Nat Friedman

Welcome to the stud farm

Previous visits to IBM’s incredibly boring facilities near Stuttgart combined with reports that the city was almost entirely levelled by the allies during the war to lower my expectations to IM Pei levels of shitty modern architecture and East St. Louis levels of urban splendor. I wasn’t expecting much from Stuttgart this year. But this seems to be a very nice city.

Miguel and I got here yesterday morning, jetlagged and coated with whatever that filmy substance is that clings to your skin after 10 hours of flying. I spent the whole flight reading that new book about Steve Jobs, which was okay, but not really what I was hoping for. I wanted some more detail about how NeXTSTEP was turned into Mac OS X and about the development of the iPod. Instead I got a 75-page narrative of the early years of Pixar, its relationship with Disney, the ouster of Michael Eisner, etc. Not all that fascinating. And I felt that the book painted an unfair picture of Steve Jobs.

As told in the book, Jobs’s focus on an elegant and innovative user experience at the expense of all else was in several ways a major problem for most of his early career. The Apple II succeeded in some large part because it was expandable, because it was easy to program, and because an ecosystem of hardware and software vendors could develop around it quickly and support its growth. Woz can be credited with much of that.

After Woz faded into the background and the development of the Mac began in earnest, Steve swung the pendulum hard the other way: no expansion slots, only one memory configuration, and the focus of early development was, based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve read, on the user experience, not on the developer experience. He did recruit Microsoft as an ISV, but that was the extent of it.

The result was a machine that was to some eyes all flash and no substance. Yes: the Macintosh was a breathtaking, gorgeous achievement in user interface design. But it was largely a commercial failure under Jobs’s stewardship. Until long after he left, the vast majority of Apple’s revenue came from the Apple II line. There was no spreadsheet, and very little software available for sale. This is absolutely unbelievable, because the spreadsheet was the piece of software that rocketed the PC to commercial relevance.

The way the book tells it, NeXT was much the same story. An elegant machine, technically and aesthetically compelling, but not very useful due to a lack of applications. NeXTSTEP did sport an object oriented development environment, but somehow it failed to attract the hordes of adherents who would have made the system broadly relevant. This either wasn’t enough of a priority for NeXT, despite the nice platform they had, or it was already too late to catch up to Microosft with a proprietary hardware platform.

I have my doubts about how faithful this telling of the story is to actual fact, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Contrasted with Microsoft’s intense and unflinching focus on recruiting developers to their platform, this is an interesting story. This morning at breakfast, Dan Kusnetzky mentioned that one of the major mistakes of OS/2 was to support Windows application execution. If you built a native OS/2 app, it would run on OS/2. If you built a native Windows app, it would run on both Windows and OS/2. What are you going to do?

By the way, I don’t think that either of these issues (sexiness or ISVs) is the most important problem facing the Linux desktop communities (GNOME, KDE) right now. The biggest impact these groups can have is to make fundamental functions easy: basic operations like managing files and changing simple settings are difficult because of poor user interfaces, slow software, and bad error handling; hardware still doesn’t just work, etc.

I loved reading Matthew Thomas’s list of usability issues he encountered in Ubuntu because it drew attention to the things those of us in the Linux desktop community would rather forget. Though we like to focus on new horizons like desktop search and 3d acceleration (I certainly do), there’s still shit lying in the backyard that someone needs to to clean up. Checked out the sound properties dialog in GNOME lately? There’s not as much glory in being a pooper scooper, but maybe there should be. We could make t-shirts.

So, the biggest issue for GNOME and KDE isn’t a strategic one. It’s an execution problem. We’ve got to get better at finishing what we’ve started.

(I hope I’m not being a downer or anything, on the eve of GUADEC.)

I wanted to go running this week but my right ankle and shin are still in pain from the abuse I applied last weekend. Apparently all those people who emailed me after my last post and told me not to overdo it were right, but a little too late.

28 May 2005
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