November 2007

In one of the recent episodes of Dilbert agile gets mentioned (not for the first time). One of my friends said that “Dilbert turned against us” but in fact I think this cartoon very pointedly shows how much a typical manager (Pointy-Haired Boss) knows about agile. Managers like the PHB from Dilbert cartoons do exists in large corporations for real, I’ve met some. But much more managers, accustomed to reporting, WBSs, Gantts, PMSs, 3 months requirements analysis, specifications documents, acceptance documents etc. do think that getting rid of all that means complete chaos and lack of all rules.

That the rules are scaled down it doesn’t mean they don’t work. In fact, rules have a much higher chance of working if there is just a few of them, not a whole 200 pages handbook. Same goes for documentation and almost everything else. Things have to be scaled down so that the rules and information are manageable to humans.

Take Scrum – it is just three roles (the Team, the Product Owner, the Scrum Master), two lists (the Product Backlog and the Sprint Backlog) and three meetings (the Sprint Planning, the Daily Scrum and the Sprint Review). That’s all, not much to tweak around, simple to introduce and then follow. Same goes for XP – simple ideas, easy to understand directions.

But simple doesn’t mean easy. Building unit tests for everything also does require labor, though most who don’t know agile regrettably don’t associate it with extensive testing. Same about management -Scrum may be simple but being a Scrum Master is a demanding work – and requiring certain personality traits PHBs usually don’t have.

This ignorance about agile I’m sure leads to many failed projects when people don’t read up, don’t learn and really believe agile is the same as “cowboy coding”.  This gives agile a bad name, but I’m sure this will change with time.

I’ve been assembling a piece of IKEA furniture again yesterday. It is not an accomplishment of any kind – it was a rather simple thing to do (any man who can’t assemble a piece of IKEA furniture based on the instructions provided by them must be either mentally retarded or blind). But it was always a rather rewarding experience, especially for me – mostly working on things virtual and intangible every day. It is quite refreshing to see something built with my hands make our home office more convenient.

I have to return to Amazon’s Kindle device for a moment today, because in my last post I didn’t cover some aspects of this device I find disturbing.

Not only it is totally proprietary and binds you to Amazon as the sole source of content – it also opens up a whole new set of possibilities for privacy invasion. First, Amazon knows about all the books you’ve read. And as the device is on-line all the time through a GSM network and knows who its owner is all kinds of things are possible: from gathering detailed statistics of what you read, when you read it, how fast you do it – and what notes you scribble – to tracking your whereabouts. Since the platform is totally closed there is no way whatsoever to verify what the device does and what it doesn’t.

But not only that – it would be also possible to retroactively alter publications. It could be seen as a good idea – manuals could be updated, errors could be corrected – but it can be also used to alter history, by for example removing mentions of someone or something from a newspaper days after it was “published”. This is purely Orwellian – the Ministry of Truth was doing exactly this.

Overall, I find this whole thing and the mindset behind it highly disturbing and dangerous. This can be best exposed by pushing this idea to its limit: let’s imagine it is immensely successful and everyone has one. Then everyone has only the books that come from Amazon, pays them for the right to read, there is no second-hand book market, no libraries too and Amazon knows who was reading what. All that is totally opposite to what a traditional book is – it is yours to keep, forever, no one knows what you read – you can walk into a bookstore and buy one totally anonymously – and you can lend it or give to anyone for free.

I think, in a nutshell, monetizing on everything and locking users into a proprietary platform on which they in fact don’t own anything, just pay for the right to read, is what I find most repulsive. Circulation of the written word has been limited until recently by the physical limitations of the books and newspapers. Now Internet removes those limitations – it should be an opportunity to make more available for free. There is something inherently wrong with the idea that you have to put a dime in for any page you read, any tune you listen to or any picture you see.

Over and over people come up with something they think will replace traditional books. Over and over they are proved wrong. Next in line to get slapped is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. His Kindle device is not only ugly (and who would like to be seen with something hideous in his hands?) but it also perpetually ties its user to Amazon, them being the only source for purchasing any content for Kindle.

So not only this “e-book” concept lacks all the advantages of the traditional book – no requirements for power or wireless coverage of any kind, durability, ease of use – but it also limits the concept of ownership. If I buy a book from Amazon now I own it. I can lend it or give it to a friend. I can make a copy of a few pages and give it to a friend. Will I be able to do the same with the Kindle-book? I doubt it.

I think the ugliness of the thing together with lack of clear benefits of having it over a laptop or… about 10 or so normal, paper books will be enough to kill it. People who read – and read a lot, otherwise this toy makes no sense at all – are not the same target market as usual gadget-buyers, especially customers who buy modern all-singing-all-dancing “mobile phones” and then waste money on ringtones and wallpapers. People who read tend to think.

There are just a few people who had a very good idea and had also enough luck, connections and execution power to turn it into gold. But even fewer are able to do it more than once. It is nothing unusual to get so immersed in one’s idea that one is not able to see its flaws (happens to me too). The problem is that no one dares to tell the wealthy and powerful people their idea is… less than perfect, to put it mildly. Some may fear for their position, others want to just rip the stupid affluent off.

Clearly no one told Bezos he won’t get far with this and judging by his announcement he didn’t realize it by himself. Yet.

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