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January 08 2014

Is Valve’s SteamBox a contender for the next developer workstation?

A scenario started playing through my head the other day. In the late 1990s, Apple looked dead. Then they released OS X, plus very cool shiny hardware. That put Apple back in the game and gave them the life they needed to bring about the iPod, etc. Apple’s revival didn’t come from iPods and iPhones; it came because they made a deep connection to the software developers. In 2000, if you went to a developer conference, everyone was carrying some kind of PC laptop, probably running some version of Windows, possibly Linux. But almost overnight that changed, and it changed completely. By 2003, any self-respecting developer was carrying a MacBook, preferably the one the size of a small aircraft carrier. Apple did an undeniably brilliant job of growing this beachhead among the developer community into a dominant brand. Everyone wanted what the cool kids had. Apple had a winning product: they had the most beautiful version of Unix ever, with a user interface that beat anything that had ever appeared on Linux or Windows.

But now, Apple is looking more and more hostile to the developer community that enabled their revival. OS X is evolving into a slightly more capable version of iOS, and we’re all dreading the day when the only way we can compile and install our own software is by using Apple’s proprietary tools and going through the App Store. If you look closely at Apple’s work, it’s clear where they’re putting the effort: there’s a race condition in basic text editing (TextEdit, Mail, etc.) that’s been around since at least OS X 10.6, and I suspect goes all the way back to 10.1. It’s not something arcane that only crops up in strange circumstances; I run into it every day (and on several different machines). And that’s only the start.

I know loads of developers who are saying, “yeah, I’m assuming I’ll be off Apple in a few years.” But that’s a problem: it’s one thing to talk about leaving Apple; it’s something completely different to know where you’re going. Developers aren’t going to run back to Microsoft; they might get somewhere with Google’s ChromeOS cloud vision (it’s a powerful vision, but I’m not yet ready to sign up for it), though that begs the question of how to do bread-and-butter enterprise backend work. The Linux community seems to have settled into unproductive infighting between Canonical and the rest of the world. Dell and HP got nothin’. But looking back at what Apple did over a decade ago: is there anyone who can put together both very cool hardware and a cool operating system for software developers?

Just before Christmas, an answer occurred to me — and it came completely out of left field. A few months ago, Valve started looking for beta testers for their new SteamBox gaming computer. (I don’t have one.) According to several teardowns, the SteamBox is flexible and expandable, a quality that’s been notably absent from recent Apple hardware. Valve has also been making noise about SteamOS, a Linux distribution tailored to running games. And then it hit me: Valve has both the vision and the technical chops needed to build really cool, high-performance hardware and package it with a winning operating system.

Could Valve do to Macintosh hardware what the Mac did to the PC market over a decade ago? I think they could. Do they want to? I have no idea. The SteamBox is currently a desktop machine, and a developer-oriented product line must include a laptop. There’s no sign that Valve is thinking about laptops, nor do they make sense in the high-performance gaming world. For that matter, a hot desktop box stuffed full of GPUs may not make much sense either, unless you’re doing a lot of data analysis. SteamOS has a cool user interface, but it’s tuned to gaming, not to software development. If you want a developer desktop, SteamOS ships with Gnome 3 Shell and Gnome Classic, neither of which represents a great leap forward in user experience. And I don’t see any sign that Valve is interested in rethinking the developer desktop.

So, yes, if you want to call this fantasy, pie-in-the-sky thinking, I’m guilty as charged. If you think the near-term future of software development will be based on some platform other than the laptop/desktop, I wish I could agree. All these “ifs” aside: if I were Apple, I would be looking over my shoulder. At Valve.

April 18 2013

Sprinting toward the future of Jamaica

Creating the conditions for startups to form is now a policy imperative for governments around the world, as Julian Jay Robinson, minister of state in Jamaica’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, reminded the attendees at the “Developing the Caribbean” conference last week in Kingston, Jamaica.

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Robinson said Jamaica is working on deploying wireless broadband access, securing networks and stimulating tech entrepreneurship around the island, a set of priorities that would have sounded of the moment in Washington, Paris, Hong Kong or Bangalore. He also described open access and open data as fundamental parts of democratic governance, explicitly aligning the release of public data with economic development and anti-corruption efforts. Robinson also pledged to help ensure that Jamaica’s open data efforts would be successful, offering a key ally within government to members of civil society.

The interest in adding technical ability and capacity around the Caribbean was sparked by other efforts around the world, particularly Kenya’s open government data efforts. That’s what led the organizers to invite Paul Kukubo to speak about Kenya’s experience, which Robinson noted might be more relevant to Jamaica than that of the global north.

Kukubo, the head of Kenya’s Information, Communication and Technology Board, was a key player in getting the country’s open data initiative off the ground and evangelizing it to developers in Nairobi. At the conference, Kukubo gave Jamaicans two key pieces of advice. First, open data efforts must be aligned with national priorities, from reducing corruption to improving digital services to economic development.

“You can’t do your open data initiative outside of what you’re trying to do for your country,” said Kukubo.

Second, political leadership is essential to success. In Kenya, the president was personally involved in open data, Kukubo said. Now that a new president has been officially elected, however, there are new questions about what happens next, particularly given that pickup in Kenya’s development community hasn’t been as dynamic as officials might have hoped. There’s also a significant issue on the demand-side of open data, with respect to the absence of a Freedom of Information Law in Kenya.

When I asked Kukubo about these issues, he said he expects a Freedom of Information law will be passed this year in Kenya. He also replied that the momentum on open data wasn’t just about the supply side.

“We feel that in the usage side, especially with respect to the developer ecosystem, we haven’t necessarily gotten as much traction from developers using data and interpreting cleverly as we might have wanted to have,” he said. “We’re putting putting more into that area.”

With respect to leadership, Kukubo pointed out that newly elected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta drove open data release and policy when he was the minister of finance. Kukubo expects him to be very supportive of open data in office.

The development of open data in Jamaica, by way of contrast, has been driven by academia, said professor Maurice McNaughton, director of the Center of Excellence at the Mona School of Business at the University of the West Indies (UWI). The Caribbean Open Institute, for instance, has been working closely with Jamaica’s Rural Agriculture Development Authority (RADA). There are high hopes that releases of more data from RADA and other Jamaican institutions will improve Jamaica’s economy and the effectiveness of its government.

Open data could add $35 million annually to the Jamaican economy, said Damian Cox, director of the Access to Information Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister, citing a United Nations estimate. Cox also explicitly aligned open data with measuring progress toward Millennium Development Goals, positing that increasing the availability of data will enable the civil society, government agencies and the UN to more accurately assess success.

The development of (open) data-driven journalism

Developing the Caribbean focused on the demand side of open data as well, particularly the role of intermediaries in collecting, cleaning, fact checking, and presenting data, matched with necessary narrative and context. That kind of work is precisely what data-driven journalism does, which is why it was one of the major themes of the conference. I was invited to give an overview of data-driven journalism that connected some trends and highlighted the best work in the field.

I’ve written quite a bit about how data-driven journalism is making sense of the world elsewhere, with a report yet to come. What I found in Jamaica is that media there have long since begun experimenting in the field, from the investigative journalism at Panos Caribbean to the relatively recent launch of diGJamaica by the Gleaner Company.

diGJamaica is modeled upon the Jamaican Handbook and includes more than a million pages from The Gleaner newspaper, going back to 1834. The site publishes directories of public entities and public data, including visualizations. It charges for access to the archives.

Legends and legacies

Usain Bolt in JamaicaUsain Bolt in Jamaica

Olympic champion Usain Bolt, photographed in his (fast) car at the UWI/Usain Bolt Track in Mona, Jamaica.

Normally, meeting the fastest man on earth would be the most memorable part of any trip. The moment that left the deepest impression from my journey to the Caribbean, however, came not from encountering Usain Bolt on a run but from within a seminar room on a university campus.

As a member of a panel of judges, I saw dozens of young people present after working for 30 hours at a hackathon at the University of the West Indies. While even the most mature of the working apps was still a prototype, the best of them were squarely focused on issues that affect real Jamaicans: scoring the risk of farmers that needed banking loans and collecting and sharing data about produce.

The winning team created a working mobile app that would enable government officials to collect data at farms. While none of the apps are likely to be adopted by the agricultural agency in its current form, or show up in the Google Play store this week, the experience the teams gained will help them in the future.

As I left the island, the perspective that I’d taken away from trips to Brazil, Moldova and Africa last year was further confirmed: technical talent and creativity can be found everywhere in the world, along with considerable passion to apply design thinking, data and mobile technology to improve the societies people live within. This is innovation that matters, not just clones of popular social networking apps — though the judges saw more than a couple of those ideas flow by as well.

In the years ahead, Jamaican developers will play an important role in media, commerce and government on the island. If attracting young people to engineering and teaching them to code is the long-term legacy of efforts like Developing the Caribbean, it will deserve its own thumbs up from Mr. Bolt. The track to that future looks wide open.

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Disclosure: the cost of my travel to Jamaica was paid for by the organizers of the Developing the Caribbean conference.

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