Why did I never get into Evernote?

I just noticed that the Evernote app updated itself on my phone, and that got me thinking about how I just don’t use it much. I made a serious effort a year or two ago, in the middle of my last big project, dutifully taking pictures of white boards, making notes during meetings, TODO checklists, etc.; however, I almost never went back and reread the notes, reviewed the snapshots, or worked through the TODO lists, and somehow, the project still chugged along just fine.

The surprising part (for me) is that Evernote is exactly what I would have designed if you’d asked me to design a note-taking/idea-organising app. From my POV, the app did everything right:

  • Search works
  • You can group notes by subject or by tags
  • You can share notes
  • The smartphone app works offline and syncs when you’re back online
  • It organises media like pictures the same way it organizes text notes
  • The UI is simple and uncluttered (at least, it was back when I was using it)

Maybe the problem isn’t Evernote, but the idea of taking notes at meetings. I have piles of old engineering notebooks from past consulting gigs, and I doubt I ever went back and reviewed 0.5% of them after I wrote them.

I guess this is a good lesson for information architecture and tech design. I started with a process that didn’t work for me (paper-based note taking) and assumed that if I added some tech pixie dust to it — web apps, search, tags, smartphone app, etc. — it would suddenly change and become functional. That didn’t happen, because it almost never happens, and it’s not Evernote’s fault.

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Can open data route around damage?

Today, the US government’s data.gov temporarily went dark, and along with it, what is likely the world’s most important collection of open data sets:

The US government's data.gov home page on 1 October 2013.

The US government’s data.gov home page on 1 October 2013.

You are welcome to use this as a chance to rail against the juvenile hijinks in the US Congress, but I think there’s a far more important lesson: if you depend on any centralised data source, even one run by the world’s richest and most-powerful government, it can fail and leave you cut off.

Nuclear bombs and censorship

There is a proverbial story that ARPAnet, which later grew into the Internet, was designed to route around failed nodes so that it could keep functioning after a nuclear attack. Even if that story is not strictly true (the design had more to do with the unreliable networking hardware of the time), the actual networking layers of the Internet are highly failure-tolerant.

Information-freedom activist John Gilmore took that ARPAnet creation myth a step further, and argued that

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

Just as the Internet (as a network) can route around damage, “The Net” (as a culture) can route around censorship using Internet-the-network as a tool. History has proven Mr. Gilmore right: the entertainment industry, for example, has entirely failed to control and restrict the distribution of movies and music online, and the US government — which could reduce dozens of other countries to ash with the push of a button — could do nothing to prevent the spread of the (unauthorized) WikiLeaks data.

Replication, not routing

The Internet consists of a large collection of specifications and standards that define and enable its ability to route around damage; there’s no similar set of standards for getting information around censorship barriers (whether related to intellectual property or restriction of basic human rights). So how does it work? Why can’t the music industry, for example, take a song offline once people have started sharing it? How does “The Net” route so-called “pirated” content around huge, angry corporations spending millions of dollars hiring lawyers and lobbying legislators?

The trick with content seems not to be routing, but replication. To survive online, a piece of information simply has to be copied faster than its opponents can take it offline. Because it’s possible to make perfect, lossless copies of digital content, it becomes irrelevant whether a copy is first generation or 10th generation. For example, if five people make copies of content, then five more people make copies of each of those copies, etc., by the 10th generation you have 510 — or nearly 10 million — perfect copies spread out around the world, and with extremely-popular content, that process can take place in minutes.

Could we rebuild data.gov?

It’s likely that most Americans won’t suffer any real harm from today’s shutdown of data.gov: open data is still in its infancy. However, if we in the open-data community realize our hopes and succeed at making open data a critical part of how the world works, then the next shutdown could be far more harmful. Companies that rely on open data might have to close their doors and furlough employees; emergency responders in the field might have trouble helping victims of a flood or earthquake; maps or navigation systems might stop working; and so on. The more-successful open data becomes, the higher the cost of having it fail.

It would not be a complete disaster, however. A lot of the open data on data.gov exists in copies elsewhere, and if the site were to disappear, we could probably find copies of individual datasets on hard drives scattered around the world, and reproduce most of the data that was on it on 30 September. It would take time, and we wouldn’t know if the data was corrupt or fraudulent, but in most cases, it would probably be OK. As the world moved further and further beyond 30 September 2013, we’d also have to figure out how to get new data from the departments, offices, and organisations who had previously centralised their datasets in data.gov.

Learning from the pirates …

How can we make this recovery process easier? Let’s imitate the people who have already solved this problem: the so-called content “pirates.” We expect centralized open-data sites like data.gov to be available all of the time; the pirates expect their sources to vanish at any moment. We expect data providers to help and encourage us to use their data; the pirates expect legal action trying to shut them down. We get funding; they get fines or even sometimes go to jail. Yet they flourish, while we’re vulnerable to any government’s or organisations internal financial squabbling.

The answer is to copy, copy, copy, and copy. Make copies of all the open data you can find, share your copies with as many people as you can, and keep the copies somewhere safe, just as you would with MP3s of your favourite artist. Open-data sites that discourage bulk downloading need to rethink their priorities, but if they don’t, find a way around any barriers that they throw up. We need 1,000 sites providing the data.gov data, spread around the world, some publicly-funded, and some private. In a sense, a litigious recording company and a government-funded open-data site present exactly the same risks to their users, and we have to learn not to trust the availability of any single site.

… but sailing under true colours

But still, we’re not pirates. Unlike content piracy, open-data sharing can stay out in the daylight. Ministers and heads of state support us, international organisations and foundations fund us, and the media praise us. That means that we have the opportunity to get together and come up with real standards or specs for keeping open data available, just as the ARPANet founders did for network resiliency. These processes are hard, they will take time, and most ideas will go nowhere, but eventually, we could come up with something as useful as the collection of the Internet standards and less-formal, ad-hoc that allow you to get to this blog even around a broken router.

Working in the open also allows us to address issues of trust that are difficult to deal with in the piracy world. If you download an unauthorised copy of Microsoft Word, for example, how do you know that it’s authentic? Is it going to introduce malicious software onto your computer? If you download an unauthorized movie Disney movie, how do you know that it won’t suddenly flash a Goatse on the screen at minute 51?

In the open, we can talk about how to sign digital content and build a web of trust, so that you can rely on a US government dataset even if you loaded it from a Russian web site. We can talk about standardizing how open-data sites notify other systems about new or updated datasets (e.g. using RSS or Atom), so that sites can easily and automatically mirror one-another. And we can talk about discarding — in our field — broken concepts like the Creative Commons attribution licenses, which actually discourage sharing and using open data.

If we get this stuff right, we’ll be ready the next time data.gov goes down, when open data really matters to the world. And maybe we’ll see the pirates starting to imitate us.

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A technology architect’s disclaimer

I’m working on a large application architecture for an international organisation right now, and am including this disclaimer in the introduction:

1.1. Limitations

Like all technology-related architectural designs, this is a vision of how XXX could work, not a blueprint for how XXX will work — we will change much or all of this architecture during the implementation, some in minor ways, and some in major ways, as we discover more about the problem space, change our priorities, and work around the strengths and limitations of the people and technologies involved. The architecture in this report points the way for the implementation team at the beginning, and captures our initial understanding and goals. The XXX team will endeavour to keep the specification up to date as the actual architecture emerges during implementation.

Further reading

Neal Ford, “Evolutionary architecture and emergent design: Investigating architecture and design.” IBM developerWorks, 24 February 2009.

Martin Fowler, “Who Needs an Architect.” IEEE Software, July/August 2003.

Eric S. Raymond. “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” Version 3.0, 2000.

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The diffusion of innovations, or of products?

Rogers Bell Curve

If you work anywhere near IT, you’ve probably been confronted with Everett Rogers’ Bell Curve on more than one eager PowerPoint slide deck, explaining how the presenter’s new standard, product, or initiative will move through the five audiences of Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards. There’s even a book, Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, about how to move your product from the Early Adopter to the Early Majority (mainstream market) stage. After a (very) small amount of background reading, though, I’m starting to wonder if people are misuing Mr. Rogers’ curve, confusing the ideas of “innovation” and “product.”

You can’t invest in an idea

In 1962, Prof. Rogers, along with two other original collaborators, was studying how new practices spread among farmers in the US Midwest, not how, say, a new model of harvester found its market. In other words, they were studying what people do, not what people buy.

Does it matter? Consider the 1995 Netscape IPO, which started the dot.com bubble. The World Wide Web was a genuine innovation — a new way of doing things (building on existing technology) — and by 1995, it was clear that the Web was going to be important. However, people confused Netscape’s browser (a specific product) with the Web itself (an innovation), and assumed that by investing in the company that made the browser, they were investing in the Web. However, the two were not inseparable — Netscape’s browser tanked, while the idea of the Web grew stronger and stronger. Later, investors would pump up Apple’s and Facebook’s stock in a similar way, assuming that by doing so, they were investing in the innovations of mobile computing and social networking. Apple in particular has been able to deliver revenue to justify some of its stock price, but as it loses more and more of the smartphone and tablet market to Android manufacturers, the difference between innovation (mobile computing) and product (iPhone/iPad) becomes very clear.

Despite all that, most of the time I see people using Rogers’ curve, they’re using it for a specific product, project, or initiative, not for new ideas or practices. Does it make sense in that context, or are we being as lazy and confused as the 1995 Netscape investors? Rogers based his 1962 book on over 500 studies of how ideas spread; it would be interesting to see if there’s similar research to back the claims of over-eager sales VPs and project managers.

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Open source’s new frontier

Today, I explored the bleeding edge of open source and mobile, to see what might be normal in 5+ years.


The open-source Android application Andor’s Trail is a top-down role-playing game, sort of like Colossal Cave or Zork with pictures (for my fellow old-timers). I tried it out on my Nexus 7 tablet and enjoyed it — the story line isn’t finished yet, but over two years, the community has built a strong and engaging game. But that’s not the point of this post (we already know how open source works).

This morning, I was in a coffee shop with just my phone, and decided to do the following:

  • Found Andor’s Trail on GitHub
  • Cloned it using AIDE (an Android-based IDE)
  • Tapped “Open Project”
  • Tapped “Run”
  • Opened the compiled app

Building open-source apps didn’t used to be this easy. In Linux, you generally install a long list of library dependencies first, then run some kind of configuration, then do a make, figure out what went wrong/is missing, do another make, go on a mailing list to find out what went wrong, download a different version of some of the build tools or libraries, try again, etc. until eventually (maybe a few hours or days later) you raise your arms in triumph and shout that you’ve succeeded in building the app. After that, you’ve earned the right to be smug on mailing lists and tell the noobs to RTFM when they have the same problems you did.

Is this a glimpse at the future of open source? Cloning, building, and installing a dev build (7.1dev) was so easy that a non-developer could do it; on the difficulty scale, I’d say that it’s easier than figuring out how to upload a video or picture to Facebook.

Right now — despite the fact that Android itself is released under the Apache 2.0 license — open source in the mobile world is still in its infancy. We do have the F-Droid app store for Android, stocking only open-source apps. However, what if mobile itself became the predominant open-source development platform, with new types of tools, collaboration, and social cultures? Keep your eyes on this one.

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Link: Transitioning To a Mobile Centric World (Bill Gurley)


This article argues that the verdict is in, and users want apps, not mobile web sites.  My friend and colleague Michael Roberts (who, I suspect, is neutral in the debate) shared this link on Google+, and – as if to prove Mr Gurley’s thesis – I read his posting in the Android G+ app, not the mobile site. 

Here is the comment I left:

Interesting piece – thanks, Michael . He’s absolutely right that people prefer apps to the browser for common tasks, but I don’t think he’s got the whole story.  For example, like most people, I currently read G+, Facebook, and Twitter in the dedicated mobile apps rather than in the browser.  However, a large plurality (if not majority) of interesting posts to those services are actually links back out into the web, so the result of of reading a tweet is generally opening not a dedicated app, but a web site.

Case in point – we’re both reacting to a pro-app/anti-browser article, but the only reason we know about it is that you were able to share a web link in your G+ post.  If Mr. Gurley had created a “GurleyPosts” app for his thoughts, then (a) most people probably wouldn’t have it installed, and (b) you wouldn’t have been able to pass a link from iOS that I could use to read it on Android.

In other words, for something I do a lot (read Facebook, check the weather, play a game, get driving directions) I will tend to use an app.  But I won’t install a dedicated app just to read an article from a magazine or newspaper, and even when I am using an app, I need a link if I’m going to share it with anyone else.

So in 2013 for mobile, apps are for the tall head of any user’s activities, and the browser is for the long tail.  Of course, every startup thinks it’s going to be the next Facebook (at least in terms of its importance to the people who use it), but few of them end up there, so the way people are going to find them is by following links from FB, Twitter, Google+, emails, chats, etc.  I wouldn’t give up on that mobile web site quite yet.

Posted in Coding, Design, Mobile | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A plan for PRISM

The US government has two major problems right now:

  1. Out-of-control debt
  2. Bad PR around PRISM

Maybe it’s time to start thinking like a business, and figure out how to turn those liabilities into assets. If PRISM brought real benefit to citizens’ lives, would they look on it more favourably? Would they, perhaps, even be willing to give money to the program?


With that in mind, I’d like to propose a new, pay-for-use government web site named prism-suggests.gov. The web site will have a natural-language interface where people can ask questions about themselves or their friends and family, and get suggestions back. Here are some examples:

Q: What book should I read next?
PRISM: You bought Infinite Jest three months ago, but I’ve noticed that you always fall asleep when you try to read it on the subway on your way home. Perhaps something lighter, like Fifty Shades of Grey, would be better, especially since you go out of your way to read Facebook comments about it.

Q: What kinds of clothes should I buy Maria for her birthday?
PRISM: Maria’s credit-card and Google-search history suggest that it’s 87.3% likely she has a bladder control problem, so it would be best to buy things that fit loosely around the hips, to leave room for an adult diaper.

Q: Is Phillip going to ask me out on a date?
PRISM: Unless Phillip has been doing a “research project” for the last 3 years, the type of porn he views on his smartphone suggests that yours is not the gender that interests him.

Q: How can I get a promotion at work?
PRISM: Casually mention the phrases “St Lucia,” “offshore investment,” and “IRS” loudly in hearing range of your boss, then come back a week later and ask for the promotion.

If the site charged $5 for each question, imagine how fast the US federal deficit would shrink! And, of course, all those people whining about “privacy rights” and the so-called “Constitution” would be drowned out by billions of satisfied customers.

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