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4:00 AM Thoughts On Structured Graphics And The Desktop

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 11/26/2013

It goes without saying that life is different when you have a kid. There are opposing forces at work with professional ambition. On the one hand, you become risk-adverse, not wanting to jeopardize your income that now has to pave the future for a life you brought into this world and are responsible for. On the other hand, it’s exactly the time when you need the increased money and resources that requires taking risks to achieve. It’s a conundrum, and pretty much everyone who procreates has to deal with it. My choices in life thus-far, which I guess somewhat mirror my Dad’s, put me in the traditional rat-race, with a technical lean.

That means, I have to stay at the top of my game technically, in order to ensure and increase my income over time. This is very different than the institutional or civil service jobs with retirement plans and pension funds that are still around, and represent the safer route of “putting in your years” and having a nice security net. I cast my lot in life early in my life by pursuing what interested me, and now at forty-three years old, I’m navigating my way through the turbulent waters of competitive reality. This daily work journal is about those special lengths you have to go to in excelling in a young man’s game even as an old guy with a (still relatively new) family.

Let’s start with the fact that I’m sipping coffee at 4:00 AM on the closest thing I still have to a desk in my life: the kitchen table. And it was a long road even just to have that convenience, for you see another parameter of my life that differs from most is that I decided to take up residence right on the island of Manhattan. Granted, I’m way up north where the island narrows and you can walk from the east side to the west side river-to-river in 5 minutes. Any further north, and you’d go over the Broadway bridge and be in the Bronx. Point is, the sort of “desk room” my father had growing up is out of the question. In fact, any space specifically dedicated to me aside from my closet and half a bed is not a practical reality. All space is shared and multi-purpose.

So, stationary desktop computers are not a possibility. Or rather, those are the “televisions” as all my iMacs have been put into “cord-cutting” duty. They are our Netflix / iTunes / YouTube viewing stations - one in Adi’s bedroom, on in ours (my wife and I), and one in the living room. None are situation for sitting down at and working. We are anxiously awaiting the 10-foot interface for Macs, without having to use Apple TV. Point being, when I work at home at all, it’s on a laptop. And my real focused personal time is really only on my subway commute. This is rare, rare time and even just doing multi-duty (catching up on my day-job work) and writing this article is stretching myself. But this article-writing is cathartic and necessary to getting into the correct mental-state to be productive.

A modern information worker or knowledge worker needs to know what to do and why to do it. This is the key differentiator between those who excel in the uncertainty of modern business life, and those who get caught in the limitless traps and pitfalls that relegate you to ineffectualness and misery. The modern knowledge worker navigates uncertainty and does the right things for the right reasons. And you can’t do that without a sort of out-loud thoughtful contemplation of your life and situation. Next steps sort of emerge from your subconscious similar to the dreaming process, but much more directed.

Things on my mind right now is that I have to switch the Macbook Air that I have at home with the one that I have at work, because the work one has the rear-illuminated keyboards, which is a feature I would only need at home. They are reversed right now, because of the software load. Microsoft Office for the Mac, which the IT department used to allow us to load onto personal machines no longer can be, so I only have Office on my home machine, which is older and dates back to the older IT policy at my company. But how often do I really use Microsoft Office at home? Only for Outlook, and I’ll just use my iPhone for that. Sorry, Microsoft. Your pricing structures suck, and I’m weening myself off of you, just like I’m weening myself off of Adobe software.

The next thing on my mind is that I’m typing directly into my Rackspace cloud server, into a text-file that serves as my daily work journal. I’m logged into an old-school 80-column terminal window, using a text editor whose history goes back 40 years. It’s creator, Bill Joy, says he would have done it a bit differently, but I disagree. The decisions he made back then when you had to live economically in terms of processor and bandwidth usage are still today’s reality. The desktop-bias of the computer days of yore are winding down. Even mobile isn’t the heir apparent. Rather, it’s The Internet of Things: sensors everywhere, processors everywhere, log-in ability everywhere (if you’re a developer or a hacker).

In tomorrow’s reality, processors become nearly microscopic, embedded into everything and their bandwidth is going to be extremely low and probably proximity-based - like RFID, but with a 2-way interactive terminal connection. It’s perfect for the embedded world, or the Internet of Things. “Old School” is new again, and people barely see it coming. Few things are going to have the vastly greater and more costly parts required to equip it with a desktop environment once you logged into the device. It’s all going to look like 80-column serial command-line consoles - what I’m working in right now. It’s a risky, but a forward-looking decision. I’m positioning myself to be the messenger and mentor of that future.

But we’re not in that future yet, and to be truly productive today, we still have to live in the desktop computer environment (even if you experience it on a laptop). Keyboards and mice / trackpads are with us for the next 10 years, at least. Touch-screens won’t supplant mice or trackpads for a decade yet, due to their cost, and the gradual phasing-out of old hardware and gradual adjustment of Windows 8, OS X and their dependents (or replacements) to be fully and truly touch-screen friendly. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s first act, as is the gradual bias-shift by Apple from mice towards trackpads, which much more closely resemble touch-screens. And keyboards may never fully be phased out, as the “old way” is still the way coding needs to be done. Programming by talking-to and gesturing at “Intelligent Agents” is more than a decade away.

Okay, and in this desktop world, software that is weighed-down and encumbered by both it’s mere size and its restrictive, profit-centric licenses will be at a disadvantage as hardware becomes truly becomes incredibly powerful, yet undifferentiated commodities. The “specialness” in hardware and personal relationship to hardware that companies like Apple bring to the picture is only the opening wave crest of a cycle that ends with everyone copying Apple and applying massive economies of scale that bring it back to a commodity picture. Even awesome style and design can be copied and turned into a “good enough” commodity alternative to the trail-blazing premium products.

This process happened with PCs. It’s happening with Android. And it will happen with wearables, or whatever else. It’s an eternal cycle. And in such a world, the license-free unencumbered software that doesn’t double the device-cost through intellectual property costs and software licenses has a huge advantage. In the days of the PC, it was pirated software. In today’s world, it’s the Linux / Java Android stack. In tomorrow’s world, it’s going to be free and open source software (FOSS) that has evolved to be world-class software in its own right, just the way Linux and desktop environments like Ubuntu have.

The proprietary software peddlers will discount the price of their wares to try to fight this trend. My new Dell Venue 8 Pro actually came with Microsoft Windows 8.1 and a license for Microsoft Office. Windows 8 and an Office license alone would have cost more than the $350 I spent for this device (with the 64GB internal storage option - the 32GB one is $300). And I suppose one should take advantage of that fact, and be using the best software you can be using today. That’s what I’m doing. But my advices is to not get attached to the OS or the desktop environment. Just think of it as a skin and a way of launching your apps. Invest your time and mental energies and attaching your identity and doing all your internalizations with the application software. Don’t make yourself a Windows-person or a Mac-person or even an Ubuntu-person. The only OS-type knowledge and know-how you can acquire that doesn’t have an expiration date on it is command-line Unix - thus, my “short stack” advocacy.

Unfortunately, certain classes of visual communication software are inextricably bound to the desktop. And that’s why I’m up at 4:00 AM in the morning, re-training myself yet again on yet another structured-graphic software model. First, it was Illustrator. Then, it was Aegis ProDraw and Gold Disk ProVector on the Amiga. Then, it was Illustrator and Freehand on the Mac. Later, it was Freehand-like stuff in Altsys Fontographer and Macromedia Flash. Then, I went into hibernation for many, many years. Now that I have woken up, I see that an industry-standard structured graphic format, SVG, has emerged. And amazingly, the free and open source choice is not bad: InkScape.