Tag Archives: deep-thoughts

Automation and Software in the Next Decade

The “low intellectual property” Fashion Industry as a model for innovation?

I have to agree. Since I’ve started getting involved in open source software, I can tell you that intellectual property laws are the biggest obstacle to innovation that I face. I can say that because I took the time to consult with intellectual property lawyers on everything from trademark to copyright to open source license to software patent. Here’s what I found out: you can’t write a single line of code without violating someone’s patent, somewhere. However, the only time that person will enforce their patent claim is if you’re really successful. The only defense is to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build up a patent portfolio of your own so you can partake in a ludicrous arms-race deterrent. On top of that, your patent portfolio offers no defense against so-called “patent trolls”: companies that only own patents and don’t write software of their own. They’re the equivalent of a terrorist cell with nuclear weapons… your nukes are ineffective because you don’t have a city to target.

Copyright is under control, mostly because it’s so much weaker than patents, and it’s free. It stops whole-sale copying of your software, but allows someone to look at your source code, learn from it, and then write it themselves without violating copyright (if they’re careful). Plus, the wide adoption of open source licenses give us lots of material that we can freely copy or integrate.

The irony is that patents were supposed to speed up innovation, but they’ve done exactly the opposite in the software industry.

Do you want to know why none of this matters though? I’m going to make a bold prognostication here:

If the last decade (have we agreed on what to call it yet? The Oh’s?) was about more crap, then the next decade will be about customized crap. Seriously, we gorged ourselves on the mountain of crappage that is sold at Wal-mart and people are starting to wake up with a hangover. We’ve already seen the desires start to change from more to better but I think we’re going to see it change to mine. People are going to want unique stuff. Things that they had a hand in customizing. Something they can use to express themselves.

This has major implications for manufacturing, so it affects the automation industry, and I think it also affects software. Just like the fashion industry, where people use clothes to express themselves, we’re about to enter an age when all the crap you sell to consumers has to have a story, a personality, and be unique. Mass production will remain for your basic staples, and China is going to continue to provide us with that, but North America and Europe are going to have to start producing bespoke crap.

What does this mean for automation? We’re going to see a rise in the build-a-bear style build-your-own-product-on-a-website and have it manufactured and sent to your door the next day. Imagine the logistical changes that need to take place to make that happen. Internet merchandising companies like cafepress already have a leg up in this department. Their merchandise is manufactured after you order it. Now imagine a product with 10,000 or a million different variations, and the automation that has to support it. Imagine the automation required to manufacture products whose specifications change as fast as fashion trends.

On the software side, we’re going to see every major application support custom 3rd party add-ins so everyone can customize their software so it works for them. I think we’re also going to see a rise in “pseudo-programming languages” that let people who aren’t programmers actually customize their applications in ways that we’ve never let them do before. Platforms that give people the power to build solutions to their own needs are going to flourish, and one-size-fits-all solutions like word processors will fade into obscurity.

So I think we’ll have two options: the vast majority of us are going to spend our time building custom things for individuals or businesses. The successful ones will produce products that people can customize themselves.

The Invisible Hand: Replication

What makes the masses adopt a new technology? I don’t think it’s because it saves them time.

When I was at StackOverflow Dev Days last year, Joel Spolsky gave a keynote that touched on the topics of why people use technology. Specifically he talked about why the masses use it. I think as geeks we sometimes can’t see how “normal people” see technology. Back in the 90’s I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a Mac over a PC. As a 30-something father with different priorities, I’m starting to “get it”.

Joel referred to a book by Richard Dawkins called The Selfish Gene. It says that genes aren’t the method by which we reproduce, but rather: we are the method by which genes reproduce. They created us because it’s a workable method to make more copies of themselves.

Joel asks us to imagine a 20 year old college student sitting in her dorm room, trying to install Firefox. Why is she installing Firefox? So that she can use Facebook. Why does she want to use Facebook? So she can communicate with her friends and know where they’re going to be, possibly when they’ll be going to the bar. And why does she want to go to the bar? Most likely there’s a strong primal urge to “hook up” with someone.

People buy iPhones for the sexiness. Business people want a BlackBerry for business, but why are they in business? Why do business people want to be successful?

It doesn’t really matter how you try to spin this. Once you get outside the early adopters of technology who are doing it because they’re “not normal”, the “normal” people use technology for much more fundamental reasons. The most powerful force that drives everything, including technology, is replication, and thus reproduction. Do you want proof?

Did you notice how replication was its own reward? Makes sense. Things that just replicate themselves will make more things that replicate themselves. Things that don’t replicate themselves will get eaten by those that do.

Now ask yourself, why hasn’t home automation taken off? Lights? Vacuums? They’re gadgets for a geeky minority. They really don’t help with the fundamental drive of the home, which is family. How does home automation help you raise better kids? How does it help you make them smarter, better, more successful? Does this home automation system appeal to the vast majority of “normal” people? I don’t think so. (I’ll give it some geek cred, though.)

If we answered those questions, we’d know how to make home automation for the masses.

On Time

I have to say that this newspaper article from 1992 predicted our future right on the money. I’m an “automation enthusiast”, so I’m all about the time saving device. Just for fun I entered “time saving device” into Google and clicked “I’m Feeling Lucky”. I was directed to this question:

If every year time saving devices are invented (i.e. computers, cell phones, email, etc…) then why do we still need a 40 hour work week?

As I’ve said before, this is another manifestation of the Jevons Paradox. If I wanted to hire someone to paint a building and I had to choose between someone with a bucket of paint and a paintbrush, or a guy with a power sprayer, the latter is undoubtedly more expensive per hour, but cheaper per square foot of wall. He’ll also have the job done faster. That means the demand for the guy with the sprayer is higher. His time saving device gives him more work and less time.

Saving Time is the Myth of Home Automation

In Industrial Automation, we never really talk about saving time. We talk about saving labor and saving money. We talk about increased productivity, efficiency, throughput and uptime. Time is a constant.

Yet at home we talk about time like it’s a variable. As if you could have more of it. What an odd concept when you think about it…

I’ve recently spent some time trying to think of a good time saving home automation device to create, and I’m convinced it’s a pointless activity. Would an automatic pet feeder save me time? Possibly, but you still have to refill it, the parts are likely to wear out, and it has to be cleaned regularly. It takes one of us less than 30 seconds to feed the dog every day. That’s about 3 hours per year. But if you spent 10 minutes a month cleaning it, that’s 2 hours a year right there, and how long are you going to spend fiddling with it when it finally breaks down? Even if there was no extra time, would you spend $100 to save 3 hours? It’s marginal, but doubtful.

Now where that pet feeder really shines is if you have a dog with a special need. It can feed your animal up to 8 times a day, so if your dog was diabetic, then you can start to see that it solves a difficult problem really effectively.

Would a robot vacuum save me time? I think you’ll find that it fails in the same way that the pet feeder fails: you have to clean out the vacuum bucket every time it cycles, and you have to take it apart to clean the brushes regularly. The batteries need replacing, and most reviews I’ve seen indicate that you still need to vacuum once every couple of weeks. It doesn’t save you time. It gives you the ability to vacuum more often.

Look at the three successful categories of home automation: HVAC, lighting, and audio/video. None of those are about saving you time. They’re all about improving the (perceived) quality of life. A new robot that folded your laundry for you wouldn’t be as successful as a closet that color co-ordinates your outfits for you. Everyone can fold laundry but not everyone can pick an outfit. There’s a market for the latter.

On Helping

If I want something from you, I’ll probably tell you what you want to hear.

If I want to help you, I’ll probably tell you something you don’t want to hear.

Isn’t it interesting that we prefer to be around people who want something from us, rather than people who want to help us?