RIP, Steve

Whoa. I can’t say I was surprised at the announcement this week, but I was surprised by my reaction. First, the disclaimer: I’m not quite an Apple fanboy, but I’m pretty close. Still, while I appreciated the role Steve Jobs played in the Apple mystique, I feel I’ve always been pretty centered in the sense that I knew Apple was more than simply an outlet for Steve’s creative energy. There are lots of very smart people there, empowered to some extent by the single-minded attention to the experience that was promulgated by their CEO, granted, but there’s more than one voice contributing to that chorus. I continue to have faith.
But the announcement, and later contemplation, brought tears. For someone I’d never met, never dreamed of meeting. Someone about whom I’d heard both good and bad, about the creative genius and the autocratic despot. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series, the main character becomes a “Speaker for the Dead”, someone who speaks the truth about the departed, good and bad, without regard for politics or social subtleties. To accomplish that end, the Speaker had to become intimately familiar with who the deceased truly was, a sometimes awkward and even painful exercise. But the catharsis, the clarity, provided by this feat, simultaneously epic and humble, incorporated an intrinsic value: truth. I hope we have Speakers to remind us who this flawed and yet amazing person really was.

Steve and I share a birthday. There’s a year between us, but it’s still strange to see that date in print, to grasp that he’s gone, to mourn the loss and at the same time appreciate the life he led and the impact he had. Indulging in a bit of geeking out, I watched the original iPhone keynote, re-experiencing the feeling that the earth was moving, just a little bit, as he described those capabilities that are now considered table stakes.

I look forward to feeling the earth move again, to be surprised and inspired. I have a taste for it now.

Thanks Steve.

What if the web died but nobody noticed?

From Wired:

The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet
— Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, 17 August 2010

And I didn’t even know it was sick. And isn’t the Internet some thing Al Gore invented? Hmmm. In truth, it regurgitates something I’ve had to explain over and over again to people about the difference between the Internet and the Web. Sort of like the difference between the USGS 15 minute series as compared to a nice friendly tourist map.

what is the web, anyway?

Tim Berners-Lee, ‘early 90’s: “right, if you guys won’t listen, then I’ll do it myself.” I paraphrase, but that’s what it boils down to: Tim had An Idea. Nobody would listen to him, so he built it himself. At which time it seemed sort of, well, obvious. What one might refer to as “a V-8 moment”. Think chocolate and peanut butter. Or V-8, I suppose.

One original definition of the World Wide Web: “a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet. ” Somewhat dry, but it gets to the point: the Web is documents. Some may be static, some created on the fly, some from databases or mashups or other you-name-the-API but, as presented to the user, they are forms of a document. Of course, these days a URL may respond with data that isn’t at all human-readable – but that’s largely a presentation issue, isn’t it? Which brings us back to the browser.

Or, one can define something in terms of what it is not:

  • not networking technology
  • not hardware
  • not IP addresses

Initially, “the Web” was the part of the Internet accessed via a newfangled animal called a “web browser”, a specialized piece of software intended to access only servers configured to understand its requests. The “www.” prefix (mainly vestigial now)  to a URL identified a specific host that ran a web server, since most machines on the Internet at the time had no idea what to do with web traffic and mod rewrite didn’t exist yet.. And domain names were initially free (who knew they’d be worth something).

Ironically, one of the lasting results of the web is the W3C (http://www.w3.org/), the governing body which, 20 years later, is led by none other than Tim Berners-Lee. So we have him to thank for the web and he has us to thank for a job. You have to appreciate his staying power.

Perhaps my favorite definition of the web is from Douglas Adams: “The World Wide Web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form takes three times longer to say than what it’s short for” .

when does the web stop being the web?

You can type an IP address directly into a browser’s address field. Try using ‘72.21.207.65’ instead of ‘amazon.com’. Not a “URL” per se (I’m taking some liberties here with browser destination auto-complete, but bear with me for fun), a good old-fashioned IP address. Still the web? It’s still a document created and delivered to your browser. Is it the web because you’re using a browser? Or that the destination responds to web requests?

Does it really, in the end, matter?

when does an app stop being an app?

Traditionally, there has been an understated dichotomy between “application” developers and “web” developers. Mashups have really confused the issues. So much for the simple browser and straightforward web sites. Now you have data. And applications that can send and receive web requests and data. And different sites collaborate with their data.

Early on in the iPhone world, Steve Jobs told the developer community that they didn’t need an SDK, that they didn’t need to develop actual iPhone-native apps because they could develop “web applications”: web pages custom-engineered to feed data to and from the iPhone’s multi-touch interface and display. The development community responded by giving Mr. Jobs the finger.

making sense of all this (and I use that term loosely)

So we all get wrapped up in determining how many of the elephants in the room can fit on the head of a pin. But the really important thing is that an elephant with a pin in its ass is a dangerous thing if it’s about to fart, and a blind man will never see it coming.