Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 9, 2016

Who, whom?

A good many people — some of them very smart — are praising this post by Steven Sinofsky on “platform shifts” — in particular, the shift from PCs to tablets. I, however, think it’s a terrible piece, because it’s based on three assumptions that Sinofsky doesn't know are assumptions:

Assumption the first: “The reality is that these days most email is first seen (and often acted) on a smartphone. So without even venturing to a tablet we can (must!) agree that one can be productive without laptop, even on a tiny screen.” For whom is that “the reality”? For many people, no doubt, but how many? Not for me: I almost never emailed on my phone, even when I used a smartphone — I like dealing with email in batches, not in dribbles and drabbles throughout the day.

“But most people can’t do that! Most people have to be available all the time!” Again: this is true of many people, but most? Show me the evidence, please. And let’s make a clear distinction between people who have some kind of felt need to constantly available — either via peer pressure or innate anxiousness — and those who genuinely can’t, without losing their jobs or at least compromising their positions, be away from email and other social media. (I know not everyone has the freedom I have; but more people have it than think they have it.)

Assumption the second: that the shift to mobile platforms means a shift from PCs to tablets. That internet traffic is moving inexorably towards mobile devices is indubitable; that tablets are going to play a major role in that shift is not so obvious. It may be that since, as even Sinofsky admits, some common tasks are harder to do on a tablet than on a PC, the majority of people will do what they can on a smartphone and do what they have to on a PC.

Assumption the third (the key one): that this “platform shift” is inevitable and the only question is how well you’ll adjust to it. It’s a classic Borg Complex move. As is often the case when people deploy this rhetoric, Sinofsky’s prose overflows with faux-compassion: “Change is difficult, disruptive, and scary so we’ll talk about that.” “The hard part is that change, especially if you personally need to change, requires you to rewire your brain and change the way you do things. That’s very real and very hard and why some get uncomfortable or defensive.” The message is clear: People who do things my way are brave and exploratory, but people who want to do things differently are fearful and defensive. That’s okay, I’m here to help you be more like me.

Let’s try looking at this in another way: кто кого? Assuming that this “platform shift” happens, who benefits from whom? Answer: the companies who make the devices people will use, and the companies who want their employees to exhibit “continuous productivity.” That’s another Sinofsky post, which he ends triumphantly: Continuous productivity “makes for an incredible opportunity for developers and those creating new products and services. We will all benefit from the innovations in technology that we will experience much sooner than we think.” We will all benefit! (Except for poor schmucks like you and me who might want occasionally to have some time to call our own.)

Never believe a venture capitalist who tells you that resistance is futile.


  • Hi Alan,
    Fascinating articles that you write on technology. I live, work, and play here in the Silicon Valley as an "information developer" - nope, not a technical writer anymore. Now a big chunk of my job is creating videos with my stentorian voice. I work almost exclusively at home -- most of my peers are either in New England or in India. I tend to get up extremely early with 6:00 AM meetings (not every day of the week though). If I'm under deadline, I can't clock out as early as I'd like, say, by 4:00 PM PST. Even so, my schedule is reasonably flexible and my boss is truly understanding about Work/Life Balance. By contrast, my wife and brother-in-law both work in demanding commercial real estate jobs here in the Bay Area. They are both chained to their cell phones. My brother-in-law is a highly successful broker, so he has absolutely no boundaries between his clients, his colleagues, and himself. None. My wife who runs her own Marketing business is a bit more fortunate. But even so, I'm surprised how often she logs in at night or during the weekend to "kick the can down the road" on some project that she's running. She's a late adopter to the newest technology, but even she concedes the need to buy an Apple tablet, sometime in 2016, sooner rather than later. Again, the Silicon Valley is not like the rest of the US -- we're a weird microcosm. But I find friends at church constantly needing to be plugged in as a requirement for their jobs. The requirement might be implied, but it's a requirement nonetheless.
    My $.02.
    John Stamps
    Lead Information Developer
    PS Here's the project my wife is working on: http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2016/03/03/latest-look-at-trammell-crows-updateddiridon.html

  • Employment is typically divided into sectors such as these (sources may vary):

    farm, forestry, fishing, and related activities; mining; utilities; construction; manufacturing; wholesale trade; retail trade; transportation and warehousing; information; finance and insurance; real estate and rental and leasing; professional, scientific, and technical services; management of companies and enterprises; administrative and waste services; educational services; health care and social assistance; arts, entertainment, and recreation; accommodation and food services; government and government enterprises

    How many of those are driven by folks working on PCs or tablets? Even among knowledge and information workers, how many are truly tethered to their devices 24/7? I’m a knowledge worker, and when I’m off from work, I have no access. Further, unlike most who want nonstop access to the noise of social networks, search engines, and various apps, I refuse to indulge in any mobile computing or productivity whatsoever. So I resist this drive to be jacked in all the time, and although I know I miss out of some opportunities because I can’t respond quickly enough, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to avoid being in the thrall of technology.

  • My favorite part of the Sinofsky article is when he talks about how much better Word's WYSIWYG formatting is than WordPerfect and reveal codes, as if one of the biggest struggle of anyone who uses Word isn't getting the stupid WYSIWYG formatting to work sensibly. (Word?!? Honestly . . . )

    One slightly to the side point is that I actually think a pretty decent number of people only have a smartphone or "phablet" as their computing device--i.e., people who can't afford a computer & high-speed internet at home. A fair number of my son's classmates come from such families.

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