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Tue 22 Feb 2005

Of cults and zealots, or,
The case of the blind leading the blind

Category : Commentary

I found this book, "The Cult at the End of the World - The Incredible Story of Aum", at the library. Since, we're always being called Mac zealots or Mac cultists, I thought I'd go read what a real cult feels like. I'll let you know when I've finished it.

Now, the thing that irks me about Michael Malone's book "Infinte Loop" is the pointed jab in the direction of Mac users who stayed loyal to the platform through all those lean years - zealots and cultists, indeed. Like we're so blind, we couldn't see through the faults of the company who built those machines we insist on using.

But the question is, who's the one that's really blind?

The thing I learnt while working in an IT company is that there're two kinds of people. The ones who put their heads down and build stuff. And the ones who hate to build stuff but love sitting in committees and making pronouncements - like who's "standard" and who's not, and which ones win and which loses, which products are "wildly successful" and which won't get pass the door.

The thing is, I much rather make stuff, but I've learned that you've got to look up from your work and join in the debate. Otherwise, those other guys can do a lot of harm.

Where the problem is, if you're not into "building stuff", is that you don't have any real point of reference. Your head becomes an empty vessel those confident, influential people like Malone and Jim Carlton can do weird things with.

For example, when you're into "building stuff", you know your enemy is not Steve Jobs but Chaos. Anarchy. Entropy. You're forever struggling with keeping things from popping out. You're watching the interfaces, keeping things simple, making sure things will work with just one click.

You understand about trade-offs. You know what's practical, and what's purely theoretical. You start to get a feel for design. For simplicity. And a healthy fear of what a monster Complexity can turn out to be.

The thing is : what Apple has chosen to do - building the whole widget (what's called vertical integration) and taking responsibility for delivering the whole usage experience - that's a pretty reasonable, defensive, complexity-containing engineering design strategy.

But in Malone's and Carlton's book, that's greed and myopia, not-invented-here. They're right because Microsoft won.

Look around you, in nature, in a water droplet. It's firm and round. Engineers understand surface tension. Things occur in nature up to a certain size and then they get tucked in.

Megalomania. That's what Malone and Calton wants us to believe is the natural order of things. Horizontal integration. The things we use have to be used by everybody. Or not at all. Everybody's got to use Windows.

Building things in layers is, actually, another reasonable, engineering way of building things.

Except that it's not one or the other. You often use both, horizontal and vertical integration, in combination. The trick is to know when to use one and when to use the other.

The Microsoft Way, where things are built wholly in layers; it doesn't work. But working, I mean, working well, and not working as in being dictated upon, by political will. We all know Mac users love their machines, while Windows users barely tolerate using it. Nobody (is it Dell, MS, or Intel?) takes responsibility for anything.

Malone talked about how the Mac was a closed, dead-end system. Yet, my experience was, the Mac had built-in networking, first with LocalTalk (admittedly slow but it worked, even an idiot could use it). Then it had peer-to-peer networking. Then ethernet, then mail, then it connected to Novell and DEC and IBM. I went through all these progressions. The Mac was the easiest to network. The PCs. We had ethernet cards for PCs that worked with DEC but not Novell, and worked with Novell but now Microsft's own server, and you need to understand things like "shims". It was a whole tortuous mess with lots of options. Reading Malone, you could believe it was the other way round. Like the Tao, "Those who know do not speak, those who speak, do not know".

If the Microsoft model really works, you would see it occurring more in nature. For example, we must all be of one race, one physical specimen, otherwise how could we all talk together. ("Everybody must standardise on Windows, otherwise how could we exchange correspondence efficiently").

We all know how God did it. We're all splendidly different from each other - singularly compact and graceful in design. How we're able to communicate is that we agreed upon the interfaces - like the English language (or the Internet protocols) - which is where we agree to keep things non-proprietary. We know what's proprietary. You, me, myself, I.

The Microsoft Way is a topsy turvy world. Where things which didn't work were held together by dictate.

Let these guys, the pundits, say what they want. But they love being influential, so let's not let what they say go un-challenged. Otherwise, it'll lead to a rule by fiat.

It's not that I love Apple. I love it's products, and the way their engineers build stuff, and the way good design seems to be a way of life. But I definitely hate their sales team. And like a good Taoist, I can see the seeds of future destruction strewn in current successes. But so what? Things go round in circles. Do I cheer when Carly Fiorina got thrown out? I much rather worry about my own compay. How anyone can generate so much bile to kick a man when he's down is beyond me.

I'm getting back to building stuff. Zealot or not, you've got to say what you've got to say.

Actually I found another book I'm re-reading now, "The Outsider" by Colin Wilson. I found it among a stack of my old books. Like why do I bother to write all these things? A reviewer of the book says, "(Wilson) defines the outsider as a person that 'sees too deep but can't help it', a person that instinctively feels he doesnt fit in, becomes troubled by that, and sets out on a personal journey of discovering himself and his position in everything else."

When Sim Wong Hoo says that he's on Microsoft's camp because he thinks "Microsoft is so rich, has so much money to pour into the fight that it'll surely win the war" (I paraphrase it but that''s the gist), he's not plugged in to that other parallel universe that people live their lives in - one that is not governed by pure logic and calculation. We'll see just who The Force chooses to be with.

Posted at 11:46PM SGT | permalink


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