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Embracing ideas is how new things happen

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Ideas are everywhere. Embrace them. Criticizing an idea is a sport on the web—snarking. Sometimes the very web that craves innovation and newness steps on the dialog with unrelenting and utterly irrelevant snark. In practice, turning ideas into products is the amazing, miraculous, thing that is product development.

Products get developed pulling from the same ideas, tools, and even skills available to a broad set of people. Mere inches separate just products from breakthrough products. Part of a breakthrough product is about embracing new paradigms and those new paradigms should be debated and discussed, but most of all embraced. It takes a brave person to question the existing and put forth new paradigms.

Paradigm to dialog

In a recent op-ed piece a concept was put forth, a potential new metaphor for computing by the highly regarded and widely published David Gelertner. It was a thought-provoking essay. I think that is what the author intended.

In fact the essay argued for a new metaphor by establishing the importance of metaphors in the evolution of computing. Metaphors are how we interact with computing—from two digit numeric displays, to line printers, to command lines, to GUI, to the web, and now social and mobile. Beyond that, the details of these metaphors matter greatly and are worthy of much dialog and debate.

Regretfully as we have all come to expect, the comments on the post quickly devolved into meaningless snark and commentary unworthy of the packets and storage they consumed. There were even tweets about the commentary. What was an essay that could provide the foundation for an interesting dialog among those that build products became, in part, a snarkfest.

Some claimed the idea was not new. Google reader is in fact the worldstream. Some claimed that we live in a stream every day with Facebook and twitter. Some said the idea won’t work.

My read is that this was an essay about metaphor, not a spec and certainly not an app you can try out and comment on. The very “desktop” I am writing this on was envisioned in an essay in 1945, As We May Think, by then head of Office of Scientific Research. Let’s not forget that the web itself once started off as an essay on a metaphor of hyperlinking by Ted Nelson in 1965 which was not implemented until 1967 or until 1993 depending on how you count.

Would these essays have been the subject of such snark? Maybe they were and history has rightfully forgotten those expressions. We should all be clear that essays like these are what change the face of computing.

Read them. Join the dialog. Ignore them if you want. They are not all great or even good. But to criticize them in a content-free manner or to debate them as though they are product specs misses the point completely.

Dialog to product

Taking the dialog around a paradigm shift and turning into a product is magical. Few people can or do make this happen. It is very hard.

A product of a new paradigm is by definition different, but not every aspect is different in every way. In fact the most amazing part about a paradigm shifting product is how much of a derivative work it turns out to be.

Every new product and every new paradigm product are the result of taking the ingredients of the world and pouring those into the primordial soup of product development. Out comes a new product. It is never exactly the same as what came before.

What separates one plain old new product from one that changes our view of technology is a set of choices separated my mere inches. What’s the difference between Facebook and Myspace or Friendster (or a dozen other services)? Were there touch phones before the iPhone? MS-DOS was one of many command line program loaders.

I stumbled across this view of turning an idea into a feature in an app. I love how it characterizes the amount of work and number of choices it takes to do so. How Software is Built Today.

Taking an idea and turning it into a product is incredibly fun and challenging.

Picking the ideas to push to a product takes a lot of guts and sometimes a leap of faith.

Essays that challenge the status quo and push us to think about our world differently are the very source of breakthroughs that we all want.

Embracing that dialog is the start of paradigm shifting products.

Super Sunday

Today is a big football game. As Al Paccino’s character, Tony D’Amato said in Any Given Sunday one of the all-time great locker room speeches in film:

You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the f***ing difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!

Ideas are everywhere. Ingredients for new products are everywhere. It is mere inches that separate run of the mill from great to paradigm shifting. The one certain thing is that if you build products you should embrace ideas wherever they come from.


PS: This blog is also available on http://snarkfree.com

Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 3, 2013 at 10:01 am

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22 Responses

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  1. Prepare to die my arch enemies and your Legion Of Doom! oh .. sorry this isn’t the Legion Of Doom by any chcane is it ? WOOOOOHOOOOO party !!!!!!! hold on a second this isnt my robot brothers house party is it ? Ok now i am very annoyed who took my cans and stuck them on the back of that car ! That had my lunch in !Son you and me have to talking to do ! This was not the girl from last night!!!HERE COMES THE BRIDE MAWHAHAHAHAHAHA !


    March 11, 2013 at 10:02 am

  2. Ok, there’s an awful lot of these and after weeding out all the ones that have been retpeaed over and over again (i.e., objections to a wedding, etc.) and of course, my own, to avoid accusations of bias, if I had to pick my favorites so far: (Giving credit to the first one to post the line)Wulf (9): Come with me if you want to live. Martian Blue (25): The cake is a lie! Frankie (39): I’m here to kick ass and chew Kevlar. And I’m all out of Kevlar. Rapthama (42): There you are Waldo! (I love a good Waldo reference)Blue Blazer (46): You wore WHITE, Amy? That’s a joke! Anthony Z (70): Kneel before ZOD! Sean Murphy (75): ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO MEEEEE!!! John (78): BOOM goes the Spaceknight. Jester (91): Doors? Where we’re going, we don’t need doors. (You forgot to leave a dramatic pause before the last doors )Jessica (99): Jocasta, what the HELL is going on here? Others are really good too, but those are the five funniest and most original. Apart from mine, of course. Just kidding. But of course, my opinion means nothing.


    March 11, 2013 at 3:17 am

  3. Agreed. That is exactly what I thought when I went over to read the comments on the Gelertner article. A lot of times, people in (ivory towers?) dismiss others’ viewpoints as “snark” or “ignorance” or any number of other dismissive terms. Sometimes this is valid. But sometimes, you find out that everybody is trying to tell you that, just like the emperor, you’re naked! It seemed like a lot of the people weren’t simply being snarky but were saying that either they didn’t like the idea or they didn’t feel that it would be useful to them. You can dismiss that as snarkiness, or you can take it for feedback and think, hmm, maybe it’s not the whizbang idea that I think it is.

    Also, not trying to bring up the past here, but this feels to me like what might have happened with the Metro UI on the Windows 8 desktop.


    March 4, 2013 at 4:14 pm

  4. I just need to recomment on “Embracing ideas is how new things happen” … I really like the notion of that … and …

    “Taking the dialog around a paradigm shift and turning into a product is magical. Few people can or do make this happen. It is very hard.

    A product of a new paradigm is by definition different, but not every aspect is different in every way. In fact the most amazing part about a paradigm shifting product is how much of a derivative work it turns out to be.”

    I do research and use a lot of ph.d. work to go across entire application domains.

    I used to work as the chair for a development commitee and got a bit fustrated over the contra-force I seemed to meet, i.e. decision makers only interested to making decision and lack of real interest in the domain. My farther in law suggested I made them take ownership. So I recalled being a research I would give away ideas to promote other people. So I coined it … and it in somebody elses hat working the political corridor. Put the ball at somebodys foot and make him shoot it. Only he does not run for it … does he not date go for it?

    Can you be like Tesla – without being Tesla for real? Do you dare as he dares?

    Who dares? How do you get people to embrace settling down on Mars … or build the Wardenclyffe Tower (Nikola Tesla). Even Einstein based his work on Gauss.

    Both Gauss and Tesla dared … and can you become a daring person in theory … or do you need to be it for real?

    Tesla even went into celibacy because he figured relationships with women would slow down his work. He was surely dedicated to the extreme. Despite that, who wanted to follow him into a time of free wireless energy?

    Who dares? Embracing ideas. Anyway a lot of stuff Tesla did anyway. So we got the AC.

    Now we just need the Tesla of nano to come around … or way something even more radical.

    At the start of the elightenment and begining of science it was really interesting. Philosophers was speaking their mind about crazy unreal ideas … a subjective or opinion-based read of the World through their eyes … Decartes felt sure the soul was somewhere in the brain.

    So people interested in reality lor an objective read of world like Niels Steensen would cut open bodies of animals and humans – and did not find what Decartes spoke of. He opionions was counterproofed. So science as borne.

    Today, in many ways we’re back to people being filosophers speaking their mind in a subjective projection of the World.

    In some ways we need to bring back those radical guys to do their stuff … i.e. Tesla could not come out of the university today. He would conflict with everybody there – because its radical.

    Evolution and development brings forward new features from the past in best of breed – however if that was cobber, metal, wood and then wireless energy – certainly the quality of the new features would steal the picture. If development is about changes the history of the past means less. In todays rapid changes would erode the value of examining structures or instances of the past … because those relations would have a shorter lifecycle given the number of changes. Thus the direction would be more forward moving. And less emperical. Thus about ideas.

    So … can we learn to embrace ideas …. in their very ideal state, an idea. Can we learn to pursue?

    Will teams pursue … or just die hard scaring each other into safety?

    Hopefully, that’s my joy these moments … I see that pursuing coming back to IT after a long boring slow down. So I am real happy. Thanks Steven.

    Interesting seeing a blog from you on bringing all these things together – hopefully so development work can become for all – and not just Nikola Tesla. Hopefully, one day most people will want stuff like the Wardenclyffe Tower to be real and participate in that. And they would also keep marrying rather than living the bizarre life of Tesla – but he was a visionary with exciting intensions, I think. So his is excused. Others should marry though … now I am getting off topic. But we need more children in the World … lots of resources in the World (i.e. universe).


    February 18, 2013 at 11:30 pm

  5. Regadring: Paradigm to Dialog.

    Around 2000-2001 for a couple of months I worked on a prototype for that kind of streamed data with on major os vendor – however we got reset for working on the WS portfolio instead. Initially, it was just about syndication I guess – but we were allowed to take it a bit further and sold the idea internally. But later the VP EMEA was not able to coin it. It’s XML, it’s hypermedia. It’s interactive – and we had something like PowerShell for the processing with normalization of schema with an interest in halffabricating content too. The transformations and processors could be inserted recursively – and we got into RDF/Topic Maps. At some point the data was just supposed to be “pumped” around and you could simply retrieve your stuff. But bascially it’s about virtualization – allthough some would still say informationa retrieveal or alternate representation like in a search engine. Virtualization has so much more too it. I also worked on that vendors first UDDI server … and I really like the worked so far with Windows 8. Coming out of UDDI, I never got the .NET cert – I saw the need for something else, i.e. Windows Runtime instead of the WCF in the middleware. Anyway waited since then for this time to come to may be redo that. From time to time I put forward a question on where the RDF libs where … not bothering myself to do that.

    Anyway, back to the talk. I think the big question is … coming out of the 90′ties with customers reluctant to buy because of that big coupling mismatch and lack of integration between OO systems then … we went into the vendor collaboration … with MS and IBM producing i.e. XML … and allthough may be some would say today it was hyped … talks of the semantic web (now more or less coined as “big data”) … how come the “lights” went out? There was a big feeling then around the late 90′ties and early 20′ties vision had started to drive. Then suddenly we went back to market openings and customers may be thinking they had more control – but actually did not. I don’t remember how many times those healtch care project in Denmark reimplemented – but they definitely started before the quality was ready.

    So still the customers are going too unprofessional about this. I.e. lack of hard competences on some issues.
    Bad decisions on the customers side make them rebuild again and again. Tear the house down.

    The big customers need to do the same as inside the IT industry. Portfolio manage. That is happening now. It will come to consumers as well. I..e an e-commerce agent finding new parts or soluitions for them, i.e. the optimal perpherial for their machine. Now need to use that quantty of data,

    Finally, partly agree on the Dialog to product. I remember when YouTube came around. Wondering whether there would be a market for consumer uploaded videos – as we had be collecting trade stuff from different companies getting scared buy not just the pricing but also Apple giving the music away almost freely to promote iPods – my friend and lawyer was not into the game of playing ‘we don’t care about copy right’. So we left that. I guess many thought about it – but YouTube did it. That’s how it started. All those illegal videos. The sewing started when Google aqquired it – and they began to remove the videos. Today many seems to care less about using resources on cleaning YouTube. So it’s also about doing something new and potentially very risky. High stakes.

    Thinking strategically you can go into the game of smaller interations or steps progressing development – so customer adoption seems to drive change rather than vision pressing forward (to radically?). But the web services thing was a radcial improovement. Then it stopped. Of course PIM was not really ready for prime or was it?

    Anyway, where I come I had a lecture once at the computer science department at Aarhus University notouriously known for their depth on semantics, math and programming language abstractions. He set out with noting computer science was the science of system interactions (read: nothing else). No computer electronics talk here.

    So there you go with bioinfomatics, theorectical physics, nanotech and a vision to implement directly in the core os, nature. More and more computer science students are coming out with some biology, chemistry or whaever on their curriculum.

    Working within that development persepctive – what is driving change? Are we coming into the nuclear age departing from industrial age. What will happen to factories when i.e. the nano assembler comes around.

    Is everything else just a symptom of this “long” (short) term development … in 1997 some researchers wrote it would be visible in 2015. So lets say that was hyped as well. So it will happen 10 years later in 2025.

    Then software will start to process in nature and we ideally set out to take a copy of a car or grow a house from the ground. No need for factories.

    Does mobile and smaller really mean as symptoms that industrial is disappearing. At least I find it interesting those parts are often replaced with nuclear technology. So those a hybrids. Then wait for it’s pure and hosted in nature?

    Now lets iterate on that in this nuclear context – as Steven put it: “Taking the dialog around a paradigm shift and turning into a product is magical. Few people can or do make this happen. It is very hard.”

    Even politicians worry factories are disappearing … they worry about China. But what if it is happening anyway. A paradigm shift. Hopefully, those politicians will soon get their eye on help leading society into the nuclear age. May be we would need more astronauts than industrial age construction workers. Somebody needs to think more about that. Right now, its a problem driven approach as more and more nuclear-industrial hybrids disturb the peace of what is about to become the former age.

    If it starts taking off from around 2025 – then standing there looking back 30 years to 1995. What a set of rapid changes to mature what computer science and software seems to be really about. Going back to the time of enlightment when some fields of science had not yet diverged – those fields would probably also start to converge again.

    How come everybody settled for riding a horse back for centuries – even thousands or year when they could probaly have had something like the Space shuttle much earlier? War?

    At least we’re into more rapid changes today than those former generations. Secure the peace.

    Great blog :o)


    February 18, 2013 at 9:53 pm

  6. Nice article.

    Reading this, I thought immediately of an article I read a while ago. It was about this:
    “Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.” (source: http://www.ftrain.com/wwic.html)

    IMHO you are basically describing the same thing.

    Peter Hofman (@pmhofman)

    February 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm

  7. While in a perfect, snark-free world, all comments would be well-thought and reasoned, I have serious problems with your exclusionary viewpoint: that is, it’s more important to eliminate the snark than it is to accept some noise with the signal. Not only is there potential for signal to be lost by eliminating the noise, there is also an important message potentially lost, too, even within the noise: a fair number of people in the comments dismiss Gelertner as somewhat of a crackpot, intent on promoting himself, which they express via “snark”, but which colors their ability and desire to take him seriously.
    You may choose to shy away from a discussion of Microsoft here, but of course there are obvious parallels. Microsoft has been seen as no longer a player in this “Post-PC world”, but by eliminating those voices as “full of snark”, Microsoft has trundled on without addressing its image, perhaps much like Gelertner has ignored (if he has) an image of crackpot and self-promoter. But instead of “snark”, or “noise”, these are important signals, and are as much a part of the eventual success or failure of a product as are pixel density or load times.
    You’re certainly right when you end your post by saying that “(e)mbracing that dialog is the start of paradigm shifting products”, but it’s the dialog, and not a monolog, that you must embrace. Microsoft can’t shift paradigms when it is seen as a has-been, and Gelertner can’t begin a meaningful discussion after years of practice as a crackpot.


    February 5, 2013 at 11:35 am

  8. I remember reading an easy on the concept of OLED screens. I think it was ’04 or ’05 (In that time frame anyway, not real sure). At the time I was working on a project for the 1st MEF under an UNS and power consumption was a critical consideration for everything we were doing. I commented about the article and how the power consumption of an OLED would be much lower than the LCD’s we were using at the time. The thickness of the screen was also something else I commented on, and how we might someday just embed the OLED screen in a surface and not lose any space at all. My thoughts were dismissed as science fiction and that it could never happen. We now are on the cusp of mass distribution of OLED monitors……


    February 5, 2013 at 9:05 am

  9. Steven, Thanks for the wonderful post, & sharing of wisdom and experience! I enjoyed reading this as I did with your other posts too. Particularly thought-provoking was the last quote from ‘Any Given Sunday’ and the last line of the post ‘The one certain thing is that if you build products you should embrace ideas “wherever they come from”.’ It takes a non-egoistic attitude, that which is not ubiquitous. And one needs to be a paranoid in order to make that ‘inches difference’ ! One is often tempted to release the product, without that ‘inches difference’, especially when the product release undergoes various stress factors as deadlines, high visibility, politics, and so on. And it takes a lot of patience, and more importantly (in my own experience), an intolerant attitude towards mediocrity, in order to achieve that!

    Priyanka (@PriyankaSriragh)

    February 5, 2013 at 7:21 am

  10. Thank you.

    That was certainly the intent of leaving the comments open.

    Steven Sinofsky

    February 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm

  11. I’m very suspicious of the merits of comments on most blogs (google “Greater Internet Fu**wad Theory”), but It would be a shame to disable them here given the topics. Thankfully most of the “TEH WIN8 SUCKS” comments are gone now.
    I really enjoy reading your blog,

    Christophe Le Besnerais

    February 4, 2013 at 8:40 am

  12. To me that is the sort of snark that adds no value and is just a series of cheap shots.

    A dialog about the idea is hard and takes thought. Panning the format of the argument takes no skill, especially when the snark is personal.

    In the 90′s it was like talking about the speakers slides rather than what was said.

    Steven Sinofsky

    February 4, 2013 at 7:14 am

  13. I also read the article yesterday which I found a hugely frustrating read due the shear amount of hyperbole that was in and around the ideas that were being presented. Some examples:

    In David’s Bio: ‘He foresaw the World Wide Web and has been described as “brilliant and visionary.”’

    The Article Title: ‘The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It’

    A subtitle : “Streams Completely Change the Search Game”

    I could pick another 15 gems like this out of the article which all distract away from the points he was trying to make that we can represent, organise and search for the content we want to consume in a way that is time indexed rather than location indexed. I was ready to articulate my frustrations in the comments when I realised that many others had already done that for me.

    I don’t think the Snark you saw was directed at the idea, but the presentation of the idea. Given all of the changes made in our on-line experience over that last 5 years with the rise of the social medial platforms so much of what is being predicted in this article has _already_ happened. Presenting that very smart work by others in a “OMG! look! at! my! super! cool! prediction!” kind of way got the response it deserved.


    February 4, 2013 at 5:39 am

  14. “Would these essays have been the subject of such snark? Maybe they were and history has rightfully forgotten those expressions. ”

    I imagine they were, but spoken (=quickly forgotten) or written on paper and, if published, then in contemporary magazines / journals read only by comparatively few people which, if still available, are moldering in some basement archive.
    The current “connected world” resembles a huge, village Kaffeeklatsch: groups of gossiping citizens standing on the street corner saying the first thing that comes to mind and morphing gradually into a mob egging each other on. A mob with no social inhibitors and no filtering system.
    Historically, news travelled by word-of-mouth and the traveller necessarily edited content. Then the masses learned how to read and we got newspapers (and later radio/television) that, for reasons of economy and also editors’ choice filtered content. Currently, we have no filtering system for what’s posted on the Internet and any suggestion of such is labelled “censorship”.
    (Is there a difference between filtering and censorship?)
    While free expression of opinion is a good thing, in this form it’s more like an impersonal mob where someone can anonymously incite to riot (or worse) than a constructive dialog.
    If we don’t want filtering/censorship, then how to (peacefully?) graft social inhibitions onto virtual citizens of a “wild west environment”?

    Cindy Meister

    February 4, 2013 at 1:57 am

  15. It will be interesting to see how this evolves. I know everyone with a blog or who starts a blog debates the merits of comments. When they are allowed they are often regretted and ultimately ignored far too often. The dialog matters though.

    Steven Sinofsky

    February 3, 2013 at 9:43 pm

  16. The most snark, I feel, happens in the workplace where everyone is under pressure to display sophisticated versions of oneupmanship. And the best venue is the meeting room where everyone is most willing to be expert armchair quarterbacks. I wish firms implemented incentive schemes for researched and well thought out opinions as opposed to ‘snark’. And yes – there are ‘stupid’ questions.

    Francis Kurupacheril

    February 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm

  17. We have a model of this in nature – our brain. It essentially creates models out of information streams building upon what has streamed into our consciousness over time. But just like the wave and the particle nature of matter, streams can only be experienced through a slice in space.

    Hence the physical experience will always be driven by the space dimensions. There may be a river or a well or a lake, but our experience of the water will be through the bucket which would be spatial, not temporal.

    Time dimension has always been there in the underpinnings, it has just accelerated in the last few years right up to the edge of the limits of our perception.

    I like the fact that he elucidated a model that people can easily understand. What I could not find peace with was his simplistic projection of the model. He treats information/data as a “one-way-readonly” stream. In our final perception (which is what reality is to us), time is non-linear and the temporal information stream is continuously transformed to yield a spatial model that we interact with.

    Overall, despite all the snark around it, isn’t it great we are all interacting together like the neurons of a single brain. I am optimistic for us.


    February 3, 2013 at 1:42 pm

  18. Great essay. Creation is hard and snark is easy. The internet only makes it even easier.
    It’s worth noting that criticizing user research because people who’ve never used a mouse would not appreciate a mouse misses the point. Clearly there’s no point in showing potential end users a bit of enabling technology. But there is a great point in exploring with them potential applications of that technology. Pre-mouse lots of people were putting themselves, their typewriters and word processers through fits to produce good looking newsletters and resumes. Studying those early users would have given lots of worthwhile input for how to create and leverage the mouse, what changes in printing will need to happen to complete the value chain. …getting all that deritive work right is also really hard

  19. Wow. And thanks for the Mark Bernstein link. It’s great to see that kind of narration. I then got to delight in this updated rationale as well: http://www.markbernstein.org/Jan13/Coordinatinglotsofviews.html

  20. Snarkfree.com

    Steven Sinofsky

    February 3, 2013 at 10:33 am

  21. Heads up, the web link may need to be corrected.http://blog.snarkfree.com/seems not to point here.

    Steven Bernstein

    February 3, 2013 at 10:30 am

  22. Going off at a tangent, did you read danah boyd’s recent essay about personal expression in public online and how we don’t have a cultural line about public expressions of personal thoughts becoming part of the comment cycle. There’s something about the flatness of the public nature of online at the moment, the lack of friction, that accelerates the less useful as well as the phenomenally useful. Given my trade it’s no surprise I think gatekeepers and curators are useful functions, but I think curated and protected and private spaces also matter. If the discussions take place usefully in those, a certain amount of bombast in the flat reputationless public reactions may just be a side effect of the scale of the flat public space. I can imagine Vannevar Bush showing the mouse to a bunch of random people and getting plenty of equally ‘snarky’ comments ;-)

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