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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Maybe Software Can Really Eat Anything

Venkatesh Rao wrote a very long personal reflection called “King Ruinous and the City of Darkness”, which sprawls over both ancient and modern stretches of Indian history. The text is difficult to summarize in a couple of sentences, because it’s an expansive overview of how Rao came to think in the way that he does. But here are two quotes that jumped out at me:

“There are no real reasons and motivations in Indian politics. As with the rest of the world, politics in India is the art and science of the possible. You do what you can do. You spin the story whichever way you can spin it. The perception problem and the action problem need have no relation to each other, so long as you have solutions to both.”

“One does not simply exit the caste system, but one can sure as hell scramble it beyond recognition and render it unusable by having software and urban modernity eat it. This, incidentally, has been the single most positive development I’ve witnessed in my life. If software can eat the Indian caste system, it can eat anything.”

Innovation: Yeah, Maybe a Bit Overrated

“Crack cocaine […] was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.”

From an Aeon article by Andrew Russell, in which he argues that maintenance is more important than innovation. For the most part I think this is a pointless dichotomy, and Russell’s assertion that Clayton Christensen’s work has been “discredited” is bizarre (see Ben Thompson’s extension of disruption theory), but Russell does make a few good points. Such as the above-quoted one.

Design as an Attitude

The design process consists of making conscious decisions about how to set up a creation. Design’s defining ethos is thinking deeply about a system before planning to implement it. Even a simple object can be considered a system, or perhaps an interface, because it will be touched and used. Therefore even the most basic product should be designed in the way I’m describing. Something complex like a computer operating system requires extensive mental energy.

Free menu icons by The Open Dept.
Free menu icons by The Open Dept. Pretty generic.

One of my least favorite aspects of the world — of reality — is that you can’t simply intuit things. The human brain is frequently irrational and instincts are often wrong, so we need evidence and research to guide us. Humans were able to invent algebra but we certainly don’t follow the rules of logic in our day-to-day mental processing — hence Wikipedia’s long list of cognitive biases.

Design is how we combat our mental quirks when building a product. Instead of throwing things together willy-nilly, we try different combinations, test the results, and eventually settle on a functional configuration. Hopefully the best option is also beautiful! This method produces better results than following random impulses and calling it good.

Theoretically, anyway — sometimes I’m baffled by the choices of very high-status manufacturers.

Wanna use Apple's Magic Mouse while charging it? TOO DAMN BAD. Photo by Roman Loyola; via Macworld.
Wanna use Apple’s Magic Mouse while charging it? TOO DAMN BAD. Photo by Roman Loyola via Macworld.

Computing for Fun, Profit, & Mayhem

Internet Riot Police by Surian Soosay.
Internet Riot Police by Surian Soosay.

Brian Krebs, an investigative reporter who covers cybercrime, made this comment in his Reddit AMA last month:

“Whether we’re talking about security or some other beat, the most interesting stories are those that are essentially stories about people — who they are, their experiences, and their weaknesses and failings, etc. Most failures in cybersecurity are not failures in the technology, per se, but in the way the tech is implemented or not. […] Sure, there are software and hardware vulnerabilities, but from my perspective the vast majority of data breaches succeed because they exploit the person behind the keyboard, as well as organizational lethargy, disorder, neglect or incompetence.”

Yesss. I wrote a while ago that “Tech Is Only Awful Like People Are Awful”, and a related hypothesis is that tech is only interesting like people are interesting. Some readers and consumers love gadgetry for the sake of it, but I’m definitely more intrigued by the socioeconomic and/or sociopolitical machinations behind the scenes.

Stories about how humans make, use, and misuse computers are really just stories about how humans stumble through the world, bashing into every obstacle we possibly can.

Just Your Typical Startup Acquisition Announcement

Today, for the first time, I encountered Creative Commons content on Medium: an article called “Startup Acquisition Announcement” by Petter Palander. Here’s the license summary. I decided to take advantage of this open-source opportunity and post a revised version of Palander’s article on my website, which is what you’re looking at now!

“We’re super excited that we’ve been acquired by [large company]  — rest assured, nothing will happen to the app you love!” How many times have I seen a note along these lines?

For example, here is the Sunrise founders’ letter to their users, posted on the day their app was acquired by Microsoft:

To our friends and Sunrise users:

Today, we’re excited to announce that Sunrise is joining Microsoft. For Sunrise, this is just the beginning.

Sunrise started two years ago with a simple idea that by combining beautiful design and great engineering, we could reimagine your calendar.

Sunrise will remain free and available for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Android and Desktop  — we’re not going anywhere.

And here are the acquisition notes from Microsoft:

Already downloaded by millions of users, the Sunrise app will remain in market and free after the acquisition.

Well. Wow. Nothing will happen. The app is not going anywhere! It will remain free! Amazing — and, of course, total bullshit.

Portrait of a sunrise by Susanne Nilsson.
Portrait of a sunrise by Susanne Nilsson.

Yesterday Microsoft announced that Sunrise will merge into Outlook. It took about eight months.

The Sunrise team is now officially a part of the broader Outlook product team […] All of this means Outlook will eventually replace the current Sunrise app. We will leave Sunrise in market until its features are fully integrated into Outlook.

Can anyone say “aquihire”? The Sunrise founders wrote a follow-up note:

Now here comes the sad news. As the entire team is completely focused on the Outlook for iOS and Android apps, we won’t be updating the Sunrise apps anymore.

Oops. Eight months between “Nothing will happen!” and “Forget we said that!” Are you surprised?

Unfortunately, this how most acquired startups behave. I get it: you don’t want to piss off the users who made it possible for you to be bought in the first place. Maybe the founders should have considered beforehand that one business model for startups  —  or at least one possible outcome  —  is to be acquired. Which is fine! Just don’t fool the users into believing nothing will change.

The founders, the buying company, and industry experts all know that business as usual won’t be the status quo for long. But most of a startup’s users don’t know that. They believe the company blog posts and keep on using the app based on how much they love it, as well as the founders’ reassuring statements. Until one day in the future when it just doesn’t work anymore.

Screenshot of Sunrise's website.
Screenshot of Sunrise’s website.

I loved, and still love, Sunrise. It’s by far the best mobile calendar app I’ve ever used. And I’m sure the team will do the best job they can to get the highlights of Sunrise into Outlook. But that’s not the point. What angers me is that users are deceived. Can we please just stop this bullshit and be honest to our users about what will happen post-acquisition?

Thanks to Aron Solomon and @bestham for the lightning-speed editing help.

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