There is no ‘I’ in internet

August 30, 2011 11 comments

There was an aside that I wanted to go on in my latest mega-post on Apple, but I decided against it because that particular entry was already way too long. I mentioned that the internet is like heaven in that it doesn’t really exist, as far as science knows. It actually wasn’t a theological tangent I was thinking of, but rather a grammatical one.

I’ve had the same debate with editors everywhere I’ve worked: why is “Internet” capitalized? No one has been able to properly answer that question.

It’s possible the word was originally capitalized because it came from the Internet Protocol standards published by DARPA in the 1970s. Still, that’s ancient history and capitalizing “internet” defies grammatical conventions.

The basic rule is that all proper nouns - a word that represents a unique entity, whether it is a person, place or thing - are capitalized regardless of where they are used in a sentence (full rules on capitalization can be found here). The internet, however, is not a person, place or thing, nor is it really an entity. Depending on your definition, the internet is either a series of tubes or, more correctly, it is a network of connected computers that does not exist in any one place. It’s also not a proper thing.

I’ve often used the heaven example in arguments. It’s also not a real place - as far as we know - nor is it a real thing that can be touched. As a result, no one outside of religious publishers capitalizes the word “heaven.”

Although I’ve succeeded in convincing newspaper editors and style gurus that it’s similarly incorrect to capitalize “internet,” no one I’ve ever worked for has gone ahead and changed the rules on how the word is written. The killer has been the why: in each case, the decision to stick with the capital “I” was made either because that’s how it had always been done, or because everybody else was doing it.

Fortunately, some news organizations - mostly outside North America - are coming to their senses. According to Wikipedia, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald are among the outlets that have recently adopted the lower-case spelling, while Wired magazine here in North America was one of the first.

I’ll keep fighting my lower “i” war in the hopes that some day, we too will become enlightened like our international brothers. You can enjoy the lower-case internet on my blog’s home page, but if it’s the upper case Internet you’re looking for, you can ironically see that in the Macleans version.

Categories: internet

It’s folly to underestimate Apple’s contributions

August 29, 2011 10 comments

I’m back from my short vacation and what’s the first thing I see? A character assassination attempt by my fellow Macleans blogger Jesse Brown.

Just kidding. I have nothing but respect for Jesse and love his stuff (his interview a few years back with Jim Prentice, where the industry minister hung up on him, is one of my all-time favourites). He messaged me while I was gone to ask if I was okay with him rebutting my blog post the other day about Steve Jobs and Apple’s importance to technology over the past decade. Of course I was, so he had at it.

To summarize, Jesse challenged my assertions that Apple changed everything with a slew of products that included the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. He went on to say that Google has been the far more important technology company over the past 10 years.

Just as he thought I was “off my nut,” I think he’s similarly out to lunch, not so much for his conclusion but for how he got there.

First, a mea culpa of sorts. Jesse says I was wrong to say that Jobs himself has been the most important person of the decade, that “Osama Bin Laden must be spinning in his grave.”

No argument there. I’m a technology journalist and commentator and don’t necessarily consider myself qualified to discuss who the most important and influential person overall might be. I thought it was a given that I was limiting myself to the world of tech, but perhaps not. If so, my bad.

As far as which company has been more important, it wouldn’t be as straightforward an argument as Jesse suggests. While I’d probably also favour Google in that debate, it wouldn’t be without reservations, which is where we differ. Jesse asserts that Apple’s biggest impact has been aesthetic - that all it has done is perfected the work of the previous century and only changed the way things look:

It’s essentially a hardware company, and it’s ill-prepared for a world where objects mean less and information means more. There’s no new God-gadget coming from Cupertino—all Apple can do once it’s done sticking cameras on things and offering them in different colors is to release cheaper iPhones and cheaper iPads, devaluing their gear until the gee-whiz factor is totally gone.

Google, meanwhile, is the company that has reinvented advertising, organized all the information on the internet in a meaningful way, driven cloud computing and created “a data-driven economy fueled by the input of individuals.”

Again, I don’t disagree with the arguments for Google, but I do take umbrage with the serious undervaluing of Apple - and every other hardware maker, for that matter. Such a position completely discounts a full half of the internet because without the things that actually connect to it, there is no internet. It’s just an electronic ether that doesn’t really exist, much like heaven (as far as science can prove). Until we can connect our brains directly to this virtual miasma of data that Google has done such a good job organizing, we’re going to be reliant on companies to make hardware that acts as the intermediary.

There are many hardware companies that are important to the internet, from Cisco and network equipment manufacturers to HP and other server makers. Apple and other consumer-facing companies, however, are the ones that decide how every-day people access and use that miraculous internet.

Apple is just one of many makers of this sort of stuff, but its impact has been far more than aesthetic. It hasn’t just made things look nice, it has led the market and invented entire categories of products, all of which exploit, expand and bring value to the internet that we treasure so much. And before the Apple haters jump down my throat, there is a big difference between inventing a “product” and a “category.” Apple may not have invented the tablet computer, for example, but it sure did motivate the section for them at Best Buy. Apple didn’t invent smartphones either, but it absolutely kickstarted demand for them.

That said, isn’t a company that has expanded the ways and means in which people access all that information and data on the internet just as valuable as the company that organized it and did nifty things with it? I think so.

Jesse also argues that much of what Apple has done was inevitable:

If the iPod and iTunes never existed, online music sales might have taken years longer to develop from the ashes of Napster. But it still would have happened… [With the iPhone Jobs] may have jumpstarted the popularization of the mobile Internet by a year or so.

Couldn’t the same be said of Google? There were search engines before it - all Sergey Brin and Larry Page did was come up with a particularly effective algorithm that eliminated human labour from the equation. While Yahoo had employees manually surfing the web and inputting search results, Google had computers doing the same, which gave it a huge efficiency advantage that ultimately crushed all competitors. Google Maps is similarly a fine tool, but isn’t it just a shinier version of Mapquest? Gmail is also great, but isn’t it just a better Hotmail?

Google’s real innovation was in figuring out how to apply ads to all of this stuff and make piles of money from them, which in turn enables everything else it does. In a way, all Google did was get to that now-logical conclusion before anyone else.

The point is, it doesn’t matter if it’s Apple or Google - it’s wrong to disparage a company just because it thought of a better way to do something that somebody else did before. That’s the essence of innovation.

Getting back to the iPhone, it’s hard to overstate just how big an impact it has had. Prior to its release, when corporate users were busy punching emails into their BlackBerrys, mobile data was unbelievably expensive. Here in Canada, a single gigabyte cost somewhere in the realm of $2,500. If Jobs’ biggest accomplishment over the past 10 years could be pinpointed, my vote would go to his convincing AT&T to offer unlimited data on the iPhone for less than $100. From his perspective, there was no point in releasing a handy data- and web-enabled device if people weren’t going to use it because of its prohibitive cost, so he somehow forced AT&T to play ball. Carriers across North America had no choice but to follow suit, which is why we now have a smartphone and mobile internet boom - one that Google is coincidentally profiting from.

The smartphone originators - BlackBerry, Nokia or Microsoft - could have tried to do that, and for that matter so too could have Google, but they didn’t. It was Apple that dragged the internet off of computers and into the mobile light of day. That’s a huge accomplishment.

Jesse is also a self-avowed non-believer in the iPad and, by extension, tablets at large:

I’ve yet to notice any real impact of the gadget… Tablets are not the written word’s savior or the future of the digital age. They’re just a different kind of computer that adds comfort while subtracting control.

That misses the point of what a post-PC world is - it’s a future where computing is made invisible and divided into different devices in different situations (until we get that direct brain-internet connection, that is).

A few years ago, if you wanted to do any sort of computing work - write an article, look up movie showtimes, edit a video or watch a movie - you had to either sit down at your desktop or pull out your laptop. Now, smartphones are cutting into all of that, as are tablets.

I took this tablet hating to task a few months ago in a post where I professed my love for them. That love has only gotten stronger since. I write my stories and blog posts on a computer, but I do everything else - read books, watch movies while on the go, play games, hotel check-ins, social media, mapping, check the weather, you name it - on an iPad. A few weeks ago, I had coffee with an editor who told me about how her elderly parents had taken up computing thanks to the iPad. The former Luddites used it to book a trip out west, then emailed photos once they were there. My old Polish mother has also expressed an interest in tablets. That fact alone, if you knew her, is a major impact.

Businesses are adopting them too. A few months ago, when I was taking a shuttle from the L.A. airport, I couldn’t help but notice the buses all used iPads for route planning and organization. Similarly, The Guardian had an article over the weekend about how airlines are using tablets for their flight plans. These are anecdotal examples, but more and more of them are popping up every day. Add them up and you have the makings of a real impact. The actual numbers, which show that PC sales are sliding because of tablets, are starting to show the same thing.

A post-PC world, therefore, isn’t one where computers are made obsolete - it’s one where the majority of computing is done on mobile devices.

The bottom line to all of this is that it’s easy to like Google and hate Apple, especially if you’re a journalist. One is relatively open and preaches the same while the other jealously guards its secrecy and is otherwise a closed book. Despite that, Apple still manages to get an undue amount of media attention, which rankles many.

By the same token, it’s easy to hate on the top dog - and let’s face it, that’s what Apple is in consumer tech (it has near-monopoly status with iPods, iTunes and iPads; has the top-selling smartphone by far despite Android’s collective market share leadership; and is on the verge of finally conquering Microsoft in computers). While the company amassed an army of fanboy followers over much of its history as the underdog in the epic struggle against the “evil empire” (Microsoft), it’s perhaps understandable that haters are now popping out of the woodwork. It’s poetic justice and all that.

As a neutral observer with no stake in this issue either way, I can’t say I particularly care whether Google or Apple is the more influential and important company of the past decade. Both have been drivers of major change and will likely be vital to the continued evolution of the internet and technology in general, at least for the next few years. To dismiss or discount the accomplishments of either, however, is folly.

Categories: apple, Google, internet, ipad, iphone

A fast-food monster with two heads

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m on a mini-vacation today so I’ll leave you all with a short funny. As regular readers know, I’ve made a bit of a sport out of trying the craziest fast-food I can find. The reigning champs, of course, are McDonalds’ McRib sandwich and KFC’s bun-less Double Down.

Check out the guys in the video below. They’ve done the unthinkable: they’ve combined the above two sandwiches into something they call “the McDribble Down.” It’s wonderful and horrible all at the same time:

Categories: kfc, mcdonald's

Steve Jobs: respect the doing, not the talking

August 25, 2011 2 comments

And the big tech news just keeps on a’rolling. I’m on a mini-vacation in Quebec, but I couldn’t not write something about Steve Jobs’ resignation, which was about as surprising as Google taking over Motorola or HP announcing its exit from the consumer business, both of which happened last week. Jobs has been battling illness for some time so the news isn’t that unexpected, but just like the company he built, the man himself seemed somewhat unstoppable so it’s shocking nonetheless.

There will be a lot of commentary extolling what Jobs has meant to the world of technology and not much of it will be overstated. Simply put, no company - probably not even Google - and certainly no individual has made as much of a difference or changed the ways things work over the past 10 years as Apple has under Jobs.

First, the iPod changed how we listen to music. In conjunction with iTunes, it also changed how we buy music, which did much to influence how video is sold and distributed as well. The iPhone then changed the world of telecommunications. Apple pried the phone itself and its data capabilities away from the greedy, clammy hands of wireless operators and really did make the whole business about “I” (or you and me). Most recently, Jobs pulled another rabbit out of his hat with the iPad, a device that he called “magical” and which is now doing much to drive computing toward a post-PC reality.

It’s hard to think of another tech company, again with the possible exception of Google, that has achieved anywhere close to that over the past decade. And, as far as we know, Apple is Jobs, so the company’s success is his success.

On the downside, Apple has been a singular pain to deal with as a journalist, and this too comes from Jobs’ controlling persona. Under no circumstances does the company or its people officially comment on anything, whether it’s products, trends or even the weather outside. Even when we are invited onto the company’s soil and given special briefings, this is as secretive and tight-lipped company as there is. Executives and product managers might tell us all kinds of great stuff in confidence, but we’re never allowed to use it on pain of never being invited back.

As frustrating as it often is, in a way I sort of respect the approach. Apple is very clearly a company that just does, as opposed to one that talks about doing. I know I have a few friends who talk a big game about things they’re going to do with their lives, but they never end up following through. That’s annoying, so it’s refreshing to see someone - even if it’s a company who I’d eventually like to sometimes talk to - do the reverse. There are definitely a lot of tech companies that talk a lot, but ultimately accomplish nothing.

The big question now is can Apple continue its dominance without Jobs in an every-day role. I’m sure the other question every journalist is quietly asking themselves is will a post-Jobs Apple continue being a company that just does, or will it open up a bit and start talking too?

Categories: apple

The coming boom in techno-education

August 24, 2011 2 comments

I’m going to be spending the next few months brushing up on my German (I actually did take some classes a few years back) as I’ll be one of the keynote speakers at the Online Educa conference in Berlin in December.

The event, which runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, describes itself as the “largest global e-learning conference for the corporate, education and public service sectors.” This year’s theme will be “new learning cultures,” with speakers and sessions focusing on whether new teaching methods are going to be required in the future and how technology will figure into all of it.

Fortunately, my speech will be in English, so I’ll only need the German to figure out how to order sausages while there. I’ve been asked to talk about how some of the themes in Sex, Bombs and Burgers relate to education, with how technology affects learning as the broader subject.

I discussed some of my preliminary thoughts on a short Educa podcast, which can be heard here. In a nutshell, while education doesn’t really figure as a central theme in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, the effects of food, war and even porn on worldwide learning are pretty significant.

Food is actually the biggest driver of education supply. When parents have enough food for their children and no longer have to worry about where their next meals are going to come from, getting them to school is usually the next step. In other words, children who are hungry and poor are less likely to be concerned with learning, but when they have enough food, they suddenly and necessarily become students.

Food technology - as well as better water purification, medicine and general economic improvement - has resulted in nearly half a billion people escaping absolute poverty over the past five years. This trajectory is going to continue, which means the number of children joining the global education system over the next few decades is going to skyrocket. That means one of two things: either we’re going to need a lot more teachers, or technology will be needed to make learning more efficient and entrepreneurial.

I read with great interest a story on this subject in a recent issue of Canadian Business magazine. The story detailed the efforts of Sugata Mitra, an Indian professor who teaches in the UK, and his Hole the Wall project. The experiment involved sticking a computer with internet access into one of the poorest schools in Delhi and allowing students to use it freely. Rather than lecturing and instructing the students, Mitra would simply allow them to teach themselves. The results were amazing - students ended up teaching themselves English, among other things.

With a huge influx of new students on the horizon, schools - especially those in heavily populated nations such as India and China - are going to need to think more along these lines.

To get back to the Sex and Bombs, however, both the military and porn industries have also had huge effects on education both directly and indirectly. According to Peter Singer in his book Wired for War, about one-third of all university research funding since the 1950s has come from the military. It’s impossible to overstate how much of an effect all that money has had on the direction and quality of education in the United States.

The sex industry’s effect has been considerably less direct, but still important. As discussed in my book and in The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, porn producers have historically supplied much of the early development dollars for all communications technologies, from the simple camera right on up to the internet. Without all that early adoption, those technologies - each of which in turn changed and improved education - might never have seen the light of day.

Nevertheless, it’s the food supply-education demand aspect that fascinates me most. I have a few months yet to put my speech together, but that’s the likeliest direction I’ll be taking. I think it’ll be fun to imagine what learning will look like in 10 years. More people than ever will be taking part in the education system, which means big changes are in store.

Categories: food, germany