Celebrating Technology Innovators
Hats off to developers searching for practical solutions.
A recent Editor's Note touched on the fact that I'm sometimes unimpressed by the specific features included in the revisions of some products ("Software Advancements Fail to Keep Pace
," March 2008). But I left one key point unsaid in that editorial: I find some software disappointing, but I have the utmost respect for those who spend their lives dreaming up and implementing new technologies and solutions.
Due to space constraints, I ended up cutting a short section in that earlier article that explained why I chose an Atari 800XL as my first computer. I chose that computer, not for its price or performance or available software, but because one of my best friends, Jerry, had an Atari 800XL. I was familiar with that computer and the software available for it, so I bought what my friend used.
Jerry operated a computer bulletin board system (BBS) when online posting systems were still in their relative infancy. He wrote a Dungeons & Dragons-style game for this BBS in Atari's flavor of BASIC. The game itself was simple and text-based, but I spent a ridiculous number of hours logged into the BBS playing it.
Jerry brought a hobbyist's enthusiasm to his computer interests. In the professional development world, a hobbyist is often looked down upon as an inferior specimen of developer, but my guess is most professional developers were once hobbyists. Many of the best developers are those who maintain that initial enthusiasm for effecting solutions even as they gain a solid understanding of good architecture and best software practices.
Like many hobbyists, Jerry transitioned to a role as a professional developer. He earned a living as a Visual Fox Pro developer and ultimately cofounded his own software programming company. But that was later; his initial interest in computers was to figure out ways to harness them to effect solutions in every day life. For example, he once wired up a computer so that it responded to verbal commands to turn the lights and other appliances in his room on and off.
Opening or closing a door would prompt a computer-synthesized voice to inform you that said door had opened or closed. These technology applications were more mildly irritating than useful, in retrospect; they were also completely charming. It was a glorious case of technological overkill, where the technology was deployed for the sole purpose of performing a task that required no special technology at all.
To this day, I have a healthy respect for technology in search of a practical solution -- like Microsoft's connected refrigerator concept from a few years back. Does anyone really need a refrigerator that can call the store to order eggs or milk when you run low? And yet, there's something oddly invigorating about such applications. It should also be noted that innovation rarely comes without some cost. In my friend's case, he inadvertently shorted a handful of fuses in the process of implementing his bit of technological wizardry, prompting his dad to suspend the experiment for a period of time. Genius often goes underappreciated at the time of its gestation.
I spend a fair amount of time critiquing Microsoft, its programming tools, and this industry in general. I do this because I see myself as your advocate. I'm in awe of much of the technology we use, but I know it can be better, so I try to point out cases where life could be improved for developers. But I'd be remiss if I didn't occasionally point out that I'm the editor in chief of a magazine like this one because it's fun to see and write about the technological advances around a programming suite like Visual Studio. I might not always appreciate the specific features developed, but I am appreciative of the efforts that go into developing them, and I salute all who have a role in their creation.
This column is dedicated fondly to the memory Gerald "Jerry" Cumins, 1968-2008.
Talk Back: What is your favorite instance of technological overkill? Tell me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.