice from a future-proofing standpoint, but I'm already seeing some indications that the OpenDocument format may go places where it's not very inter-operable with Word's native RTF. So interoperability with RTF, clumsy and locked-in as it is, is what's needful.
    1. No information should be lost in an import/export. E.g., you should never ever lose footnotes/endnotes; you should not lose change tracking; you should not lose bookmarks.
    2. No formatting should be altered in an import/export. Obviously that's easier said than done -- especially with a poorly-documented format like RTF -- but OpenOffice and Word have come surprisingly close.

It's a fact -- and this is not seriously disputable by any honest and experienced user of both platforms -- that Windows (and to lesser extent Linux) beat all but one (arguably two) of the available Mac word processors hands down on all these counts.

I leapt into using a Mac with the assumption I'd be able to find what I needed when I got here, and for the most part, that's been true. Some glaring exceptions: There really aren't any good music players (iTunes is a sad and cynical joke), and -- most glaringly -- there are no (repeat, no, repeat, no capable, stable, usable, general purpose word processors.

The field of modern word processors is pretty small to begin with. On Windows you've basically got Word, OpenOffice, and WordPerfect, with a few specialist players. Down the feature ladder a bit you've got AbiWord lurking in the shadows: It's pretty stable on Windows, and does most of what you'd need to do for basic office word processing, but it has some problems translating Word docs with unusual features like change tracking.

On *nix, you've always got OpenOffice and AbiWord. In addition, you've got kWrite, which is about on feature-par with AbiWord, but tends to remain more stable version to version.

To be fair, there are a lot of word processors available for the Mac. But few of them really fill the minimal requirements for a business word processor, and those few fail in critical to borderline critical extended requirements. And what's most frustrating for me is that it's been that way for years, and the situation shows no real signs of changing.

Here are the players on the Mac:

Word (Mac)

The Good: It supports all the basic, required business features.

The Ugly: Performance sucks, and so does price. I

OpenOffice 1.1.2
The Good: Supports all the basic, required business features.
The Ugly:The two big problems are that it requires X11 and that it's not up to version with OO on the other platforms. I don't think. Truthfully, I haven't tried it yet, but my expectation is for poor performance. In any case, OpenOffice is in general clumsier than Word on a PC. That may not be true versus MacWord. Also, it does lack some Word features I've come to be very very fond of: Chapter navigation in the sidebar, and (this is a real biggie) the Outline Mode document view.
NeoOffice/J 1.1.4

The Good: Price -- it's free. Features -- it's got all the basic features, just as OpenOffice 1.2 does. By all accounts, it's more stable and performs better than OOo 1.1.2 does on a Mac. This is what I use every day, for better or worse. It's very impressive for what it is; I'd just like it to be more.

The Ugly: Rendering performance is flaky. It's hard to de-clutter the visual field -- there's nothing analogous to Word or OOo 2.x's "draft mode". NO/J is somewhat unstable from build to build, though genuine stability issues seem to get fixed pretty quickly, and the software will (theoretically) prompt you when there's a new patch or version available. Unpredictable behavior with regard to application of styles -- e.g. I apply a style, and it often doesn't fully obtain. Some of these problems get addressed on a build by build basis, but it's hard to know which are bugs and which are core defects of OOo. This is OO 1.x, after all, which was kind of flaky in the best of times.

Nisus Writer Express

The Good: Small, fast, good-looking, and the drawer-palette is less obtrusive than Word 2002's right-sidebar. RTF is its native format, which gives the (false) hope that it will have a high degree of format compatibility with Word.

The Ugly: I had high hopes for this one, but it's been disappointing to learn that it fails in some really critical areas. Format compatibility with Word is hampered by the fact that it's missing some really important basic features, like automatic bullets and outlining. I use those all the time in business and technical writing -- hell, just in writing, period. I don't have time to screw around adding bullets or automating the feature with macros, and because the implementation for bulleted or numbered lists is via a hanging indent, the lists won't map to bullet lists or numbered lists in Word or OO. Ergo, NWE is useless for group work. This is intriguing to me, since they've clearly done some substantial work to make it good for handling long documents, and yet they've neglected a very basic formatting feature that's used in the most commonly created kind of long document, business and technical reports: Automatically numbered lists and outlines.

Interestingly, it also fails to import headers and footers. I would have expected those to be pretty basic. Basically, this isn't exactly a non-starter, but it's close.

AbiWord 2.x

The Good: Free.

The Ugly: Unstable and has poor import and rendering performance in the Mac version. I know the developers are working on it, but there's only one guy working on the OS X port right now so I don't have high hopes. Also, it's not as good for long technical documents as Word or OO would be.

Mellel

The Good: Don't know; haven't tried it. People swear by it for performance, but see below.

The Ugly: File compatibility. Doesn't read OpenOffice files or OpenDocument (OASIS-standard) files, and has a native format that isn't RTF. That makes me think it's a waste of time to even bother to evaluate it. I don't need to be screwing around with something new if I'm going to run up against the same file compatibility issues I have with Nisus.
MarinerWrite

The Good: Cheap. Light. Quick.

The Ugly: Features. As in, ain't got many.

Apple Pages

The Good: Inexpensive. Conforms to the Mac UI.

The Ugly: Conforms to the Mac UI -- which means that it requires finger-contorting key combinations to do basic things without using the mouse, and makes poor use of the screen. And it's severely lacking in features: Apparently it can't export very well to RTF, which is odd, considering how deeply Apple has ingrained RTF into their system.

Why am I mincing words, here? Pages, based on what I know about it, is the same kind of sad and cynical joke as iTunes. It's a piece of brainwashing; it's eye-candy; it's got nothing very useful to anyone who does anything serious with documents.

For the time being, it looks as though I'll be sticking with NeoOffice/J, and at some point installing the OO plus X11 package to see how ugly that is.

Land of the Sterile Storm Troopers

When George Lucas first deigned to underwhelm us with his vision of the last days of the Galactic Empire in the summer of 1999, SF writer David Brin responded with a thoughtful essay on Salon.com describing in some detail why the idea of life in the Star Wars universe left him depressed, and the idea of life in Roddenberry's "Next Generation"-era Trek universe didn't.

The short version is that George Lucas is a closet fascist.

That's putting a few words into Brin's mouth, but not many. I found his arguments very appealing, and still do. So I'm tittilated by Anthony Lane's review of Star Wars Episode III in The New Yorker:

... Mind you, how Padmé got pregnant is anybody's guess, although I'm prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes. After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn't go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from "Alien" and "Blade Runner"—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.

Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing a toilet in any of those immaculate Death Star prison cells... Geez. Thanks a lot. Now (on the off chance I do go to see it in the theaters), I'll keep looking for the door to the bathroom the whole time.

Firefox is now at 1.0. Hoo-ray.

For all my protestations, I did switch. There were plugins I wanted to use, that just weren't available for Mozilla. I'm still not quite used to looking under "Tools" for my program preferences (a very Microsoftian shift, I must say), and I can't get the tabbed browsing behavior to match the cleaner and more intuitive tabbed browsing experience in Mozilla. And I miss the memory-resident feature that lets Mozilla pop up near-instantaneously whenever I click the dinosaur-head.

But I did switch, and I have been using Firefox consistently throughout the last few weeks. I only switched to Mozilla when I needed to troubleshoot problems for others, or set it up on other people's PCs. At the end of this time, I still advocate Mozilla over Firefox for casual users: It remains more solid, more bug-free, and more polished at the presentation and installer level. It's what I set Mom & Dad up with on their PCs.

My opinion of Firefox hasn't really changed. I still think it's the kewl kidz browser, and it looks and feels like it -- which is to say, stuff often doesn't work right, or plain doesn't work -- it crashes frequently and churns at unexpected times -- and many things still show distinct signs of the developer's ego-centric contempt for objective evaluations of usability. But it's still the train that's going forward; if that's where I want to go, that's the train I get on.

LATER: Most Firefox plugins are now invalid! Mirabile dictu! And more remarkably yet, there's no way to tell (at release plus several days as I write this) which extensions are compatible with 1.0. So the process of trying to produce a browser for mass-public-consumption has taught the Firefox team exactly nothing! Why am I not surprised....

On the plus side, some things (like the Extensions dialog) are no longer cruelly slow. And the installer seems to work rather well under Linux.

The Next Cluetrain Test

Microsoft Windows XP SP2 will be an important, but probably un-noticed, watershed in the progress of the "cluetrain".

I've yet to see a major case where "cluetrain" customer/user-emplowerment juju actually had an impact on any company's actions. There are lots of cases on the books of products doing poorly, but the vast majority are the same traditional feedback mechanism: The product sucks, people don't use it, the product fails; or, the product is poorly marketed (Coke C2? New Coke?), people don't buy it, the product fails.

A cluetrain feedback loop would be different. It would mean that net-empowered buyers (which doesn't necessarily mean internet-empowered buyers) had acted consciously -- as opposed by passibly, by simply not buying -- to make the product fail. That action could be in the form of spreading word of the product's suckfulness via some network; in the pure Cluetrain vision, that network would be a human network, enabled by technology. (Side snark: Which network will shortly be owned and controlled by Google...)

Cluetrain thinking is quite a bit like Marxism or "singularity" theory, in that it presumes the inevitability of something which a little basic observation and some applied knowledge of human nature would tell you is highly unlikely. "But it's emergent," is one common (if foggy) response. "You won't be able to predict the shape of the future from the present." "But from what will it emerge?" would be my response. I've yet to see an "emergent phenomenon" that couldn't be traced back to properties of its culture medium.

So, what the hell does all this have to do with Microsoft? Well, they've decided not to bother doing security patches on IE for anything but XP, once they release SP2. (At least, that's what I think they mean; they might mean they're stopping now.) Many see this as a calculated move to incentivize paid upgrades (XP SP2 won't be free -- it will cost $99 for most XP users). If so, it's a very calculated move, based on the idea that they don't need to care anymore how people feel about Microsoft. It's Rock v. Hard Place. It means they think they're winning the anti-Linux fight (which may well be true).

If the Cluetrain is what it's boosters have always said it is, it will stop this, and what's more, it will stop this in a particular way: It will wound Windows XP via Market Forces. Microsoft's sales of SP2 will be poor, Linux and Mac adoption will rise sharply, and Market Forces will drive radical improvements in the usability of Linux desktops. Or MS will "get on the cluetrain" and cancel plans to charge for SP2, at least -- and ideally, continue to distribute updates for Win2K. (Which is a better OS, anyway -- though it doesn't have all those wonderful hooks for MS lock-in...)

Now, I actually think it's pretty likely that XP users will be getting SP2 for free. Whether MS continues to update Win2K is another matter. This will happen because their corporate customers will communicate their profound disappointment, and telegraph a willingness to migrate to Firefox or Googlezilla. Is this a manifestation of the Cluetrain in action? I don't know; it would tend to support the view that the "cluetrain" is nothing new or emergent, if it were, because changing plans based on Big Customer feedback is as old as the PC industry, and is mediated not by networking but by traditional sales channels. And the reaction would be just exactly as little as Microsoft has to give up to get what they want.

Now, all that snark having been levelled, I would love to see MS take a hard line on this. Because it would force the watershed, and make it that much more visible. Such a watershed would place more pressure on the open-source communities to come up with alternatives, whatever those might be. But whether those alternatives are really better and more empowering than Microsoft is another matter. Given the exclusive choice between a joyless overlord despised by most who still knows relatively little about me, and a beloved overlord who knows my every browsing habit, I'll pick the former -- Microsoft -- every time.

Dawn of the Google Era

The "Google OS" meme takes its next logical step: Signs indicate that Google is at work creating a Google-customized browser based on the Mozilla trunk. (My bet is that they would use Firefox, since the kewl kidz love Google so damn much.)

Last summer, Anil Dash suggested that it would be a good move for Google to develop a Google browser based on Mozilla. Give that kid a gold star because it looks more than plausible. Mozilla Developer Day 2004 was recently held at the Google Campus. Google is investing heavily in JavaScript-powered desktop-like web apps like Gmail and Blogger (the posting inferface is now WYSIWYG). Google could use their JavaScript expertise (in the form of Gmail ubercoder Chris Wetherell) to build Mozilla applications. Built-in blogging tools. Built-in Gmail tools. Built-in search tools. A search pane that watches what you're browsing and suggests related pages and search queries or watches what you're blogging and suggests related pages, news items, or emails you've written. Google Toolbar++. You get the idea.

Mozilla is currently getting some good press due to Microsoft's continuing troubles with their browser and the uptick in usage compared to IE is encouraging. But it's nothing compared to what could happen if Google decides to release a Mozilla-based browser. A Google Browser would give the Mozilla platform instant credibility and would be a big hit. The peerless Google brand & reputation and their huge reach are the keys here. Mom and Dad know about Google....

[Jason Kottke, "More evidence of a Google browser"]

"It's been obvious for awhile now that Google isn't a search company," Kottke says, pointing to earlier ruminations:

With their acquisition of Pyra and new Content-Targeted Advertising offering, it should be apparent that Google is not a search company. What they are exactly is unclear, but their biggest asset is: a highly annotated map of the web.

Unclear, indeed. But whatever it is that they are or become, it will control truly unprecedented amounts of power.

The relentless techno-optimism around Google is fascinating and frightening. That this "highly annotated map of the web" should reside in the hands of one closely-controlled company with strong profit motives and utterly unprecedented stores of information is, frankly, terrifying to me.

As a private entity, and as such not subject to public oversight (and no, stockholders don't count as "public oversight" -- and especially not at Google), Google is much more greatly to be feared than Government. There is effectively no control over what information they can collect and use internally, as long as they don't resell it. And if they are a one-stop-shop for all information usage, there ends up being effectively no limit to the uses they can put that information to.

In future, in fact, I can envision the Government outsourcing Total Information Awareness to Google. It would solve so many of their problems: No longer would the Government be hampered by silly "pre-9/11" rules that prohibit it from domestic spying; they'd effectively be able to get whatever they want, from Google. Sure, some kind of suitable chinese wall would have to be erected, but that's a trivial matter considering the power at stake, here.

(Leads courtesy Boing-Boing and the Register.)

More Thoughts on Tech-Macho Bullsh*t

A few more thoughts on the Kalsey-Firefox Affair. It's another illustration of Tech Macho Bullshit in action: If you're not "clueful" enough to see how much better off you are with Firefox, then you "deserve" IE.

Personally, I think that a "cluefulness-test" is the moral equivalent of playground bullying. (Geeks getting their own back?) And I don't think anyone deserves IE, but that's just me.

As far as I can see, this resembles the dueling of "eXtreme Programming" versus "traditional" methodoligies in that both are manifestations of the geek's adolescent obsession with control. They want to be able to make the decisions about what's "right" and "wrong" without subordinating themselves or their labor-power to inferior beings. The fact that those inferior beings do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town escapes their mind; they only remember that they have to suffer the indignity of living with, working for, and being paid by them.

It's a real problem when backend geeks arrogate all app decisions unto themselves. Here's a real clue: If the app is hard for average users to use, it's a failure. Period. "Better" becomes irrelevant, because if you can still say it's "better" at that point, you're clearly using the wrong metrics.

Lesson For the Day: Make Sure They Want It Before You Try To Sell It To Them

When you highlight a community website, it's a good idea to check and make sure that it does actually have a community involved with it.

Case in point: Dan Gillmour heaped praise upon GoSkokie.com [alternate link] as a great example of "hyperlocal online journalism". As The Register UK points out, as of Gillmour's blog entry there hadn't been a posting in three weeks.

He'd have been better served to note a site I mentioned in a while back in a comment on "Open Source Journalism", iBrattleboro. They're active, and they use the site for real community news. Of course, we have no idea how much of iBrattleboro's news might be the product of one feverishly detail-oriented brain, but the point remains that it could actually be useful to someone, where GoSkokie won't be. It clearly has no critical mass. (That Gillmour could cite this as a 'done-right' example without it having critical mass is pretty strange -- that should be the most obvious requirement for a successful community site.)

To me, the key and obvious difference between these two efforts is that the one that has traffic and posting activity was actually created by real, bona fide members of the community -- not by students at a journalism school working from a grand plan [1.5MB pdf]. At risk of seeming anti-intellectual: If you're not from there, it's incumbent upon you to explain why the locals should give a damn what you think.

Addendum: Dan Gillmour pointed out that he's featured iBrattleboro before; now that I think about it, he may have been where I heard of it...I'd say my memory isn't what it used to be, but I fear it never was.

Geeks

I was ruminating yesterday how uncool I am among those with more savvy in the computer technical scene. I am so not a geek. I enjoy my computer and the Internet because it helps me learn and meet others with like interests. But my lack of technical expertise sometimes gets in the way, like silly me using Word (instead of, say,... perhaps Notepad) in the process of posting on various forums that might go through updates, for instance, turning some quotation marks in all my previous posts into: a??

Then I thought, even though the term is thrown around a lot, do I really know what "geek" means?
Wikipedia offers several definitions. And, actually, I might fit that last definition:

"A person with a devotion to something in a way that places him or her outside the mainstream. This could be due to the intensity, depth, or subject of their interest."

I'm not at all mainstream in a spiritual sense and I maintain a sincere depth of interest in this area.

So, I suppose I should more appropriately restrict my usage here to "computer" geek. That said, I couldn't resist clicking on the link near the bottom of the Wikipedia page:

The Geek Test.

Confirmed: I am so not a geek:

10.84813% - Geekish Tendencies

But I like geeks.

Topics: 

"They've Got Cooler Gung Fu In That Bazaar"

Mozilla Firefox irritates me.

No, I haven't tried the latest build yet (0.6 was my last), and yes, I'm sure it's good. But I just don't get the point of writing two applications which don't share resources (Firefox and Thunderbird) to replace two apps (Mozilla and Mozilla Mail) which do share resources. Especially if you make damn sure they can't share extensions and themes. Maybe someone can explain that to me...

In the mean time, all the new extensions are being written only for Firefox. I suppose there's a Bazaar-model lesson to be learned from this -- maybe, that when all other factors are held equal, the perception of coolness trumps other considerations...

So in the mean time, new users will be initiated to Mozilla with a version that is essentially deficient in features. Perhaps this is the skeleton key:
By moving to the "Firefox bazaar", extension developers have avoided tainting themselves by association with the mainstream. Heaven forbid that Firefox should ever become a popular application -- where would they go, then?

Thought for the Moment

Nothing to do with â??freeâ??, but I was curious about this myself. Personally I find coding to be unhealthy for me because I canâ??t hike and code at the same time, and therefore gain weight because Iâ??m sitting on my butt and someday Iâ??m going to fall over dead because I provide helpful, and free, tips for all of you...and it will be all your fault. You free weblogging scum, you.

[Burningbird, "The Value Of Free"]

Hmmm... gotta fix that sarcasm tag glitch... right after I lose that 50 pounds...

The New Playground

Geeks think they live in a meritocracy. But more often than not, it's just another kind of playground where a different kind of bully hacks out a different pecking order.

Exceptions are rare, but they're getting less so, gradually. As people try to organize themselves to actually get things done in groups, they realize that the bullies don't inspire anything but conformity. And frightened conformity, at that, by turns bitter, tense, vengeful, and ready to pounce on the blood-spotted chicken at the first sign of weakness.

You'll only very rarely find original thought in the swamps of Slashdot, MetaFilter or Plastic. But you can find reports of original thought, and thus, inspiration. And occasionally, you will even find original thinkers (though they can be hard to see in their camoflage). Occasionally, they even escape.

More Tech Macho Bullshit

There's a thread of thought on the weblogs.com matter that's best expressed by MeFi's own Quonsar, albeit off the farm:

oh boo hoo. if you had taken blogging seriously enough to learn how to make a few lousy html tags and operate an ftp client and put your site on some paid hosting like any real site owner would do, you wouldn't now be screaming about 'murder'. TANSTAAFL. it means there aint no such thing as a free lunch. CentralizedShinyWidgets{tm} like weblogs.com and blogger.com pander to the willfully ignorant. murder? jesus, grow up. learn something. pay for hosting. buy a domain. get a real website.

Since he took the trouble to express that view several places, I'll assume he felt strongly about it. And I can't begin to communicate the contempt and scorn that a passage like that inspires in me. (Of course, that's what it's meant to do, so I suppose he achieved his end. Congrats.)

Of course, it's pretty much the equivalent of setting a technical bar for 'net participation. Let's break it down, kids: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, so you've got to earn and learn like we did. You've got to run the man pages, Google 'til your fingers bleed, and figure it out on your own. And leave the 'net to Quonsar, me, and such friends as we deign to train.

It is an ownership society, after all, and knolwedge is (or at least, can be) wealth -- especially in Raymond's bazaar. We all have to pay to play, if not with cash, then with sweat-equity.

Or maybe it's just a sandbox where only the strongest kids get the kewlest toys, or a dive-bar where only the in-crowd gets the best seats at the bar. Either way, it's a place I choose not to play. I prefer a net where I can find some adult conversation instead of having to listen to the puerile maunderings of yet another technofetishist.

Of course not every credentialed geek is a puerile jerk. Some are quite literate; some (like me) got into these ridiculous devices in the first place with the mistaken idea that they would somehow help us be creative. (Damn, Drupal is stripping my sarcasm tags again...) And there are more and more of us all the time, at varying levels of technical sophistication. If we want our friends to play with us on the net, it behooves us to protect them from neanderthalish attitudes about technical gung-fu.

Cult of Personality Flaws

Over the weekend, something up to 3000 blogs disappeared from the net. They were disappeared by Dave Winer. He didn't bother to announce or explain for a few days; then when he did, it was as a large MP3 audio-blog entry (a move that seemed calculated to limit the audience). (Jeneane Sessums has helpfully posted a more dialup and syndicator-friendly transcript.)

He's getting royally roasted over this, which is appropriate (when you know something is going to harm people, you have the option not to do it, and you do it anyway, you ought to expect some flames).

I feel curiously detached over this. Winer's reasons aren't sufficient, in my opinion, and it looks to me as though he's actively dodging responsibility for his actions. But I think I understand the place he was at when he made the ill-considered decision to dump the free weblogs. It's a place I've referred to as the "f*ck it moment": That place in an implementation-gone-bad where you just want to toss it all up and let the chips fall where they may. He got into a migration without having properly scoped it, and without a rollback plan. Thinking on his feet, and maybe late at night, he just said it: "F*ck it." And it was writ.

The worst blowback on this is on Dave Winer. People who've read his blog or dealt with him long-distance for years weren't surprised; some said things like "Anyone relying on Dave Winer deserves what they get." But now many thousands more people think he's a jerk; many potential employers or investors in his next venture will think he's unreliable, or won't have the people skills to pull it off. This is particularly important, because he no longer works for Userland, and his fellowship at Harvard is over. I also think he's a jerk (based on the "rude to the waiter" metric); but he's a jerk who's going to need to find another job, and he's not doing himself any favors here.

The people whose sites have been zapped can be accommodated, if Winer or Userland choose to accommodate them. But Winer's reputation didn't need any more tarnishing.

"I Fight For The Users"

Sometimes, it pays to know who your "users" actually are.

I'm going to work with users, they seem to appreciate what I do. The techies and developers, until further notice, are bums. I almost want to say I hate what the technology industry has become, but when has it been anything but back-stabbing, low-road bullshit. We could be so damned powerful if we just worked together, but that clearly isn't what's going on.
["Competitors", Dave Winer, Scripting News]

OK: They're not working together, because they're not working with him. That's clear enough.

After all, he's the CEO of Userland. He must fight for the users.

It would do Winer good to read what he writes: "I assume our readers are smart, and that they'll make the right decision given all the facts. And by assuming readers are smart, we attract smart readers."
["Competition can be good"]

If the readers are that smart, they'll figure it out for themselves. Isn't that what the Cluetrain was all about? And isn't Dave Winer all about the Cluetrain?

Here's a user speaking: If Atom turns out to be a superior form factor -- as determined by the marketplace of users -- I have no problem with that.

And here's a "techie user" speaking: If blog software can't abstract to/from either Atom or RSS without all the hassles that Dave focuses on, then there's a problem with the basic architecture of the application. Better architecture (and especially better abstraction layers) make for better user experience.

[Imperial] Clothing and the Digerati

Gerrit at SmartMobs agrees with Blue Arnaud: Privacy is a lost cause.

We should forget about trying to keep "our data" private; we should make it public, and take care that it is under our control. "This profile can be the basis for the social networking services," Gerritt summarizes.

But he doesn't do it justice. In truth, for Blue Arnaud, it seems to be as much about commerce as about the humans we're profiling:

This user profile has value for companies. Companies can access this profile under a Personal Commons license in a standardised and legal way. Then they can adapt their interaction with a user accordingly. They might even give discount if an user profile is available, as it makes their live cheaper (less marketing cost). This profile can also be the basis of the various Social Networking Services, which can then focus on their business: networking. A userâ??s wishlist and transaction trail is no longer available to just Amazon, but all book shops.

"So be in control again," Blue Arnaud admonishes, like a good libertarian-tinged digeratum:

A user should make this profile explicit, as some users are already doing in their weblog. Make sure that this profile represents yourself (or one of your personae) or otherwise the world might invent your profile and they might guess wrong. And publish this profile on your own website, weblog, whatever. The user becomes a writer and a publisher. This profile information could be published under some Personal Commons arrangement, i.e. personal information that is available to the world.

Beyond the detail, this is no new idea among the digerati; it's really just another variation on that ripe old technophilic anthropomorphism, "information wants to be free", which seems to get tossed around so glibly by people who utterly fail to understand its consequences. The barriers of the personal are eroding every day; that's a good thing, these folks seem to be saying.

They haven't thought it through.

They seem to believe that there will be some kind of real and fundamental trasnformation in the nature of the human animal -- forgetting, as always, that the human is animal, and thus evolved in the real and not metaphorical sense of the term. And that barring truly godlike capacity to restructure our very genome, biology, ultimately, will win out.

We forget the timescales of evolution at greater peril than threatens us for forgetting the lessons of history. Since, after all, Evolution is the most fundamental history lesson of all.

They haven't really used their imaginations. It's a pity; their far flung imaginings prove it's possible. Much like simplistic advocates of total sexual freedom, they have failed to really look inside themselves to ascertain what it would feel like for this world to be true.

Or perhaps they're just technofetishists.

The Fulci Affair

It was the lead item on the government's daily threat matrix one day last April. Don Emilio Fulci described by an FBI tipster as a reclusive but evil millionaire, had formed a terrorist group that was planning chemical attacks against London and Washington, D.C. That day even FBI director Robert Mueller was briefed on the Fulci matter. But as the day went on without incident, a White House staffer had a brainstorm: He Googled Fulci. His findings: Fulci is the crime boss in the popular video game Headhunter. "Stand down," came the order from embarrassed national security types. [Washington Whispers @ US News & World Report, 5/17/2004]

And meanwhile, the Terror Alert Banana is still showing ELEVATED (yellow)....

How About An "Observer Effect" Meme?

"They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically - how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap - well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can't know the reality of what happened, or what would've happened if you hadn't-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no 'what happened'? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds... our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the 'Uncertainty Principle'. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's on to something." ['Freddy Riedenscheider', The Man Who Wasn't There]

Sam Arbesman's MemeSpread project aimed to chart the progress of a particular (albeit problematic) meme thoughout the "blogosphere", given known sources. Initially seeded on kottke.org, BoingBoing and Slashdot, Only Kottke picked it up; it apparently fared poorly until it hit MeFi, from whence it boomed across the web like one of those evanescant thunderclaps that wash across the blogosphere like a summer rain in the desert.

A Wired News article summarizes the story (though it fails to link to Arbesman's own writeup [pdf]). Aside from a passing reference to the "Hawthorne Effect", though, it doesn't really deal with the difficulty of studying phenomena such as this. It reminds me of a similar project I pitched to my undergrad advisor in 1992, with the idea of pushing out memes via Usenet. (He was uncomfortable with the human subjects concerns -- my experimental design was constructed to avoid observer effects.)

First they're out, now they're in...

Fedora is the darling of the Linux world. Linux OSS pundits expect it to produce great advancements; they see it as a chance to prove "pure" OSS methodologies with a large, complex product. (Mozilla and OpenOffice notwithstanding...)

Fedora will probably drive, or at least appear to drive, a number of flashy and highly visible advances. But it will never produce a distro that's corporate-friendly the way it needs to be to get onto corporate desktops. The advances that are really critical for the success of desktop Linux wont' come from Fedora -- they'll come out of the Red Hat Desktop project.

On the net, the contrarian position is that there's any kind of a problem with OSS. Contrarian positions, though, are often merely common sense in action -- but then, the parade-goer who points out the Emperor's nakedness is usually accused of lacking vision.

So why did Red Hat exit the desktop market by "opening" the Fedora distro -- and why are they now back in the desktop Linux game?

Corporate strategy decisions with actual marketing and product development plans behind them don't happen overnight. Or even in a month, or two months, for that matter. So it's a safe bet that the Hat has been working on Red Hat Desktop for a while, certainly since before the Fedora release.

So why cut loose Fedora, if they were planning on a continued desktop presence?

The short and obvious answer is that Red Hat Desktop isn't Fedora; it's much smaller, and it's focused on corporate users in a managed services environment. Fedora -- which is to say, the distro formerly known as Red Hat Linux -- is featured-up to compete with SuSE and Mandrake. It's large and (geek-)consumer focused, and requires a lot of maintenance overhead.

There's a more nuanced answer, though, that can be summarized simply, thus: Red Hat Linux (now Fedora) was dead weight.

Fedora represented a large body of effort that was never likely to return investment to Red Hat. Not ever -- not really. What they needed for corporate customers was good, streamlined central management and rock-solid package management. Those are very non-sexy things that individual OSS developers aren't likely to work on.

They also needed corporate-critical features to be delivered in the form determined to be relevant by the customer, not by the developers. And continuting to devote adminstrative resources to maintaining, project managing, and supporting a consumer desktop distro was getting in their way of accomplishing those things.

Now the question that the Linux zealots ought to be asking is this: Will Red Hat release their package and configuration management tools to OSS?

To which a perfectly appropriate answer would be: Why should they?

Aye, Cringely

Microsoft is about money, not innovation. They aren't opposed to innovation and like to be seen as innovators, but what really matters to them as a company is the money. Think of it that way and a lot of what they do starts to make sense. When I give speeches (and why haven't I been asked to speak lately in Oz?) I like to pull out a $US20 note and point out that there is something about that note that bothers Bill Gates - that it is in my pocket. Microsoft really does want all the money and I'm not sure they won't get it.
['Robert X. Cringely', interviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald]

Risk and Restraint

Why are we in such a bad spot with network security?

The ugly truth of system security is that it will never be possible to be fully secure. Never. That's just a truth we've got to face. It's always going to be possible to hack a system that's online. The best we'll ever be able to do is make it hard, and prevent excessive damage.

It's not a function of your operating system, your applications, or your purity of essence. It's just a fact of life.

In fact, though, we're arguably a lot safer online than we are in real-life:

Online: Real World:
We can easily install firewalls that can only be defeated by fairly clever people. We have doors that can be beaten in by anyone with a sledgehammer.
We can back up our critical files and restore them from CD, DVD, external HD or tape. We permanently lose the memories that we lose when someone takes that sledgehammer and taps us on the skull with it.
If someone compromises our PC, it's not likely to cause bodily harm or loss of life. It's really really easy for a person of less than average intelligence to cause bodily harm or loss of life with any number of real-world implements. Or bare hands, for that matter.

In the real world, though, most of us go around with some reasonable sense of assurance that we'll be safe.

It's not because we've got police; it's because the vast majority of people don't do those harmful things. Maybe they think about it, but they don't act on it.

The difference, in other words, is because online is different from real life. Online, we "kill" with impunity, every day, in flame wars or RPGs or verbal metaphors. In the real world, we think twice.

For now.

Esse Quam Videre

Fast Company: "The cardinal rule at Google is, If you can do something that will improve the user's experience, do it." [Google IPO News Feed - RSS]

That all depends on who the user is, and what they perceive to be an improvement.

If the user is someone who's just bought a buttload of adwords from Google, then, hey, damn straight...

To paraphrase Fernando: To look not-Evil is much more important than to be not-Evil....

What's Virtual, Next?

It's not all good, at least not for everybody. The virtualization abstraction breaks the link between "a server"--in fact, the operating system--and the hardware on which it runs. This is counter to the way that some companies, notably Microsoft, see computers. Load a new Microsoft operating system on a machine and the first thing it does is lock itself down harder than a limpet on a rock. It scans the computer and uses all the details of the hardware it finds to generate a security code to make darn sure it can't be moved onto another machine. But when the hardware it scans is virtual, what good is that? If your license states that you can only ever run your OS on the computer on which it was first installed, do you give up on virtualization or do you find an OS with less draconian conditions? [Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet, "Virtual computing: real benefits, real changes"]

The F/OSS answer is "obviously, the latter." But as Rupert points out: "[Y]ou never get something for nothing, especially not from a company whose sole purpose is to sell you stuff." [Corrollary: A company whose sole purpose is to sell you stuff will expect to get a return on it's OSS investments.]

So the next great battle starts. IBM will play on the side of commodification (because they know that's what they do well), and Microsoft will play on the side of lock-in (because they think that's what they do well).

What we will fail to understand until too late -- if we ever do understand it -- is that "total freedom" (i.e., IBM's commoditized-service world) may well end up being "less free" (as in freedom or free beer) than a highly (but not totally) proprietized world, a la Microsoft.

Google is the New Apple

It's often said that Google 'took the time to do it right' or that they 'don't abuse the customer'.

The important part is not that Google actually does these things, but rather that Google appears to do them -- that Google appear to not abuse the customer, much as the important part is that they appear to "get it right".

The likelihood that they'd get called to account on either is more or less inversely proportional to the degree to which "Larry and Sergey" are idolized or mythologized.

So, right now, it's looking like they never would....

Closed Openness

As "social networking" merely now approaches over-hyped status, already we're warned of spam -- or rather, SNAM ("Social Network Spam"): Members of your networks, once, twice, or more removed, use the connection to market to you.

It's like CutCo or Tupperware, but somehow worse in the way that spam is somehow worse than unwanted phone calls. You can screen the phone, and you just don't get as many of them -- it costs too much.

But worse yet, it subverts something that could be of terrific value -- that, indeed, we're going to desperately need in a virtual future. Which doesn't mean we're going to slow our progress toward that future, of course: It will merely look quite different from the way it could.

A reaction is coming. As the barriers between people come down, and in absence of social controls on action, we are bound to become more closed than before.

I don't know exactly what form this reaction will take, but I have a dark and abiding fear that religion will be involved.

Is It Time For Post-Neo-Marxism?

Over the last two years, I've given a fair piece of my idle-cycle time to thinking about how we go about making people aware of what's in their true economic and personal interest -- and how to organize people to further those interests.

I've been thinking, in other words, about class consciousness.

I toyed with the idea of trying to start a "professionals guild", that people could join to support one another, bargain for health care, provide reference or job-skills services, etc. Each downturn the economy takes brings us closer to the (to me, nightmare) vision of 'jobs and email without borders'; if we were going to end up there, I reasoned, we'd better have a posse behind us when we did.

I thought the August Group might be a start down that path. But what I learned from that was that to get something going, you've got to fight to make it work every day, and what's more, you've got to have an idea of what you want to accomplish. If both of those things aren't true, you've got nothing.

The key for all of this is trust: Do you trust the people you are committed to helping? Do you trust them to be professional (whatever that means)? Do you trust them to validate your endorsement?

Certification doesn't solve that problem. Professionalism is something that's known by reputation, not certified by test or process.

Technology goes stale, and that's especially true for Microsoft technology. (Not a slam, just a fact -- it's designed that way.) Today's MCSE is tomorrow's trivial wall-decoration. Much more of value are the projects you've worked on, and the opinions of their stakeholders.

But of course, getting that information would take time, and can't be automated.

And what's more, when you get it, the impressions are colored by the fact that almost no project is properly defined to begin with, so no one can honestly tell why it succeeded or failed, or who was responsible.

And while that's a truism across modern industry, no groups of professionals in business know more about that than IT and Development.

The Tao of Steve

Apple has really "invented" very little. The original insight of locking the menu bar to the top of the screen was pretty clever (for a 9-inch screen, that is). Beyond that, their insights are mostly matters of culture and marketing. The concept of a toolbox wasn't new, nor were most aspects of their GUI. The user-interaction models they deployed (badly, some have argued) were based on years of academic research.

Often, they simply borrowed, though it's hard to know where ideas came from in a millieu where memes were traded freely across the Mac-Unix barrier. But their best, most successful ideas were successful because they were deployed in just the right way and in just the right place.

Steve Jobs is not an innovator. Much like Bill Gates, he is a close follower. He is better than Gates at looking cool, and better at moving quickly (probably a result of actually having worked for more than one company in his life). And through Pixar and his "rescue" of Apple from the demon Scully, he has gained financial credibility. Now his ideas are taken seriously; had Rob Glaser tried to launch the iPod, with exactly the same price points and functionality, it would have failed.

Apple is driven by the cult of personality. It exists, at a certain level, to make Steve Jobs feel good about himself. That's why he resisted releasing a Windows version of iTunes. That's why he's resisted moves that could take Apple "mainstream", such as releasing an Intel version of OS X. As long as the pond stays small, he can look bigger in it.

For whatever reason, The Jobs-cult never intoxicated the herd of cats at Pixar; but the minions of Apple, already indoctrinated to the twin virtues of denial, were open to the effects of his reality distortion field. I think this is illustrative: Pixar is driven by creative vision, and like most true creatives, its own visionaries have a healthy distrust for "suits".

And ultimately, Jobs is a suit. A well-dressed suit with cool toys, yes; but a suit nonetheless.

Look for him to sabotage Apple's new-found dominance. Look especially for him to sabotage his latest foster-child, the iPod. (Sure, the world doesn't know he didn't invent it. But he does.) My quess is that it will be sacrified to smaller, cooler devices whose capabilities are expanded only with great reluctance, and behind the curve of other devices. Let someone else break the ground.

Sometimes "Creativity" is Knowing What to Steal

Forrest Gump's fruit company has gained a soaring reputation for creativity and innovation in design -- despite gripes over the years from usability experts and a series of industrial-design failures. Their reputation has always seemed to me to be driven by two maxims:

  1. Never admit you didn't invent something. (Unless it fails.)
  2. Never admit you made a mistake.

As examples of the latter, Apple clings stubbornly to the "top-menu" UI design that they originally deployed to accommodate the 9-inch screen on the original Lisa, despite the fact that it's demonstrably awful for large screens and rich multi-tasking environments. Similarly, they insist on the elegance and simplicity of the single-button mouse, ignoring the clumsy workarounds (delayed-reaction onClick, keyboard combinations to emulate scroll-wheels) required for a Mac user to accomplish what two-button and scroll-wheel mouse users on Windows/*nix have been able to accomplish for years.

But it's the former that really interests me today, as I run across a Wired "Cult of Mac blog" article unmasking the long lost father of the iPod. Fadell is said to have come to Apple with the core idea -- a ground-up, risk-managed, high-design hard-drive based MP3 player that could integrate with an online music service. But then, maybe not: "One source who talked but asked not to be named, cautioned that Fadell's story should be treated with skepticism. The source noted that the hard part of the iPod -- the device's interface and integration with iTunes -- was done by Apple's engineers."

But then, the slap-down could be an Apple source, sticking steadfastly to the vision of the Dark Steve: "Since Mr. Jobs returned to Apple, he has increasingly insisted that the company speak with just the voices of top executives, so Mr. Fadell was not permitted to comment for this article." Of course, that's another story...

Or it could be that old developers inferiority complex rearing its ugly head. Saturated as most skilled developers are in the mistique of the "hacker ethos", they respond to the fact that they depend on the grace of inferiors for their paychecks with subversive ideations: They do all the really hard work; marketing and business wonks are leeches, sucking their life essence in pursuit of outrageous personal profit and corporate mediocrity; if the developers had their way, the products would all make sense and work better. (Which is just about never true, despite superficially contradictory examples.)

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