Monthly Archives: April, 2020

The limits of software

In 2011, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote a widely discussed essay provocatively called “software is eating the world.” One of the illustrations for the web edition of this piece looked like this:

An Angry Bird

It’s a pixelated version of the main (red) bird in the breakthrough mobile game, “Angry Birds,” one of the so-called “killer apps” of early iOS and Android devices. “Angry Birds” was as good a microcosm of the then-booming app economy as any other piece of mobile software – it was disarmingly easy to use, cheap, and completely unsustainable.

If you want to play the original “Angry Birds” today, the most straightforward option is to play one of the console ports (e.g, for Wii U or Wii), which offer a frozen-in-time look at the game near the height of its popularity in the early 2010s. The game itself, which retailed for a few dollars, can no longer be bought in the Apple App Store and has been replaced instead by a free-to-play sequel called “Angry Birds 2.”

The first “Angry Birds” did well within the distinct limitations of mobile phones, which lack the buttons, analog sticks, and various oddities of consoles and PCs, despite having very powerful CPUs and GPUs. But it was a dead end, too. There wasn’t a lot of room to go further with innovation in control schemes, plus mobile devices were already so capable in the 2010s that there was never an opportunity for a quantum leap in graphical fidelity like the ones that swept through console gaming from roughly 1996-2006, when 3-D graphics and then HD became mainstream.

But despite seeming not to change that dramatically on the surface – how much different, really, is the iPhone 11 from the iPhone 6 you might idly wonder – mobile devices and their games have changed rapidly under the surface, dropping support for older 32-bit apps, adding new APIs, etc. on a yearly basis. Their app ecosystems have also evolved just as fast, from paid software in the early days (Angry Birds was once a one-time purchase) to free-to-play and subscription models.

Despite being only a bit over a decade old, “Angry Birds” seems like a relic now. It couldn’t go outside the limits of rock-bottom mobile app pricing nor the restrictive controls possible on a slab form factor phone, and now ironically the best place to experience it as it was is on one of the consoles that it and the other early mobile games were supposed to make obsolete. The Wii U, which sold a meager 12 million units, has a touch screen controller with a stylus that it basically perfect for playing “Angry Birds” and the fact that that console is discontinued means that there aren’t any of the commercial or technological pressures that will necessitate ongoing updates to its version of the game for it to remain playable. Meanwhile, the iOS version to “Angry Birds” from 2010 might as well not exist anymore.

Andreessen himself recently published a new essay lamenting how no one “builds” things anymore, mainly physical things that would have been helpful to have in hospitals, which after all need much more than software. In other words; he seemed to be moving on from the “software is eating the world” optimism because software is, despite being infinitely malleable, limited in its own ways.

It’s limited in the audiences it can reach, as developers like email client makers HEY recently found out.

It’s limited in its preservation, as “Angry Birds” demonstrates.

It’s limited in how it can be commercialized, as the dominance of free-to-play games shows.

It’s limited by the types of hardware that can be built and shipped in a world beset by climate and public health crises.

Software has limits, just like the earth itself. Andreessen’s pivot since 2011 is a strange but welcome way of someone coming to terms with that notion.

Old technology and “videophonic stress”

Seven years ago, I worked for a startup in Chicago’s West Loop. We had the stereotypical setup – open floor plan, huge Thunderbolt monitors for our MacBooks Pro, and lots of cold brew coffee in the office refrigerator. The whole company presented itself as being very modern, but our project was at its heart super old-fashioned – marking up PDFs.

PDF was initially released in the summer of 1993, or not long after I finished the first grade. No document extension has achieved anywhere near the universality of the classic .pdf, with the possible exception of Microsoft Word’s .doc(x). (Another story: When applying for a job in the desperate times of 2011, I once got pinged for not sending my resume as a .doc because the recipient’s computer couldn’t open .docx).

The PDF dinosaur is hardly an exception, though. Old tech is everywhere, despite the software industry’s unending focus on What’s Next and Disruption and any other number of Capitalized concepts (pun intended, I suppose, for all the Marxists out there):

  • Email is over 50 years old.
  • The x-86 processor dates to the Carter administration.
  • The Internet as we know it is built on top of a bunch of protocols that are mostly 20+ years old…
  • …including Wi-Fi (1997) and Ethernet (the early 1980s).

Maybe what’s even more impressive than the age of man seemingly “new” technologies is how their actual day-to-day use was foreseen decades ago. The portions of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” on video meetings are notably famous for exploring the anxieties of video meetings (popular now among the white collar set during the Covid-19 pandemic):

“It turned out there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces…Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to full attention to her…you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove…Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found that they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges…And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain.”

In the novel, video calling actually falls out of fashion because of how it forces participants to perform the part of the interested listener/viewer. That hasn’t happened in the real world just yet, although I do find that a lot of people enable video by mistake on webinar and online meeting platforms, only to disable it later after they either don’t like the look of their own face or don’t want others to see what they’re doing (presumably).

Now that online meetings are “normal” – even though they’ve been around for years and were imagined to their logical extremes by a novel written in the early 1990s – videophonic stress is everywhere, especially for companies that can’t settle for anything less than a full-on simulation of How Things Used To Be (meaning, video conferences, just like everyone was around a table – the “good old days” of wasting tens of hours collectively on something that could have covered over email, and should have been covered over email considering that it’s the only way most remote workers communicate at all). Ultimatley, so much “new” tech – video conferences, workplace chat like Slack, etc – are there to recreate the semblance of something old – the in-office meetup, mostly.

Looking to join in on the fun, I once turned on video on a call when using a 2010 vintage laptop that I had outfitted with a new solid-state drive, more RAM, and a fresh install of Ubuntu. (Lots of old tech here, too: optical drive [early 1980s], VGA connector [1987], USB-A [late 1990s], Linux kernel [1991]). The frame rate was abysmal – I looked like I was in slow motion, perhaps in a bunker on a different planet. It helped with my vanity – since it didn’t look like me much at all, the distorted image seeming more like a painting – but also discouraged me from using video at all since it felt like such an Uncanny Valley to look at myself in 30 FPS or lower. Audio-only, then, using the 100 year-old headphone jack. It’s old technology all the way down…