The magic inside

Today marks the end of another year for about three quarters of the world’s population. For a select few it means a champagne supper, for many a Cape Canaveral countdown and fireworks. For over one quarter of the world, tomorrow is completely meaningless, just another day in the Year of the Tiger. Grrr.

On the 3rd of February, the roaring tiger is replaced by the mild-mannered rabbit. In Vietnam, apparently, it corresponds to the Year of the Cat. The Chinese ideogram for rabbit (confusingly also translated as hare) is represented as meo, or mao, with various diacritical marks. That’s accents to you or me. I think that sounds like a cat. There’s an old Portuguese proverb: “comprar gato por lebre“, presumably due to the fact that restaurant patrons were often misled into the notion that they were enjoying a plate of jugged hare when they were in fact eating kitty.

The new year, like a birthday, is a clear reminder that time is inexorable on its relentless march. In this last week of the year I had great plans to work on my new book, which is now at around 25,000 words. In the middle of everything else I have to do, it’s been slow going. I don’t suffer from writer’s block (maybe you have to be a very good writer to contract that disease), just agenda block.

That’s why I’m writing this after midnight. I wanted to publish one more post in 2010, partly because I only wrote three this month, and the blog is almost at 600 hits. Which I truly appreciate. No one really knows who they’re writing for, but writing only for yourself can be a little sad. 

But the week turned out to be the busiest “Christmas break” I’ve ever had. Trying to write fiction, or even fact, in these circumstances is impossible. If you read a book on and off, you forget important parts, or even the page you’re on – that’s why bookmarks exist. Writing it is even worse, because you’re in your own uncharted territory. I have a general idea about where the story should go, but it needs to lead me, rather than the other way round. Much like the characters in a story, if you make them speak they take on a life of their own, and as the plot develops some naturally vanish, whereas others dominate events. The good ones, like Alvaro, the brutal soldier in The India Road, seem to write their own dialog. And if, like Alvaro, they are sadistic and sinister, everything around them becomes couched in darkness, as they mete out pain and suffering in appropriate measure until they finally meet their end.

These posts develop in a similar way, particularly on a night like this when my fingers are driving my mind, rather than the other way round. I thought of the blog title about four days ago, it harks back to “the magic inside the machine”. That’s an old computing phrase, referring of course to software. So that’s really what I wanted to talk about, innovation for the new year, but so far I’ve been sidetracked. Over the last couple of years distributed computing has finally hit the sweet spot. In the next couple of years, as prices come down and the user base broadens, it will transform our lives.

Ever since the days of the personal digital assistant, or PDA, which pretty much emerged at the same time as cell phones stopped being the size of cinder blocks, it was clear that sooner or later either the phone would become a PDA, or vice-versa. What wasn’t clear was whether the phone manufacturers were the female praying mantiss or the unfortunate male. Either way, the stage was set for a feeding frenzy. In the end, Apple led the way, so the software companies won the day. And now we’ve moved to somewhere similar to the development of the IBM PC in Boca Raton, waaayyy back in 1981. Thirty years ago tomorrow!

Google’s Android system is giving the IPhone a run for its money. Notice how I’m comparing apples with pears (actually pears with apples, in this case). Android is an operating system, the IPhone is a piece of plastic. What made the IPhone was the software, the magic inside the machine. If you type “pinch” into Google, there are no cellphone-related hits in the first five pages. Below the radar. By the end of 2011 it’ll be on the first page. Of course if you type “pinch android”, it comes up straight away.

Partly because Google did the same as IBM, and opened the market to its system, there’s a perfect storm out there of manufacturers, garage app makers, and a potentially huge user base. In jumped HTC, Samsung, and a bunch of others. Apps are the big thing in either phone, together with a “cool” coefficient. Without the web the cool factor would be on the hot side, because so much depends on stuff the phone pulls off a server. And it was the cell makers who set that one up. Maps, navigation, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all the right buzzwords.

Hai Ou, or Seagull Island, about 100 km southeast of Gangzhou, China - viewed on an early model of smartphone.

The first time I understood why smartphones were the future was in December 2008. I was driving through Hai Ou, Seagull Island, and a Chinese friend was examining our progress on his phone using Google Maps. We were in a derelict sedan on a dirt road, and there was this blinking dot creeping across the phone screen. I felt as if I was in a movie, but hopefully no one was going to hit the missile launch button. I’d seen people trying to drink virtual beer out of an Iphone, but I like the non-virtual stuff; and it was cool that you could use the phone to tune a guitar, but for me the maps were the killer app

In this new world Palm has vanished. The Blackberry is looking tired. Nokia is clinging to its Symbian operating system. The Finnish company started out making rubber boots. In time, that’s where it’s headed. And Microsoft has lost this war. Windows Mobile was around in a PDA I owned in the 1990’s, and it was clunky and buggy. With the IPhone as first mover and with Android soaring, it’s a heck of a race. In another environment Microsoft might have had a chance. But now that Google’s all grown up it ain’t easy. Hotmail was hot, GMail is cool. Bing works, But It’s Not Google, as the wags say.

I wrote my first application for Android last weekend. It shows family pictures and lets you sweep through them with your finger and zoom in on the chosen one. It’s a trivial app, but to me it was like getting on the Playboy site in 1994 -that’s when I knew I was on the web.

To write an application for the IPhone, you need to buy a Mac. Members Only. I think that’s Steve Jobs taking things a little too far. Now the whole thing has opened up, it’ll catch like wildfire. The guys who make the touchscreens, the flash memory, and other gadgets like sensors for movement, temperature, and even proximity, will soar. A 2011 version of picks and shovels.

For this, and for ten other things, nine of which we don’t even know about yet, 2011 is going to be one helluva year.

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