February 2010 Archives

Old Programmers Don't Die, They Just Fade Away

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A few days ago I came across this Infoworld article entitled "The painful truth about age discrimination in tech" via Slashdot and have been wanting to comment on it ever since. While I have had no reason to cry foul on any company I've ever interviewed for, I have to say most of the issues certainly ring true to me.

One of the frustrations I feel a lot of tech works have is how to communicate experience. Way too often I fell I've talked to recruiters or HR personnel who are either looking for an exact word-for-word match between the resume and the job opening or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are looking for just one keyword to hit.

Alas, it seems all too true that "hiring managers are unable to map how 10 years of experience in one programming language can inform or enhance a programmer's months of experience with a newer technology."

Which of course doesn't help when, in the world of technology, the field is evolving at such a rapid pace, with a huge focus on "The Next Big Thing".

True, writing CGI scripts in Perl yesterday doesn't automatically translate to writing custom modules in Joomla. But there is a road that gets a developer from first writing a CGI script in Perl to learning Object-Orientated programming to understanding design patterns such as Model-View-Controller that does provide one with the basis for working with Joomla.

Luckily this is an issue that can be taken care of with a little education.

More troubling for an experienced developer is that "only 19 percent of computer science graduates are still working in programming once they're in their early 40s."

Granted the source of that statistic is a government study that's at least a decade old. But still, the high turn-over I've experienced working in the tech industry - my average is about 2 years at any given company - I can see many individuals would take the break as motivation to look for something "better". Heck, I've even felt it myself, having gone back to school for a Masters in Business Administration at one point.

Invariably when talking about business, a sports analogy tends to make an entrance. Sure enough, Inforworld's article compares the IT industry to that of professional sports, "at some point in those career arcs, the assets that made workers such hot properties -- youth, the ability to devote lots of time to their vocation, comparative inexperience -- diminish. And the marginal utility of what's left -- experience -- is not as strongly valued."

Yet that of course is not true, well at least it isn't true in professional sports. All you have to do is think of all those managers, coaches and scouts, most of whom at one time or another played the sport itself. Perhaps they never made it to the "bigs" or they did, but found out that their talent wasn't above average. Yet found a way to contribute, to use their experience as a way to give back to the sport that gave them a job, as the saying goes.

Which begs the question, where are those jobs, the managing, coaching or scouting positions in IT?

Amazon Looking to Add Touchscreen to Kindle?

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First published: 3rd of February 2010 for Technorati

The New York Times is reporting that Amazon has acquired Touchco, a small New York-based start-up specializing in touchscreen technology and is planning to incorporate the company's six employees and technology into its Kindle hardware division, named Lab126, which is located in California.

Unlike Apple's touchscreen technology which has a limited number of touch points, Touchco's solution is reported to detect an unlimited amount of simultaneous touch points - which provides greater accuracy - as well as distinguish between different levels of pressure, at a cheaper cost.

Of course last week Apple announced their latest creation: the iPad, a 10-inch tablet-style multi-touch device which will also include an new app called iBooks, a virtual bookshelf containing the user's personal collection of electronic books that can be purchased and read in a manner similar to music on an iPod. "If you've used iTunes or the App Store, you're already familiar with this," Jobs said.

Currently, Amazon's Kindle, unlike Apple's iPad - which uses a more traditional technology to display colorful, interactive content - uses a different display technology known as E Ink.

E Ink is a specific proprietary type of electronic paper manufactured by the company of the same name. While the principle advantage of E Ink is in its ultra-low power consumption and flexibility, it is only commercially available with a small color range (grayscale) and responsiveness, limiting the Kindle's content to mostly static content, such as novels.

However, Fast Company, in reporting E Ink's merger with a much larger business partner last year, noted that the acquisition was designed "at speeding the development of color e-paper." At the time Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was quoted as saying that a color Kindle was "multiple years" away, but Fast Company went on note that E Ink's Vice President Sriram Peruvemba suggested that color displays would begin being available at the end of 2010.

Of course Amazon has already moved to expand the appeal of its eReader, as last month it announced plans for an application store in hopes of getting outside developers to create the same array of programs that are now available for the iPhone and iPad.

Given the Apple and Google's "pole positions" in the hardware and software development of mobile technologies, could Amazon's Kindle be a dark-horse contender for our lazy Sunday afternoons?

Contemplating the iPad

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Now that the dust has settled a bit and everyone else has either praised or condemned Apple's latest hardware offering let us take a look at a few interesting points...

The Beginning of the End Or The End of the Beginning?
A number of people see the end of open, multipurpose computing devices should the iPad find significant traction, such as Jim Stogdill. While comparing the iPad to an Toyota Prius1 he lets known his fear that the closed hardware platform coupled with the high barrier to entry (pay for software developer kit (SDK), wait for approval) will significantly detour the next generation of programmers from playing around and innovating.

Yes, I am of the generation that learned programming, first hand on Apple IIe. It is part of the reason why Apple holds quite a hold on my attention. As a kid I playing with the machine for hours at a time, learning what it could do thanks in part to the built-in BASIC programming language. Heck even as an adult I've found that old computing platform useful.

However, I can't stop thinking, just because transistor radios can't be easily fiddled with, didn't mean people stopped fiddling about with electronics. Sure, there might be a bit more ignorance about electronics in the general population than my liking, but that's easy to take care of. I mean, I didn't take auto maintenance in high school to become an auto mechanic. I took to in part to prevent that high barrier to entry as a road block from getting the most out of my vehicle2.

Moreover, the conditions that exists today are by no means the end-all-be-all. When the Mac first came out the SDK was priced quite high. Now a days it's free, anyone can start playing around on a Mac by simply using the second DVD included with OS X to install Xcode. Nor did the high entry point stop innovation, I mean just look at Adobe.

Which of course brings me to the overall point about the iPad, it might contain the DNA of what could be - being able to access content at anytime, from anywhere no matter if that spreadsheet resides on your iPad, on your computer or on a cloud - but that doesn't mean what it is limited to now will also be true later.

In fact, I would suggest that, as time goes on Apple with open up the iPod/iPhone/iPad platform more and more as new opportunities arise. That goes double for the iTunes store.

To take just one example, personally, when I see my iPhone 3G pause for a handful of seconds just after it receives new email in the background I'm glad Apple hasn't allowed multitasking applications. From my vantage point the hardware is just barely able to support one or two apps running at the same time, let alone dozens.

About That Hardware
After all that additional computing power comes with a tradeoff, responsiveness and battery life.

The two most power hungry elements of a laptop are the LCD display and the CPU. A 10-inch screen requires quite a bit of power just to keep the screen backlit and readable. Require more computing power for something like multitasking and down goes the battery life drastically.

So I'm not sure why people are surprised that Apple has yet to enable multitasking given that the iPad is reported to get 10 hours of battery-life. Plus, everyone who has had time with the iPad thus far has commented on it being wicked fast. Again no doubt in part because of the lack of overhead required for managing a dozen apps at once.

Apple has obviously made some key decisions about what to focus on for the here and now. 

Of course not a lot is publicity known about the custom processor, but I'm sure Apple will be using variations of the chipset in devices to come and has an overall roadmap for the next few generations, leading us back to the conclusion that it is probably only a matter of time until more complex features such as multitasking make their way onto this growing mobile platform.

What About the MacBook Air?
Speaking about Apple's growing mobile platform, has the iPad killed the MacBook Air? I mean I haven't heard much from "the experts" about how the MacBook Air now fits into Apple's overall strategy.

Sure some people are proclaiming the death of computing as we know it which should make one wonder, where does the MacBook Air fit these days?

While I don't know for sure, it doesn't seem hard in hindsight to see the MacBook Air as an evolutionary branch of Apple's long running development of tablet. Or for that matter as an experiment: Are people looking for slim, fast, lightweight laptops, such as what the Air represents or something different?

Given that Apple last quarter sold millions of iPhones and that while iPod sales are decreasing, iPod touch sales were up 55 percent it isn't hard to spot the trend line of where the market seems to be leading.

So given that Apple now has the lightweight go anywhere category covered from the pocket-size mobile device (iPod touch), a smartphone (iPhone) to the tablet (iPad) at various price points as well as the more traditional laptops with the MacBook and MacBook Pro, one has to wonder, what's going to happen to the MacBook Air?

1 I have no idea why tech people love car analogies, but it seems to be the case. However can someone help me understand if the iPhone is the Hummer of smartphones how is an iPad a Prius?

2 Ack, more stupid car analogies...

About the Author

Paul is a technologist and all around nice guy for technology oriented organizations and parties. Besides maintaining this blog and website you can follow Paul's particular pontifications on the Life Universe and Everything on Twitter.


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