Back around Christmas, I saw an old video of Steve Jobs at the ’97 Apple World-Wide Developer Conference. This was just as he was coming back to Apple, so he’s talking a lot about their new direction. Part of that came out of his experience at Next. Next was all unix under the hood (or unix-y), so their systems were networked in a way that Macs and PCs just weren’t at that point. Jobs is talking about how all of his stuff just lives on the network: His machine at work, his machine at home, and any corporate machine he logs into all have equally easy access to the same files. He doesn’t have to worry about backup and recovery; that’s all taken care of by sysadmins. This is back when you’d usually just copy a few critical files onto a floppy disk and hope your hard drive didn’t crash. He was living in the future, and his vision was to simply make that available to everyone. As Willam Gibson pointed out, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”
It struck me while I was watching this that back then, I was also living in the future. I was working at an ISP, so I had network access that was years ahead of its time. Back when 28.8K dialup was the norm, my work computer had a 10MB connection straight into the Internet backbone. Even more importantly, it was always on; it was just there. Individual machines were expendable; it was the network and the data that mattered. That changed the whole way I worked with computers.
It also changed the way we played and socialized. We played net-Quake with imperceptible lag. We had a private mp3 server with thousands of tracks before most people knew what mp3s were. We chatted on IRC all day with our co-workers and similarly wired sysadmin buddies around the country (or world in a few cases). We could drag in a scratch-build Linux box and set it up as a public server: Give our friends email accounts and web sites and bring the future a little closer for them.
To be honest, I was never one of the ringleaders, the early adopters. I didn’t rush out to buy the latest gadget. I spent a fair amount of time tinkering with my home Linux machine, but I wasn’t really pushing the envelope. But I spent all my time around folks who were, and I was conscious that I was getting a sneak preview of the future. They were living and working the way that everyone would once all this tech got cheaper and easier to use.
In the years since, I haven’t really been in that sort of environment, and without it for balance, my skeptical tendencies took over. Or maybe I just got tired of having to rebuild my kernel to get sound working. In any case, I pretty much stopped tinkering and focused on The Simplest Thing that Works. I started buying Macs and their attendant accessories: The iPod that auto-synched my music, and the Time Capsule that did automated backups.
I didn’t get an iPhone, though. I had a pre-paid cell phone that you could buy at 7-11 for $20, and cost me $80 a year. The iPhone was nearly that much a month. It had a lot of nice-to-haves, but nothing that justified the cost. It’s actually exciting to me that perfectly serviceable technology is that cheap. Ditto for computers: As long as you’re not gaming, a $500 machine is plenty. (I’m writing this on a sub-$300 netbook. It’s text. How hard is that?)
Listening to Steve Jobs reminded me of that feeling of living in the future. It also struck me that that’s supposed to be part of my job – maybe not my day job, but some bigger social role as someone who understands machines and isn’t afraid to tinker with them. I shouldn’t be just a technology consumer. I should be bushwhacking my way into the future, cobbling together half-working prototypes to see what it’s like to live with them; figuring out how the tech works and how to polish it up and make it usable for everyone else. I’m no visionary, but there’s a lot of work to be done out on the frontier, just making things a little more civilized.
The catch is that that’s not what Apple is about. They build sleek, elegant, easy to use gifts from the Future. It all Just Works. That’s great, and I seriously applaud them, but you don’t learn much from a working machine. If you want to do some exploring on your own, and maybe figure out something useful that hasn’t already been productized – or to just pop the hood and get a better understanding of what makes this thing tick – you need something a little more open. You even kinda want something that doesn’t work quite right, something that’ll bug you to go in and fix it yourself. That’s just not how Apple wants you to relate to their technology.
So in the end, I got an Android phone. I can’t justify it as a phone, but I was able to rationalize it as a development machine. It’s got its own restrictions, and I’ve been too anxious to root it, but I’m still more comfortable with it than I would be with an iPhone. It plays well with Linux. I can develop in Eclipse on any platform; I’m not locked into the Mac/Xcode tools. Maybe what it comes down to is that I trust developer communities more than any single corporation.
I went through the standard Android programming tutorial, where you build a little notepad app. Then I hacked around on it a bit: added tagging, tweaked the page flow. It’s still rough around the edges, but it works. There are a few features I’d like to add, but I can do that. That’s the important thing. It’s not awesome, but it’s mine. I can keep sanding away at the things that bug me, and it may eventually become pretty awesome. It’ll be tailored to the way I use it. It’ll do the things I need it to, and it won’t be cluttered with features I don’t want. Nobody will be trying to get me to upgrade to the pay version.
In a very real way, I also need to do this to survive as a programmer. I need to keep that love of tinkering alive. If it’s just a day job, I don’t see how I can keep doing it for another twenty or thirty years. It needs to be more than that. I have to find that passion and the sense of something bigger. I need to care about it.