What Have we Learnt from Ten Years of the iPhone?

Ten years ago this week (on 9th January 2007) the late Steve Jobs, then at the hight of his powers at Apple, introduced the iPhone to an unsuspecting world. The history of that little device (which has got both smaller and bigger in the interceding ten years) is writ large over the entire Internet so I’m not going to repeat it here. However it’s worth looking at the above video on YouTube not just to remind yourself what a monumental and historical moment in tech history this was, even though few of us realised it at the time, but also to see a masterpiece in how to launch a new product.

Within two minutes of Jobs walking on stage he has the audience shouting and cheering as if he’s a rock star rather than a CEO. At around 16:25 when he’s unveiled his new baby and shows for the first time how to scroll through a list in a screen (hard to believe that ten years ago know one knew this was possible) they are practically eating out of his hand and he still has over an hour to go!

This iPhone keynote, probably one of the most important in the whole of tech history, is a case study on how to deliver a great presentation. Indeed, Nancy Duart in her book Resonate, has this as one of her case studies for how to “present visual stories that transform audiences”. In the book she analyses the whole event to show how Jobs’ uses all of the classic techniques of storytelling, establish what is and what could be, build suspense, keep your audience engaged, make them marvel and finally  show them a new bliss.

The iPhone product launch, though hugely important, is not what this post is about though. Rather, it’s about how ten years later the iPhone has kept pace with innovations in technology to not only remain relevant (and much copied) but also to continue to influence (for better and worse) the way people interact, communicate and indeed live. There are a number of enabling ideas and technologies, both introduced at launch as well as since, that have enabled this to happen. What are they and how can we learn from the example set by Apple and how can we improve on them?

Open systems generally beat closed systems

At its launch Apple had created a small set of native apps the making of which was not available to third-party developers. According to Jobs, it was an issue of security. “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” he said. “You don’t want it to not work because one of the apps you loaded that morning screwed it up. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because of some app. This thing is more like an iPod than it is a computer in that sense.”

Jobs soon went back on that decision which is one of the factors that has led to the overwhelming success of the device. There are now 2.2 million apps available for download in the App Store with over 140 billion downloads made since 2007.

As has been shown time and time again, opening systems up and allowing access to third party developers nearly always beat keeping systems closed and locked down.

Open systems need easy to use ecosystems

Claiming your system is open does not mean developers will flock to it to extend your system unless it is both easy and potentially profitable to do so. Further, the second of these is unlikely to happen unless the first enabler is put in place.

Today with new systems being built around Cognitive computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain companies both large and small are vying with each other to provide easy to use but secure ecosystems that allow these new technologies to flourish and grow, hopefully to the benefits to business and society as a whole. There will be casualties on the way but this competition, and the recognition that systems need to be built right rather than us just building the right system at the time is what matters.

Open systems must not mean insecure systems

One of the reasons Jobs gave for not initially making the iPhone an open platform was his concerns over security and for hackers to break into those systems wreaking havoc. These concerns have not gone away but have become even more prominent. IoT and artificial intelligence, when embedded in everyday objects like cars and  kitchen appliances as well as our logistics and defence systems have the potential to cause there own unique and potentially disastrous type of destruction.

The cost of data breaches alone is estimated at $3.8 to $4 million and that’s without even considering the wider reputational loss companies face. Organisations need to monitor how security threats are evolving year to year and get well-informed insights about the impact they can have on their business and reputation.

Ethics matter too

With all the recent press coverage of how fake news may have affected the US election and may impact the upcoming German and French elections as well as the implications of driverless cars making life and death decisions for us, the ethics of cognitive computing is becoming a more and more serious topic for public discussion as well as potential government intervention.

In October last year the Whitehouse released a report called Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence. The report looked at the current state of AI, its existing and potential applications, and the questions that progress in AI raise for society and public policy and made a number of recommendations on further actions. These included:

  • Prioritising open training data and open data standards in AI.
  • Industry should work with government to keep government updated on the general progress of AI in industry, including the likelihood of milestones being reached
  • The Federal government should prioritize basic and long-term AI research

As part of the answer to addressing the Whitehouse report this week a group of private investors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, launched a $27 million research fund, called the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund. The group’s purpose is to foster the development of artificial intelligence for social good by approaching technological developments with input from a diverse set of viewpoints, such as policymakers, faith leaders, and economists.

I have discussed before about transformative technologies like the world wide web have impacted all of our lives, and not always for the good. I hope that initiatives like that of the US government (which will hopefully continue under the new leadership) will enable a good and rationale public discourse on how  we allow these new systems to shape our lives for the next ten years and beyond.

Happy 2013 and Welcome to the Fifth Age!

I would assert that the modern age of commercial computing began roughly 50 years ago with the introduction of the IBM 1401 which was the world’s first fully transistorized computer when it was announced in October of 1959.  By the mid-1960’s almost half of all computer systems in the world were 1401 type machines. During the subsequent 50 years we have gone through a number of different ages of computing; each corresponding to the major, underlying architecture which was dominant during each age or period. The ages with their (very) approximate time spans are:

  • Age 1: The Mainframe Age (1960 – 1975)
  • Age 2: The Mini Computer Age (1975 – 1990)
  • Age 3: The Client-Server Age (1990 – 2000)
  • Age 4: The Internet Age (2000 – 2010)
  • Age 5: The Mobile Age (2010 – 20??)

Of course, the technologies from each age have never completely gone away, they are just not the predominant driving IT force any more (there are still estimated to be some 15,000 mainframe installations world-wide so mainframe programmers are not about to see the end of their careers any time soon). Equally, there other technologies bubbling under the surface running alongside and actually overlapping these major waves. For example networking has evolved from providing the ability to connect a “green screen” to a centralised mainframe, and then mini, to the ability to connect thousands, then millions and now billions of devices. The client-server age and internet age were dependent on cheap and ubiquitous desktop personal computers whilst the current mobile age is driven by offspring’s of the PC, now unshackled from the desktop, which run the same applications (and much, much more) on smaller and smaller devices.

These ages are also characterized by what we might term a decoupling and democratization of the technology. The mainframe age saw the huge and expensive beasts locked away in corporate headquarters and only accessible by qualified members of staff of those companies. Contrast this to the current mobile age where billions of people have devices in their pockets that are many times more powerful than the mainframe computers of the first age of computing and which allow orders of magnitude increases in connectivity and access to information.

Another defining characteristic of each of these ages is the major business uses that the technology was put to. The mainframe age was predominantly centralised systems running companies core business functions that were financially worthwhile to automate or manually complex to administer (payroll, core accounting functions etc). The mobile age is characterised by mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAPs) and apps which are cheap enough to just be used just once and sometimes perform a single or relatively few number of functions.

Given that each of the ages of computing to date has run for 10 – 15 years and the current mobile age is only two years old what predictions are there for how this age might pan out and what should we, as architects, be focusing on and thinking about? As you might expect at this time of year there is no shortage of analyst reports providing all sorts of predictions for the coming year. This joint Appcelerator/IDC Q4 2012 Mobile Developer Report particularly caught my eye as it polled almost 3000 Appcelerator Titanium developers on their thoughts about what is hot in the mobile, social and cloud space. The reason it is important to look at what platforms developers are interested in is, of course, that they can make or break whether those platforms grow and survive over the long term. Microsoft Windows and Apple’s iPhone both took off because developers flocked to those platforms and developed applications for those in preference to competing platforms (anyone remember OS/2?).

As you might expect most developers preferences are to develop for the iOS platforms (iPhone and iPad) closely followed by Android phones and tablets with nearly a third also developing using HTML5 (i.e. cross-platform). Windows phones and tablets are showing some increased interest but Blackberry’s woes would seem to be increasing with a slight drop off in developer interest in those platforms.

Nearly all developers (88.4%) expected that they would be developing for two or more OS’es during 2013. Now that consumers have an increasing number of viable platforms to choose from, the ability to build a mobile app that is available cross-platform is a must for a successful developer.

Understanding mobile platforms and how they integrate with the enterprise is one of the top skills going to be needed over the next few years as the mobile age really takes off. (Consequently it is also going to require employers to work more closely with universities to ensure those skills are obtained).

In many ways the fifth age of computing has actually taken us back several years (pre-internet age) when developers had to support a multitude of operating systems and computer platforms. As a result many MEAP providers are investing in cross platform development tools, such as IBM’s Worklight which is also part of the IBM Mobile Foundation. This platform also adds intelligent end point management (that addresses the issues of security, complexity and BYOD policies) together with an integration framework that enables companies to rapidly connect their hybrid world of public clouds, private clouds, and on-premise applications.

For now then, at least until a true multi-platform technology such as HTML5 is mature enough, we are in a complex world with lots of new and rapidly changing technologies to get to grips with as well as needing to understand how the new stuff integrates with all the old legacy stuff (again). In other words, a world which we as architects know and love and thrive in. Here’s to a complex 2013!

The Art of What’s Possible (and What’s Not)

One of the things Apple are definitely good at is giving us products we didn’t know we needed (e.g. the iPad). Steve Jobs, who died a year ago this week, famously said “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology — not the other way around”  (see this video at around 1:55 as well as this interview with Steve Jobs in Wired).

The subtle difference from the “normal” requirements gathering process here is that, rather than asking what the customer wants, you are looking at the customer experience you want to create and then trying to figure out how available technology can realise that experience. In retrospect, we can all see why a device like the iPad is so useful (movies and books on the go, a cloud enabled device that lets you move data between it and other devices, mobile web on a screen you can actually read etc, etc). Chances are however that it would have been very difficult to elicit a set of requirements from someone that would have ended up with such a device.

Jobs goes on to say “you can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try and sell it”. In many ways this is a restatement of the well known “golden hammer” anti-pattern (to a man with a hammer, everything appears as a nail) from software development, the misapplication of a favored technology, tool or concept in solving a problem.

Whilst all this is true and would seem to make sense, at least as far as Apple is concerned, there is still another subtlety at play when building truly successful products that people didn’t know they wanted. As an illustration of this consider another, slightly more infamous Apple product, the Newton Message Pad.

In many ways the Newton was an early version of the iPad or iPhone (see above for the two side by side), some 25 years ahead of its time. One of its goals was to “reinvent personal computing”. There were many reasons why the Newton did not succeed (including it’s large, clunky size and poor handwriting recognition system) however one of them must surely have been that the device was just too far ahead of the technology available at the time in terms of processing power, memory, battery life and display technology. Sometimes ideas can be really great but the technology is just not there to support them.So, whilst Jobs is right in saying you cannot start with the technology then decide how to sell it equally you cannot start with an idea if the technology is not there to support it, as was the case with the Newton. So what does this mean for architects?

A good understanding of technology, how it works and how it can be used to solve business problems is, of course, a key skill of any architect however, equally important is an understanding of what is not possible with current technology. It is sometimes too easy to be seduced by technology and to overstate what it is capable of. Looking out for this, especially when there may be pressure on to close a sale, is something we must all do and be forceful in calling it out when we think something is not possible.