Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Robustek ; fragiletek

I'm in an old village in Russia, collectivized after the revolution but still a subsistence village today. There's a great "cobbling technology" tradition in these places ... new fences look ancient, even when they incorporate new materials. Well-made, sturdy, practical ... beautiful. There are lots of useful patterns here to study, lots of promising design/build sequences that lead to good results.

It's not just fences. The locks people use here, interestingly, are clearly modern, but have a very solid, reliable, medieval feeling to them. The soviet technologists didn't see a need to change these designs, I guess, so there are millions of locks in Russia that make western locks look ... very wimpy. They're fun to use. In the village, they lock some things up which they probably don't need to, I think partly because these big locks are just so handy & handsome. Robust technology.

Contrast this with modern commercial technology ... many Russian children have their own cell-phones. Young Vasya here has a new bluetooth Sony Ericsson phone-camera, which he knows like the back of his hand. So we linked it up to Olga's new Apple powerbook with built-in bluetooth, running Mac OS X 3.9. We were able to browse the camera's files, send files to it, and use the camera as a remote control for the Powerbook. And no doubt, if he had GPRS, we would get that working.

But it's demo technology only.

Once you try to actually use this pair for something, it gets horribly tedious. That's true of some basics on Mac OS X too. For example, the file browser gets stuck on the previous directory download, gets confused, and hangs up. Eventually, you'll have to shut down the powerbook to fix this problem. The phone may not be discoverable forever ... no matter how often you click the "discoverable" button. So you have to turn it off too. If you're trying to resize a photo so it fits on a phone, with the default software on a Mac, good luck to you. iPhoto can't do a genuine resize. And if you do it without creating another user account, and without importing the photos to that user's iPhoto, you may destroy your original photo trying to resize. Fragile technology.

Everyone in the computer industry knows what's going on here, and most consumers know too. Innovative, deeply robust technology can only be built under certain circumstances ... strong public funding, well-protected R & D laboratories, slow product cycles, etc. Even when this happens, and private industry moves in to capitalize on it, they inevitably screw it up. Apple spends far more money on advertising and industrial design than on functionality, engineering and QA. The same is true of Motorola, SONY & Ericsson. There have been pockets of exceptions, and this is promising technology ... But, seriously, bluetooth is just two radios sharing data. Why can't it be reliable, now? I'm sure the first locks worked pretty well, right off the bat ... There are plenty of engineers who would love to be given the chance to really make this technology work ... including those who created these products. But profits come first.

Which makes me wish that the people who made these locks, and the R & D lab cum factory they worked in, could have survived to make these products today. Because then, they would work.


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