Ask Yourself: Should I Build This?

A couple of years ago, I heard Guy Kawasaki talk about how the thing that defined Silicon Valley was its “what the hell, let’s build it” attitude. It took me a while to get it, but I came round to understanding his point: get moving, build something, figure out who cares about what you’ve built, and then evolve the product. It’s good advice, to a point.

However, there comes a point where the market is so saturated that you start to do stupid things. I got a great example of one such thing in the email today:

Barbecue. On your iPhone. Yes, you heard me right.

It’s called, creatively, “Barbecue”. It’s from San Francisco-based Equinux. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Now, I’m sure there will be people that will purchase this application; it’s cute, gimmicky, and it will doubtlessly keep someone entertained for at least three minutes. But the breathless copy proclaiming this application’s unparalleled awesomeness is simply over the top:

Serve steaks to your friends on Facebook, share kebabs and ribs on Twitter or via Mail. Barbecue on the iPhone:

  • Photo realistic images that make your mouth water
  • Top notch graphics to get a real bbq experience
  • Real sound effects to bring the thrill to the grill

Seriously? We spent countless billions building silicon foundries, a revolutionary mobile operating system, and the associated expertise to simulate the experience of BBQ? I could do the real thing for a couple of bucks, with the obvious bonus that I’d actually get to eat the results. I know somewhere, a software developer is clucking their tongue and pontificating on those silly marketing people. But, last I checked, the marketing people didn’t build this application.

I worry that developers have lost some serious perspective in their bid for fame and fortune. Just because it makes money, doesn’t mean it’s useful. Now, I’m not suggesting that we toss out our enthusiasm for trying new, unproven things; however, I am suggesting that developers need to start considering whether or not their software offers any socially redeeming value.

Developers need to start not only asking themselves “can we build it?”, but also “should we build it?”

Does It Matter If The Future Isn’t Available in Canada?

Vito Pilieci has written an interesting rebuttal to Macleans’ “You can’t buy that here” article – an article which mirrors many of the concerns I raised in my own “Borders Keep Out Innovation, Too” post. I can’t fault Vito’s logic – yes, Canadian developers could create iPhone applications using the SDK even before the device arrived in Canada; yes, Canadians can technically read e-books on iPhones, netbooks, laptops, or other devices without waiting for Amazon’s Kindle device; and yes, Canada is no more disadvantaged with respect to services like Hulu than countries like Japan, Korea, or even the entirety of Europe.

And yet, despite such a resounding thumping, there is still a ring of truth to the original article. A niggling, unsettling je ne sais quoi that speaks to a core injustice that unsettles Canadian technophiles. It’s not that Vito’s arguments aren’t sound – it’s just that they’re so unsatisfying.

Sure, you could develop iPhone applications in the simulator – but you would miss the experience of using the device in your daily life, of truly understanding the implications, applications, and untapped potential of the device. And yes, you could curl up with an ebook on your laptop or smartphone – despite the fact that the form factor is completely uncomfortable, and the screen technology strains your eyes. And yes, you could take comfort in the fact that you’re no worse off than consumers in any other country outside the US.

But every day, you’d still be getting pummeled with advertising on TV, in magazines, and on the net about The Next Big Thing, How Great It Is, only to discover it’s Coming Real Soon to Canada. And it would eat at you.

It’s neither a new problem, nor is it limited to technology. If you’re Canadian, you probably have noticed there’s an awful lot of extremely successful Canadians and, oddly enough, they all seem to have become extremely successful by leaving Canada, working outside Canada, and living the rest of their lives outside Canada. And you’ve probably suffered the simultaneous sensations of both giddy pleasure and guilty shame when any of these representatives of the Great White North receive any recognition in international press. The un-articulated outrage expressed in the Macleans article is an extension of this festering inferiority complex that riddles the Canadian national psyche.

It reminds me of an American Express ad that ran in Canada a couple years ago: the advertisement espoused that you could live the life you wanted (presumably using an American Express), but carried the laughable legal rider “Offer not available in Quebec” – apparently if you lived in Quebec, you were out of luck. And that’s how technophiles feel when the invisible, intangible web of national borders and legal frameworks or the lack of an insufficiently large population base denies them access to new technologies. These technologies promise freedom, capabilities, possibilities – they promise the future, and yet in a cruel twist of fate, these promises are held just out of reach by rules that many technophiles regard as either antiquated or out of touch with the borderless landscape of the Internet.

So while I can’t say that Vito is wrong, I can’t bring myself to say that he’s right either. Yes, there are other, more complicated issues that retard the Canadian technology industry (Vito names telecommunications regulation, investment regulations). But getting people to stand up and force politicians to take action on these issues requires them to understand what’s at stake, and what’s in it for them. Macleans’ attempt to point out how Canada is missing out on the future, however small a piece of it, seems like a valid tactic despite the weakness of its execution.

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