words among

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I do love saving some surprises when I can. I avert my eyes from movie commercials and have stopped watching trailers online. I am careful about when to say what, in order to set up some savory moments for my friends, in a way that people don't seem to do much anymore. And when dealing with things that have secrecy is an integral part of their identity, like crushes or Yale's societies, I'm barely even tempted to talk. For some reason that I don't fully understand, I don't yet feel any such obligation of secrecy to Apple. Perhaps it's because I'm not fully on board with their marketing (which arguably portrays the mac as some sort of black box (or should I say white box, or blacboox) that the user doesn't need to know anything about. I feel that everyone would benefit from a campaign that showed us more of how to use it, or that alluded more to the ease and power of the mac flavor of the nerdier stuff). I have to admit that Apple is doing a sick job with their software - after a bit of a lull save Garageband, they have thrown off Pages, Keynote, Aperture, and iWeb, which are four amazing tools that are barely at the beginning of their lives, but will undoubtedly become some of the most important software platforms of the next decade as they gain users and the code evolves.

So it is with only a couple grains of salt that I pass on this speculative account of one project Apple probably has in the works and may release later this year. The report was in the form of a super-long comment on thinksecret by a user identified as George Homier. We know that a new phone-mac interface will debut this summer; George suggests that it will have more features that most of us expected. In particular, he mentions

  • make calls straight from your mac or pc

  • send fax or data during an ongoing phone call (using a new IP standard that allows color fax and much more)

  • high quality audio recordings and transcriptions of all your conversations (as well as text-to-speech conversion for handicapped users or people sitting in libraries or uncontrollably noisy spots)

  • customized voice mail messages for different callers, auto-blocking for annoyances like telemarketers and collection agencies

  • any number of phone numbers, any area code, total portability

  • wireless transmission of data from cameras and such; access and control everything through the tv

  • easy setup of automated menus and custom hold music like customer service numbers use

  • a journal to help manage what you have talked about and need to say in future conversations

  • a clever interface to your voicemail from any computer

  • an auto-dialer that helps make bulk calls and can use recorded messages (and record responses)

  • obviously, total integration with iChat and Apple's other apps, and full provision of all the phone features we already have elsewhere

There are a few reasons I believe this, even though I have not heard anything like it before. First, it's easy enough to program. Not easy, but easy enough. Once the main pieces are in place, the hundreds of features can fall into place without too much back-breaking work. This is the payoff of the stupendous platform Apple has evolved for putting software together without a hassle - the rock-solid bottom parts that make absolutely everything work better and faster, the things I think should factor just a little bit into their marketing. Second, Steve Jobs said in January that this is the year of the mac - and while I couldn't be much more impressed with the previews of Leopard and the iPhone, I'm sure AppleTV will be cool after they add features like recording and blu-ray, and very confident that there will be a new laptop before the wintertime, this stuff is perhaps not quite enough on its own to make a claim on the entire year. This phone platform would make it enough. To top it off, Apple should also release a huge flat tv with a full-out computer inside. (The recent step away from DRM could also go down in the history books).

Third, the iPhone announcement puts a few assumptions on the table for us. We know the reason they waited so long for a product so many were dying to see is because Steve likes his products to have a polish and simplicity and reliability that evokes the word 'perfect' far too often. In that context, this telephony software is almost implied: it hasn't been released or previewed because it isn't polished enough yet, but without it the iPhone would fail to wow its owners enough - and they'd still be tied up by twentieth-century phone issues on a regular basis when they used landlines. Also, Steve pointed out that one of the main reasons for the somewhat-unpopular exclusive deal with Cingular was that serious innovation is going to take place at the level of the standardized protocols that the iPhone will use to communicate with cell towers, to enable all sorts of things that other cell phones simple cannot achieve, in addition to the many conveniences that wireless companies simply will not let us have so they can try to squeeze more dollars out of us.

Some details I didn't mention above: the phone software may require a $50 peripheral (although I expect the phone bits to be built into the laptops before long). Also, the code name for the software might be CallCenter, a name which reminds me of the style Apple went for with BootCamp. Although code names are fleeting, I find myself hoping this one sticks, as I find it very classy despite the negative connotations of what real call centers typically do today, and very easy to fit comfortably into sentences about normal day-to-day stuff that's not computer-related. Hopefully we'll get to see it in June or thereabouts, although I could be accused of being very wishful there, perhaps to the tune of a full year. No one's going to buy vista, and by this time next year macs will seem about four times as common as they are now. So enjoy the year of the mac - it's only just started.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

I only recently began labeling and filtering my gmail, and it gives me a familiar feeling. Once I add a label to an email, I have the wonderful feeling that I can always be sure I have it, even if I don't put the slightest bit of effort into it at any point in the future. Gmail of course doesn't delete any of your mail, and labels based on search terms aren't a great deal different from simply searching my mail. But the feeling is motivating, and it doesn't hurt to have reminders of what to search for.
It also helps keep me from getting distracted to keep certain mail from entering my main inbox. I'll go to it when I need it, which so far has been not much.

This is the same feeling I have when using several other sites. Basecamp, Flickr, and others seem to me like they'll last a long time. When I save things in their databases, I don't worry about keeping any other copies. I know that their server will serve up as many copies as I can ever need, to wherever I ever go. Things we write on our blogs, same deal, we know those phrases can always be looked up if we don't remember exactly. The computer will repeat itself, so we don't have to.

Writing and using open source software gives you a very closely related feeling - that a problem has been solved and will never again need to be revisited. You may revisit the software to solve other problems that come up, but each advance is in some sense irreversible. Not strictly of course, but I'll speculate that once some working code is published, if a later version loses capabilities, the useful old versions will usually stay available in some way or another. Certain open source programs have been used billions of times and have solved a lot of the problems that billions of different users have had - and each one only had to be written once by one person. That gives him a feeling of accomplishment, as well as relief and freedom - those efforts and insights will never again be needed to solve those particular problems.

What I want to do is bring the two even closer together. I want my code creation to be, like my content creation, primarily done through a web browser. And I think my dream is going to come true in the next couple months. Lighthouse, a new site for code management, was designed to be interoperable with whatever add-ons users could write up, so a web interface that lets me make edits and commit them to the repository is probably possible. The only issue is whether ActiveReload will let us users keep a working copy of our code on their disc space so that the idea would play out the way it's supposed to. Actually, I believe they're comfortable storing whatever files we like, perhaps the real question is whether we can run a subversion commit command from their server (so people downloading the code would get all the updates made via the web site).

Already many open source libraries can be read through browsers, but I don't know of any that can be edited there. Similarly, most cannot be executed there. Every web site is an exception to this, but many programs require users to download the code themselves if they want to run it and get output from it. In some cases sending the code uses more processing power and bandwidth than just running the program and giving the user their answer would. And I think that we'll see more and more of the latter, which has the benefit of only needing one copy of the code. As Ruby takes over the programming world, most projects will find their way onto Lighthouse, more of them will find expression in a web page or server of some kind, and we'll be down to one step. Just type the code into the browser and it can be used right away, the world over and as many times as necessary. I have edited a live ruby web site in a terminal, so yeah, it's already possible to get zero-turnaround gratification. But I'm looking forward to the impending moment where open source is not just a library but a running resource that I can utilize fully without administering, and can be browsed and edited like a wiki.