Innovation pressure

While I’m on a roll with this writing thing, I’d like to address some thoughts bubbling from my head after reading drunkenbatman’s article on research in how we interact with computers, “Humans being”.

This guy, I must add, seems pretty insane in the amount of energy he seems to be able to expend on his passions. Anyway, once it gets started, the article is about how insanely difficult it is to actually come up with innovations in the software arena now that it’s 30 years old (or whatever) and that to build things from scratch requires an enormous amount of time and talent, which is equivalent to a great deal of money.

It really is true that we’re only seeing baby steps, but it’s not like things are literally stagnant. Both Apple and Microsoft aren’t moving forward in leaps and bounds, but the frameworks they are building make it increasingly easier for developers to create amazing things. At least, that’s the idea. And in general, although things always seem to take longer than you’d like, I think that the effort expended by Apple and Microsoft (the latter which will be yielding benefits after Windows Vista is released; WinXP has been dormant now long enough that innovative app development isn’t being driven by features of the OS itself) is well spent.

Maybe Apple can’t afford to spend the time to create a media-managing application that seems to push at the boundaries of what computers can do well for us, but if they put big pieces of the puzzle in place for someone like Wil Shipley to do so, then we are still seeing innovation.

But db is right when he says that if you want something like handwriting recognition, you can’t just sit down and write the app. You need development labs to build the tech, and from tech you build the app. This is exactly analogous with the OS framework providing the tech for the app for third-party developers, but in the case of Apple, there might be no-one just sitting in a lab playing with a Tablet PC and trying to get it to work as damn well as Microsoft has already got it.

These thoughts are occurring to me as I write, but oh dear, if Apple hasn’t invested the time and money for handwriting recognition since the Newton was cancelled (and there’s obviously no way that someone from outside the company can assess that statement), then of course they can’t develop a tablet form-factor Powerbook since they’ll be stuck with 1990s-era technology for input.

Something tells me that the work MS has been doing recently (and I’ve heard very good things, although never used one extensively) trumps what Apple did with the Newton back in the day. Let’s hope that Apple indeed do have cards up their sleeve, and their 6–8 billion US in the bank couldn’t be better spent hiring some more geniuses. I would love to see the next big thing come out of Apple’s labs rather than Microsoft’s, but their 5% market share may indeed by the problem that Steve Jobs says it is (“Look, with the iPod, we’re heaps good coz there’s no monopoly keepin’ us down!”).

But yikes, when you take a step back and realise we’re not talking about just one aspect of the computer, or one aspect of the programming language as in Avoid Copland 1010, by John Siracusa, there is so much to lose if the pressure or capability for innovation fails that I hope that Apple knows what they’re doing.

And you know what? They probably do. Sometimes we just gotta take a step back and say, ‘oh well, not having a consistent interface is annoying, but at least we’re seeing progress!’ Let’s hope that it’s the right progress.