The Art of What’s Possible (and What’s Not)

One of the things Apple are definitely good at is giving us products we didn’t know we needed (e.g. the iPad). Steve Jobs, who died a year ago this week, famously said “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology — not the other way around”  (see this video at around 1:55 as well as this interview with Steve Jobs in Wired).

The subtle difference from the “normal” requirements gathering process here is that, rather than asking what the customer wants, you are looking at the customer experience you want to create and then trying to figure out how available technology can realise that experience. In retrospect, we can all see why a device like the iPad is so useful (movies and books on the go, a cloud enabled device that lets you move data between it and other devices, mobile web on a screen you can actually read etc, etc). Chances are however that it would have been very difficult to elicit a set of requirements from someone that would have ended up with such a device.

Jobs goes on to say “you can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try and sell it”. In many ways this is a restatement of the well known “golden hammer” anti-pattern (to a man with a hammer, everything appears as a nail) from software development, the misapplication of a favored technology, tool or concept in solving a problem.

Whilst all this is true and would seem to make sense, at least as far as Apple is concerned, there is still another subtlety at play when building truly successful products that people didn’t know they wanted. As an illustration of this consider another, slightly more infamous Apple product, the Newton Message Pad.

In many ways the Newton was an early version of the iPad or iPhone (see above for the two side by side), some 25 years ahead of its time. One of its goals was to “reinvent personal computing”. There were many reasons why the Newton did not succeed (including it’s large, clunky size and poor handwriting recognition system) however one of them must surely have been that the device was just too far ahead of the technology available at the time in terms of processing power, memory, battery life and display technology. Sometimes ideas can be really great but the technology is just not there to support them.So, whilst Jobs is right in saying you cannot start with the technology then decide how to sell it equally you cannot start with an idea if the technology is not there to support it, as was the case with the Newton. So what does this mean for architects?

A good understanding of technology, how it works and how it can be used to solve business problems is, of course, a key skill of any architect however, equally important is an understanding of what is not possible with current technology. It is sometimes too easy to be seduced by technology and to overstate what it is capable of. Looking out for this, especially when there may be pressure on to close a sale, is something we must all do and be forceful in calling it out when we think something is not possible.

What Does IBM’s PureSystem Announcement Mean for Architects?

On April 11th IBM announced what it is referring to as a new category of systems, expert integrated systems. As befits a company like IBM when it makes an announcement such as this, a fair deluge of information has been made available, including this expert integrated systems blog as well as an expert integrated system home at says expert integrated systems are different because of three things: built-in expertise, integration by design and a simplified experience. In other words they are more than just a static stack of software and hardware components – a server here, some database software there, serving a fixed application at the top. Instead, these systems have three unique attributes:

  • Built-in expertise. Expert integrated systems represent the collective knowledge of thousands of deployments, established best practices, innovative thinking, IT industry leadership, and the distilled expertise of solution providers. Captured into the system in a deployable form from the base system infrastructure through the application.
  • Integrated by design.  All the hardware and software components are integrated and tuned in the lab and packaged in the factory into a single ready-to-go system. All of the integration is done for you, by experts.
  • Simplified experience. Expert integrated systems are designed to make every part of the IT lifecycle easier, from the moment you start designing what you need to the time you purchase, set up, operate, maintain and upgrade the system. Expert integrated systems provide a single point of management as well as integrated monitoring and maintenance.

At launch IBM has announced two models, PureFlex System and PureApplication System. IBM PureFlex System provides a factory integrated and optimized system infrastructure with integrated systems management whilst IBM PureApplication System provides an integrated and optimized application aware platform which captures patterns of expertise as well as providing simplified management via a single management console.

For a good, detailed and independent description of the PureSystem announcement see Timothy Prickett Morgan’s article in The Register. Another interesting view, from James Governer on RedMonk, is that PureSystems are IBM’s “iPad moment“. Governer argues that just as the iPad has driven a fundamental break with the past (tablets rather than laptops or even desktops), IBM wants to do the same thing in the data center. Another similarity with the iPad is IBM’s push to have application partners running on the new boxes at launch. The PureSystems site includes a catalog of third party apps customers can buy pre-installed.

What I’m interested in here is not so much what expert integrated systems are but what exactly the implications are for architects, specifically software architects. As Daniel Pink says in his book A Whole New Mind:

..any job that depends on routines – that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps – is at risk.

So are expert integrated systems, with built-in expertise and that are integrated by design, about to put the job of the software architect at risk?

In many ways the advent of the expert integrated system is really another step on the path of increasing levels of abstraction in computing that was started when the first assembler languages did away with the need for writing complex and error-prone machine language instructions in the 1950’s. Since then the whole history of computing has really been about adding additional layers of abstraction on top of the raw processors of the computers themselves. Each layer has allowed the programmers of such systems to worry less about how to control the computer and more on the actual problems to be solved. As we move toward trying to solve increasingly complex business problems the focus has to be more on business than IT. Expert integrated systems therefore have the potential (and it’s early days yet) to let the software architect focus on understanding how application software components can be combined in new and interesting ways (the true purpose of a software architect in my view) to solve complex and wicked problems rather than focusing too much on the complexities of what middleware components work with what and how all of these work with different operating systems and computer platforms.

So, rather than being the end of the era of the software architect I see expert integrated systems as being the start of a new era, even an age of enlightenment, when we can focus on the really interesting problems rather than the tedious ones bought about by the technology we have inherited over the last six decades or so.

New Dog, Old Tricks

I can’t believe this but today I have observed no less than three people using the latest wonder-gadget from Apple (the iPad) to play solitaire, Tetris and some other game which seemed to involve nothing more than poking the screen at moving shapes! Having just bought my own iPad and being convinced it conforms to Aurthur C. Clarke’s third law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) I am aghast that such a technological wonder is being used for such mind numbing activities; just dust off your ZX Spectrums guys!