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Subject: [IP] GELERNTER: Candy-Coated Electronics and a reply (reply first ,article after)

  • From: Dave Farber <>
  • To: ip <>
  • Date: Tue, 15 Apr 2003 19:39:13 -0400

------ Forwarded Message
From: "Bob Frankston" <>
Date: Tue, 15 Apr 2003 17:09:41 -0400
To: "'John F. McMullen'" <>, "'johnmac's living room'"
Cc: "'Dave Farber'" <>, "'Declan McCullagh'"
<>, "David S Isenberg" <>
Subject: RE: GELERNTER: Candy-Coated Electronics

There's a basic fallacy here -- confusing the operating system and other
mechanisms with applications. It's fine for Gelernter to offer his solutions
as a competing application in the marketplaces. But when he claims that it
is in place of more basic mechanisms I worry.


The economic argument is backwards. Making computers do one application very
well at the cost of flexibility and opportunity decreases their value and
the economic contribution of computing. Instead of making the computer act
as a better x, it is far more valuable to give the user the power to make
the computer do x -- only a few will create a new and valuable x but because
anyone can, those who do find a new application can share it.


It's the old stupid nets argument but this time it's about stupid computers
that give us the choices vs very smart computers that do one thing
brilliantly. That is, if that's the one thing to do.


There is a false dichotomy and naiveté in "Users don't need a raft of
special-purpose applications; they need one simple, versatile one. No one
has time to keep learning new programs." There are various tools appropriate
for different people and a balance between specialization and general
purpose tools but, ultimately, the question is who can add value and whether
there is the one true application that does it all and does it without us
having to learn or think or be allowed to change.


I've seen Gerlenter demo his app and I have no problem with his claiming
that it is a good tool for organization ones scraps of information and I can
even accept the hubris of claiming it's a "must have" application -- that¹s
normal marketing.


What I don't understand is the leap from "useful tool" to the "one true
answer to all problems". I worry about it in the same way I worried about
Mike Dertouzos call for computers to be smarter than we are. Microsoft's
Intellisense is a mild form of this but, at least, the marketplace has not
show universal appreciation for the clippie. &nbsp;


-----Original Message-----
From: John F. McMullen []
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2003 13:56
To: johnmac's living room
Cc: Dave Farber; Declan McCullagh


(johnmac -- In addition to the identification of David Gelernter as a Yale

computer science professor and chief scientist at, it should

be noted that he was targeted and permanently injured by the UniBomber)


Candy-Coated Electronics



The U.S. economy has been working from a script that said "pause here

until Iraq has been liberated." The pause is nearly over, so it's a good

time to face up to the postwar state of the world. The technology sector

is crucial to the economy, and personal computers to the tech sector --

and consumers and businesses no longer replace their PCs on cue. The U.S.

computer industry will either deal with this fact or come screeching to a

traumatic halt soon.


Five years ago we were flooded with information; now we're drowning.

Meanwhile, the distance between evolving hardware and the same old

software has become a crisis. The industry suffers from a software gap

that could change its nature and choke off the cash flow that underwrites

its future.


Consider the PC conundrum: Core information-management has been stuck

since Microsoft released Windows 3.0 in 1990; only the browser is new

since then -- depending on your definition of "new." Browsers were

revolutionary, but they don't help me manage the information on my own

machine. PC sales are bad because new PCs offer no value added over old

ones. By and large, a new PC won't do anything important that your old PC

can't do just as well.


Indeed, the only company thriving at the moment is Dell -- which recently

announced unexpectedly strong sales projections. The market was thrilled.

But Dell isn't tapping new markets, it is only taking sales from

higher-cost makers. Once it has polished off everyone else's business,

what then?


No one wants a new operating system -- in the future, a new approach to

core information management will be laid down smoothly over existing

software. Existing files, e-mails and what-all will be unchanged but they

will be arranged better and be easier to find and use. The files stay, the

file system goes (or at any rate, vanishes). We have the books; we need a

new bookshelf.


This sounds like a casual metaphor, but goes to the center of the problem.

Today's standard file system was born in the '70s -- never intended for

21st-century demands. Nowadays it is hopelessly outclassed. The desktop

interface (that pint-sized parking lot for icons) is in tough shape too.

So we have search engines and finder programs and document managers and

other specialized applications, operating like counter clerks at an

ancient library where the books are all hidden on collapsing shelves in

the back. But counter clerks are no answer. All the important design

requirements apply to the bookshelf itself -- to the basic architecture of

information storage. We need unity and simplicity.


Today's standard systems offer clutter and complexity. But the days of

information stashed in caves all over the cyberlandscape (in the mailer,

browser, file system, photo album. . .) are over. Users don't need a raft

of special-purpose applications; they need one simple, versatile one. No

one has time to keep learning new programs. People forget how to work

applications they don't use constantly. And new software should pass the

three-minute test: if you can't get the gist in three minutes, forget it.


When users cram their screens full of icons or their e-mail full of

everything, they are telling the industry something: Who needs a desktop

and a file system? A mailer and a document manager?


We desperately need a structure that brings to bear visual sense. The new

system and its onscreen picture must let you browse -- not the way you

browse the Web; the way you browse a supermarket or newsstand. You see

lots of things at once, and hone in on what you want. Sophisticated visual

browsing is essential to information management because you don't always

know exactly what you're looking for; or you know where it is, or can

recognize it, but not describe it. And you need context to make sense of



Information should be arranged to mirror your life, not your computer.

Today's information systems are candy-coated electronics. Worrying about C

and D drives was OK in the '80s, but today information should take the

shape of your life. Electronic documents should be arranged in time-order.

And the stream must be able to scale up smoothly and expand as you add

information over a lifetime.


Onscreen, the information system looks like a column of index cards seen

from above and in front. The future on your right, marching towards you;

the past on your left, moving away. The future holds appointments and

reminders, plus copies of any mail or documents you've kicked forward to

deal with later. To cope with the ever-increasing info-onslaught, you must

be able to position documents in your own future as deliberately as you

move chessmen forward.


* * *

Two basic problems afflict modern intellectual life in many fields: Many

(probably most) of us think in pictures, but we tend to be no good at

describing pictures or designing machines that make good use of our visual

capacities. And we tend to complexify our way out of problems instead of

simplifying our way out. Today's standard information-management software

is no good for exactly those reasons.


I'm not a neutral observer, and I practice what I preach. But the company

I helped found is not the only one to have noticed the software gap and

the collapse of old-style information management. Microsoft is working on

its new Longhorn operating system; according to Bill Gates, "The one

question we're trying to solve with Longhorn is, 'Where's my stuff?'"

Intel keeps making its chips more powerful, but knows that everyday

software must find something to do with these powerful new chips or they

will go nowhere.


The narrative information structure is an information beam you focus

rather than search, "tune in" rather than fire up; it works like human

recall. Will users like it? Many do, but our desktop software is new (and

one version is free), so it's too early to say. Remember, though: Users

are far less reactionary than the industry. Your software (no matter how

radical) succeeds if it is simpler and more powerful, takes three minutes

to learn and gets the onscreen picture right. When information management

starts, at last, to move forward again, it will pull the technology world

with it.


Mr. Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor, is chief scientist at


Copyright&nbsp; 2003&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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&nbsp;&nbsp; "When you come to the fork in the road, take it" - L.P. Berra

&nbsp;&nbsp; "Always make new mistakes" -- Esther Dyson

&nbsp;&nbsp; "Be precise in the use of words and expect precision from others" -

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&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; John F. McMullen


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