Sunday, June 20, 2010

The times they are a-changin'

But the NMBS in Belgium, that is the National Railways company, has never appreciated Dylan's music, obviously. Like many other National Railways elsewhere, mostly government owned or likely with large government (majority) participation, the NMBS in this country is run by not what you'd consider management geniuses. Like elsewhere. Or, like the Post to mention another example of 'outstanding' management skill. Now, why am I gettin' in a rant about them buggers, and this on a Sunday, you might wonder. Well, listen carefully.

Those who know me, or read some of my other posts on the upcoming computing paradigm (so-called 'curated computing' and pioneered by Apple), will easily understand my rage.

You see, content consumption by the masses today is all about visualization of versatile data residing in huge databases inside so-called server farms. Personal computers, these days, don't need to have much local storage. Good quality, safe, updated data are better off staying in the 'cloud' (geeky slang for Internet-connected servers) than in local computers (on solid state, magnetic or optical disk storage). This is especially true for casual users who can't tell the difference between a mouse and a cursor.

What do casual users do with computer devices at the end of the first decade of the new millennium, after all? They simply email or instant message their friends and for the rest they surf the web. This is what I called 'content consumption' above. Reading of articles online, listening to streaming music, watching Youtube and streaming video clips or whole episodes and movies, flipping thru millions of images and photographs, or any combination of the above.

So, this is the trend. Modern CPU baring devices (whatever you can think of) are by design Internet connectable and most are very light and mobile. Also, other devices that traditionally were CPU-less, like TV's, will soon find their roles change to part-time PCs and running TV-OSes provided by the likes of Google and others like Google... The traditional desktop PCs and laptops as we know them will be further specialized and upgraded to serve more powerfully but only those IT 'experts' who need the power, and will almost disappear from the vocabulary of casual users of the coming generations, born after the millennium turn... mark my words. Instead, these kids will learn to live and use what we currently call smartphones and slate computers.

Since the introduction of the iPhone and iPad there's something else that changed fundamentally though. Never before in the history of computer addicted mankind there was a market of so many useful software applications for mobile devices that are so easy to acquire and use, and which cost next to nothing. The Apple owned AppStore has more than 220,000 such applications and counting, a large percentage of which are free and gratis, whereas the remaining won't cost you typically more than a few bucks. How come? Various reasons. 1) The 'Free' business model gains increasingly higher tract among key market players. 2) The effort to create apps is sub-minimal, compared to traditional software development, due to the richness of Apple's available SDK. And 3) like I mentioned earlier, most of these are 'visualization' apps looking at data residing in the cloud. In other words, they don't share the burden of creating and maintaining such massive data inside their server farms. They just look at them. They visualize data in compelling ways, and by so doing, they get rid of the usual noise 'elements' that fog the space between consumer and content. Therefore, the creation cost (in effort and needed infrastructure) to make and distribute such apps is so tiny small that many noble souls, especially young geeks and startups who typically love this stuff, simply choose to offer their apps for free, or at an extremely low price point, pretty close to 'free'. They drive the market and company profitability via high volume / low price, as His Jobness admitted in his recent Mossberg interview at D8. That's today's most popular business model.

Now, what does this have to do with my rant on NMBS? You'll understand... I promise you. NMBS has also got a homepage of course that shows train schedules, PR and other info. They also sell tickets which you can print on your home printer. That's not a bad alternative to queueing at the station, waiting for a not overly motivated, middle aged, counting his days to retirement, NMBS ticket-seller to print your miserable ticket while the train's entering the station... and soon about to depart... Problem is though (and I heard it from the spouse, the Belgian stereotype of the casual PC user who can't tell the difference etc... etc...) that the NMBS homepage is like any other page we find in Public Services homepages (ministries and all), or any other inefficient 'old' brick and mortar organization that just happened to have discovered the Internet! Your eyes don't know where to rest first, your temper's getting agitated, your entire ego intimidated, and you just then walk away from the bleedin' homepage, preferring (OMG) to wait in queue in front of the miserable ticket seller instead.

What is the problem, then? Well, you see, the NMBS data is fine, residing on their precious servers, connected to the Internet, no problems there (more or less)... However, their interface designers (these are ICT 'experts' who create the visualization component that looks at their precious data via a browser, pointing to their Home URL), are simply too old fashioned, who have never understood and will never ever understand the mind of a casual user. Why? Because that's the way it is! Poor management. At the top and all the way to the bottom. In other words, any sane IT expert in this country can certainly do much better than that. Once he or she gets employed into the NMBS structures, he/she is painted in the national NMBS colors and turn overnight into the poor buggers we see 'serving' us!

Never mind... we are used to it. Thank God, there's still a huge hope in the new generations of geeks and geniuses in the country to cover for the shortcomings of the large Public Services Homepages. One such kid, whose brain-ware I enormously respect as I happen to know some of the mechanics behind creating iPhone apps, went out in 2008 to create an app for the iPhone that would provide the Belgian railways time schedule, simply and efficient (and he even told NMBS that, naively waiting back for a word of appreciation). Like I said earlier, access the useful data easily with no noise between consumer and content. See the picture posted above to see what I mean. And see the kid too. His name, Yeri Tiete! IT student, 22 year old. He was two years younger when he wrote the app, too. iRail.Be I thought its name was. Well done kiddo.

Don't go look for the app at the AppStore though. Recently, the kid received a big-ass letter, written by some 'expert' lawyers (Jeez I thought they all ended up chained in the bottom of the Ocean), threatening court actions on behalf of NMBS, if the kid didn't pull the app off the AppStore immediately! For data copyright infringement reasons, that is. Because he accessed the NMBS servers with their precious and wholly owned (OMG) scheduling data to present them (after working on his app for a couple of evenings he said) to poor casual users like myself and my spouse in a simple and 'human' fashion. They even dare treat him as a criminal! It's not only RIAA that's full of morons then. We got our fair share in this country too...

It's been said that NMBS made the whole fuss in order to boost usage of their own smartphone app, that happens to have been launched recently, two years after Yeri's iRail was released. I reckon that project alone cost them a few million euro's to say the least, and two years of waking up before they realized the need! Jeez, what a geniuses! That's the most stupid excuse I heard in decades. Proves the point I made earlier. There's nothing worse in a company's fortunes than being led by a bunch of incompetent managers at the steering wheel. Lord save us from their wrongdoings...


localhost said...

Yeri is even smarter than you think because he didn't create an iPhone app that you have to get from the holier-than-god-himself Apple Store.

Yeri created a simple but effective mobile website,, that can be used by ALL smartphones, not just by the dirty rotten iPhones. ;-)

Greetings from an Android fanboi who is thinking about a crowdsourced public transportation app for Android. Think 'OpenStreetMaps' to get an idea.

VJK said...

That's cool! iPhone is not the only smartphone out there, of course. Yeri is even smarter than I thought, then. I kinda thought about the iPhone alone because that was the picture they posted on De Morgen's Sunday edition.

As for Yeri, I should probably go out and hire him, if not too late...

Thx much for commenting. I must admit, I was not completely informed about what he actually did technically. My points on NMBS and the new computing paradigm are still correct, though..

As for Android, let me not start on that. Google these days is a perfect replacement for Microsoft, as Microsoft was one for IBM in the 80ies... So take my advice and temper your enthusiasm, because you'll regret it in 10 years time. Or less...