Essays on Technology and Culture

What The Heck Even Is the Technology Industry These Days?

What even qualifies as the technology industry these days? Tech is eating everything—media, logistics, the service industry, entertainment, even food. Back in 2013, Twitter founder Ev Williams described the Internet as “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It was pretty spot on then, and now, all you have to do to be labelled a technology company is to use software, typically built using off-the-shelf components, to make it easier and faster for a person to get the thing they want. Or, they make it easier and faster to get ads in front of people.

There’s value to that, I suppose, though whether that value is worth upending the lives and livelihoods of the people who used to get those things to us is yet to be determined. Is this really what we think of when we think of technology? I’ve always thought of technology, and the industry around it, as being in the business of making tools. Some of the tools were hardware, and some of the tools are software, but the emphasis was on enabling people to make things with them, from spreadsheets to spaceships. Looking at the tech marketing spin, we’re a long way from Steve Jobs’s “bicycle for your mind.”

I don’t want to imply that there isn’t anyone working in the pure technology space, but their numbers appear to be thin on the ground. Most are long-lived, established technology companies from before the great shift to on-demand goodies, like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM. The rest are often a passion project of someone who’s already made bank in the technology-as-a-service space, like Elon Musk’s endeavors.

And you have to be an Elon Musk level of wealthy to do something like that. VCs don’t want to fund hardware startups. There’s too much risk for too little return. A safer bet is to fund a software-as-a-serve startup that can get bought out by one of the big players in the tech space. The current model doesn’t allow for much experimentation in pure technology fields. Ask anyone involved in Biotechnology, which has been a historically tough sell to investors as well, and is still in a funding slump.

The darlings of the tech investor world, the various unicorn startups do have a technology component to their products. I don’t doubt the acumen of the engineers on staff at many of them—well, maybe Jawbone. It takes a lot of skill, and a lot of work to scale something to the level of an Uber, or a Spotify. That technology, however, is—as mentioned before—often running on commodity platforms like AWS [1], and what isn’t, is not a platform anyone else can build on. Sure, some of these companies have APIs, but they’re also subject to being closed and revoked at any time.

I continue to be excited about what we can do with technology. Not necessarily by becoming engineers, but by the possibilities created by hardware and software tools for ordinary people. That’s way more exciting than yet another social network, yet another connected home device, yet another way to stream media I don’t own, or yet another service that underpays people to do unpleasant jobs for me. I can do my own laundry, tech industry. I want to be impressed again.

  1. Amazon is an interesting case here, straddling the line between a true tech company and a services one. I’ll have to dig in on that another time.  ↩

The App Store is Not Flat

It’s that time again. Another set of complaints about the price of apps, and the difficulty of making money in the iOS App Store. I’ll spare everyone the reasons behind the most recent kerfuffle. It doesn’t matter, since we’re likely to have this same, tired discussion in the next six to twelve months. The people and apps involved might change, but the fundamental points remain: people don’t like to pay for apps, it’s hard to make money on the App Store—let alone consistent money.

When the App Store launched seven years ago, there was a gold rush of developers staking claims on the new platform in hopes of getting rich. There was a brief, shining moment, where indie developers and established software houses had an equal chance of making a mint by selling an iPhone app. Indeed, there were a few people who became millionaires, seemingly overnight, but after a while, the only people really striking it rich were the ones selling how-to guides for building apps and optimizing placement in the App Store. And the chorus began: “Nobody pays for apps! In-App purchases suck! Nobody pays for upgrades! You can’t compete with free!” cried the developers.

In 2015, the playing field of app development is no longer flat—if it ever really was. Now it’s tilted, strongly, in favor of established companies both big and small, and large indie developers who staked their claims in the short-lived Wild West of the App Store. The days where it was theoretically possible to strike it rich by making one or two apps, and without using In-App Purchases, are over. They’ve been over for a while. It’s easier to get your app noticed, made a top pick, and get press, when you’ve had a couple other successful app launches under your belt. Nobody will deny that. For a new, independent developer, reaching the heights of the top selling and top grossing charts is difficult. Making a sustainable business out of it? That is very difficult.

But not impossible. To quote Lou Reed, “Very difficult is winning the Nobel Prize. Impossible is eating the sun.”

New indie app developers do not have to eat the sun.

On Twitter, I made an analogy comparing selling apps in the App Store to selling refrigerators. Even the best refrigerator startup is unlikely to outsell GE without a lot of time in the business. It’s accurate, but thinking about it more, the App Store model is closer to the world of music. You’re not going to go from playing in a garage from playing a stadium overnight. You gotta work your way there. And just because Taylor Swift sold 8.6 million copies of 1989 doesn’t mean that your record won’t sell enough copies to pay for the next album, one way or the other.

The music industry is tough to make it in, but I’ve never wanted for really good music to listen to, even new music, and I’ve never wanted for really good iOS apps. I may have wanted for specific apps, but there is no shortage of really good iOS software out there, put out by independent developers, at a myriad of price points. OmniFocus for iOS costs $39.99, and I use it every day. I could probably get by with the stock Reminders app, but OmniFocus is better for what I need, and the price was well worth it. I also use Cesium every day as a replacement for the stock Music app, and it might be the best $1.99 I ever spent on the App Store.

Are these apps sustainable? I don’t know. One can’t generalize on this sort of thing. The economics of app development are complex, and when faced with complex systems, we love to make generalizations to help us grasp it. I think we can agree that a developer doesn’t need to sell huge numbers of a product to be successful. Problem is, “Success” is a bothersomely relative metric, really. For one developer, “success” might be making enough money that they can go live in a private island in the Bahamas, and drink Mai Tais served by monkey butlers. For another, “success” might be showing they have the development chops to get hired by a firm that builds iOS apps for other companies.

What does a “successful app” even look like in 2015? I’m not an app developer. I can’t answer that question. It’s up to each individual developer to decide on their metric to define success, whether it’s knocking Kim Kardashian’s app off the Top Grossing list, or just making beer money. Before we start raising our hackles about developers who price their apps too high—or too low—we need to step back and see the bigger picture. A price change for one app, no matter how popular it may be among an audience of tech nerds, is no bellwether of the fortunes of developers as a whole. One person’s success is not a guarantee of another’s failure, and one new business model does not preclude the success of another.

Try to remember this when the perfect storm of app pricing comes around again next year.

I Work in Online Publishing and I Block Ads. Here’s Why.

The sky is not falling, at least not yet. That seems to be the takeaway from most of the pieces, for and against, I’ve read on ad blocking in the wake of iOS 9, and the Content Blocker drizzle. [1] It’s something I’ve watch with interest as both a dedicated ad blocker, and an employee in the world of ad-supported digital publishing. As a consumer of content, I don’t want my data tracked and sold, and I don’t want ads to interrupt what I’m reading or watching. As a guy with $36,000 in student loan debt, who also needs to pay rent and eat, I want to make sure I still have a job.

There’s a balance to be struck, for sure. Advertising is a necessity in a society where people have things to sell, and other people have things they need to buy. It’s that simple. We will never live in a world that is free of advertising, and I am fine with this. What I, and so many others, are not fine with, are ads that keep us from doing whatever it is we set out to do, and ads that follow us around on our travels across the web. In my digital publishing role, I get to see some incredibly detailed information about the audience for target advertisements.

I’m forced to be vague here, and this level of details is partially a function of pulling publicly available data sources for the information on a class of professionals, and paying handsomely for the privilege. With all the information everyone is feeding to social networks, which also work as ad networks, data brokers, and track us across the web, it’s not a leap to assume some office drone is able to pore through my personal information collected for the purposes of ad tracking, as well. Ad and tracker blocking software is the only tool most of us have to change that balance. It’s possible to opt-out of a lot of social and ad tracking and data collection, but it’s a huge pain to do so.

For this reason, among others, I am not willing to join ranks with publishers who rage and bluster against ad blocking as if the users were amoral thieves. If anything, it’s the ad networks who collect our data who are the thieves, because we never explicitly consented to giving them our data in the first place. We put our information out there into the aether, and they suck it down and spit it back in our faces with badly targeted ads that follow us wherever we click to next. But that targeting is getting better by the day.

This is pure avarice on the side of the advertisers—their dream of a day of one-to-one targeted ads that offer us exactly what we want, exactly when we want it requires massive data collection, to make happen. The idea of an advertiser knowing exactly what I want and showing it to me gives me the willies. It should give you the willies too for the reasons I outlined above: if the advertiser, their network, or their algorithm has that much data, who else does? What protections exist? Why should we trust advertisers to use our data ethically?

The answers: everyone with database access—authorized and otherwise, none, and we shouldn’t.

Yet, not all advertisers behave this way. The Deck, which advertises on a number of sites run by people I respect and admire, released a privacy statement explaining their disinterest in tracking users. I’m happy, when I visit a site with Deck ads, to whitelist them in my ad blocker. Their ads respect me, and in turn, I will respect them back. This is a fair exchange. The Deck only knows that someone saw the ad, and that’s all the information I think it is fair to give to an advertiser, or the network it runs on. I also think it’s fair for a website owner to know that I visited their site, and even what platform and browser I used to do so. Anything beyond that is too far.

I’m also not a fan of the idea of Facebook, Google, Snapchat, or even Apple being the primary distribution points for content. It gives too much power to companies that have too much control over what we see and do already. Independence is essential for good journalism, for free expression, and I’ll remain suspicious of anything that risks violating that. This suspicion even extends towards Native Advertising, the practice of advertisers sponsoring and even providing, content for websites—though I’m more open to it than Ben Brooks. [2] The acceptability of Native Advertising is based on our trust of the publisher to choose sponsors in an ethical way, but all too often money will trump ethics any day of the week, especially for larger publishers.

At least we’re talking about solutions. I might be willing to drop my ad blocker and my tracking script blocker if, say, Maciej Cegłowski’s “Six Fixes” were implemented across the web. Ad blockers that make judgment calls about what ad networks and advertisers are behaving ethically, such as Dean Murphy’s Crystal app are another option. As networks and sites learn to behave and treat audiences with respect, it can be easier to whitelist them.

I don’t know how this will shake out, though research suggests that it certainly won’t be the bloodbath that online publisher’s assume it to be. There will be shifts, and there will be pain for any number of online publishers. If you get any emails from a publisher, expect to see more ads there—iOS Content Blockers don’t work in the Mail app. Expect more “Native Advertising,” and expect companies pushing you disable your ad blocker, or pull other tricks. Once it all shakes out, it’ll be something like the war on pop-up ads, and, for a while, the pendulum will shift to a calmer, quieter web with more respectful ads that we won’t mind seeing. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Note: An earlier version of this piece linked to an interview with Dean Murphy. The interview is good, but the interviewer was operating under false pretenses, and for the sake of the tech blogging community at large, I have removed the link.

  1. Seriously, there were, what, five that came out on the first day?  â†©
  2. While a membership model might work for an independent, solo publisher, you can’t run anything at scale that way. Subscription and circulation revenue in print has long been a fraction of advertising revenue for publishing.  â†©

A Few Scattered Thoughts on Web Advertising

Everyone’s talking about ads, and tracking scripts, and web performance, and ads, and ads, and ads. As someone who works in media—albeit niche, specialized media—and someone whose job involves setting up lists and tracking codes for targeted advertising, it all hits home. It’s the part of my job I hate the most, even more than the gross pictures of dermatological disorders that end up in my inbox at least once a week. [1] Yet, as someone who also uses the web, who makes things for the web, who genuinely loves the web, and who wants to somehow make a living with making things for the web, I’m genuinely conflicted as hell about the whole thing.

Let’s face it, advertising is a necessary evil—only not actually evil, at least in theory. Someone has a product they need to sell. Someone has a need for a product to do something for them. Advertising is often how that gap is bridged, and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet, some people roll their eyes and view advertising as an affront to all it means to be human. Sure, many ads are bad, and advertisers in the digital age want more and more data so they can get closer and closer to the creepy world of one-to-one advertising—which both evil and unnecessary—but advertising as a general concept is not.

Speaking as both a digital media employee who has to deal with ads, and as a web user who uses an ad blocker and a tracking script blocker at home, the frustration—and the conflict—arises, when advertising becomes more important than content. We’re not going to The Verge, or iMore, or wherever to look at ads. We’re going there to read cool stuff, and the ads are getting in the damn way.

I’ve taken to unblocking the ads on sites that use ads in a respectful, polite manner. Stuff like The Loop, Six Colors, Daring Fireball, Metafilter, etc. Usually these are places that use ad networks like Fusion and The Deck, who also don’t target and track users. These ad networks, however, don’t work at the scale needed to support a site like iMore, or The Verge. So, they’ve gotta go for the more gross, and intrusive ads.

But what’s the alternative? The content model on the web is broken. Nobody wants to pay for anything—who do you know who has a digital subscription to the New York Times, anyway? The only way to make money at media scale with ads is more intrusive, obnoxious ads, and it’s clear audiences are fed the fuck up. It’s unlikely that online audiences are going to start coughing up money for commoditized content. With Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies creating content platforms that free readers from the burden of obnoxious ads, content is only going to be more commoditized, and harder to make money from.

I don’t have a solution, but I can’t help but think people would be less inclined to block ads if the ads weren’t so obnoxious. We’re a long way from the days of egregious pop-up ads that spawn more pop-up ads, flashing neon-colored “YOU ARE OUR 100,000th VISITOR” banners, and “Punch the Monkey” garbage that could crash your entire machine… but that’s a small blessing. There’s going to have to be a reckoning and a pushback against the current ad model, and it won’t be pretty when it happens. I just hope I’m in a place far from ground zero when it blows up.

  1. And those dermatological disorders are occasionally on parts of the body you don’t want to see in your work inbox.  ↩

Productivity Ãœber Alles

Produtivity is all that matters. Do more work, do it faster, do it better (maybe), and the world will be yours, if you can ever find the time. After all, life is just a big competition. Someone is going to undercut you, your job is going to be outsourced to a contract programmer in India. A competing startup is going to be bought by Facebook. You have to be on top of everything. You have to be productive. Always.

Productivity rules everything. It explains the preponderance of “sharing economy” companies that promise to do all the useless, utilitarian crap that takes up so much of your day. There’s companies to drive you around. There’s companies to bring you groceries, ready-to-cook meals, pre-made meals, Soylent. Companies to do your laundry, clean your house, buy you clothing… All to save you time that you can spend being more productive.

It’s reflected in the Cult of the Entrepreneur, the ideal to which we all must aspire. He (and it is always a he) is the one who is 110% dedicated to his vision and business, until it’s time to pivot. He’s constantly pitching, constantly seeking clients, constantly working, except when he’s working out or sleeping at the office (or coworking space). And why is he working out? To keep himself fit so he can work longer hours, even harder than any other entrepreneur. This is the only way to live: working for yourself, free from your commitments to The Man. You only are responsible to your clients and your investors. True freedom.

Of course, the entrepreneur route isn’t easy, or cheap. It helps if you’re not in debt, of if you have rich parents and a trust fund. Fortunately, if you can’t be a Real Entrepreneur, you can work for a startup (if you’re a white male who knows how to code.) Trade money for equity, work long hours, and maybe you too will be inspired to start your own company and be the Valley Ideal. It’ll be easier once your equity vests, and the startup you work for gets acquired for a few hundred mil. Now you don’t even need Angel funding!

Find all the wasted time in your life and squeeze it out. Quantify yourself. Quantify everything. You can’t improve what you don’t have data on, so start collecting it all. Anything you can’t quantify, well, it probably isn’t important. In fact, scratch the “probably” part. Install RescueTime and Chrome Nanny. Uninstall Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram from your phone, unless your job or company is focused on Social Media. Get a treadmill desk, so you can work out while you work. Don’t read paper books, or even ebooks. Listen to audiobooks at 2x.

Sign up for online learning courses for hard skills that look good on a résumé. Sign up to online courses on how to focus on your work. Contribute to open source projects in your “downtime” so you have an impressive GitHub. Blog for free. Network. Go to meetups. Go to conferences. Make more connections on LinkedIn that you’ll never interact with. Buy an ultra-light laptop and tether it to your smartphone so you can work wherever you are. Take a vacation, but keep answering email. Is all this work stressing you out? Learn to meditate, and get back on that horse before someone knocks your ass off of it.

Write more lines of code.

Get more new user sign ups.

Deploy more new features.

Book more clients.

Cram more work into the day, it doesn’t matter what.

Forget your family. Forget your friends. Work is the only thing that matters. If you work for a startup, you have work friends. Work hard and party hard with your coworkers! All the cool startups keep a beer fridge, so you don’t even have to go out to the bar. Just drink in the office and, if you have too much, sleep it off at your desk. You practically live at work anyway, right? And then you’re right there, ready to get back to work in the morning.

Never stop, even for a minute, to think about what the fuck you’re doing, and whether it’s actually what you want to be doing, and whether you’re actually making the world a better or worse place, and the toll the constant work is taking on your body, and how little sleep you’re getting, and all the fucking hollow relationships you have with everyone in your life, because you’re devoting 144 hours a week to maximum productivity. Never wonder why you feel so empty inside during those rare moments of downtime, when you don’t know what to do. Fill that time with more work, another side hustle, anything.

Because if you don’t, who knows what might happen? You might realize that it’s all bullshit, and then the whole productivity racket, the whole “sharing economy,” the whole modern world of the technology business might collapse like the house of cards it really is. And we can’t have that, can we?

Now get back to work.