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1 January 2009

Out with the old, in with the new

Filed under: infrastructure, Open Source — David Wood @ 10:57 am

The final two hours of 2008 were, for me, the most fraught and tense of any New Years Eve that I remember. A central London car journey that was scheduled to take only 15 minutes became a 2 hour long trauma. We made it to the restaurant 90 minutes late, just one minute before the gongs of Big Ben would ring in 2009.

On paper, the plans for the evening looked clear enough. My mum is staying a few days with us, down from Inverness, so my wife Hyesoon and I planned for the three of us to take in a traditional New Years Eve Viennese Waltz concert at the Barbican, from 7.30-9.15pm, followed by dinner in a classy Belgravia Thai restaurant, the Mango Tree, from 10.30-12.30pm. For some daft reason I decided the trip would be easiest if we drove the whole way. I thought that would allow the greatest flexibility, and that my trusted hi-tech TomTom satnav would guide me through any unfamiliar routes. And in any case, there should be plenty of time for the various parts of the journey: when I checked in advance, both TomTom and Google Maps said that the journey from the Barbican to the Mango Tree would take only 15 minutes. Or so I thought.

The first sign of trouble was in the initial part of the whole journey, from my home in Surbiton (South West London) to the Barbican (East Central London). TomTom predicted 45 minutes. We left home at 6.oo, giving us 90 minutes for that trip. I wasn’t sure of the way, but the traffic got thicker and thicker and slower and slower. And slower and slower. After several route recalculations and inspired changes of plan, we finally made it to our seats in the concert hall just as the audience were giving an applause to welcome the leader of the orchestra to the stage. Talk about last minute! Happily, the music was glorious.

Less happily, the concert which I had been told (by Barbican office staff, several days earlier) would finish at 9.15, actually went on till 10pm, by the time the second encore finished. We rushed to the car park to get out ahead of the main crowds, and set off on our anticipated 15 minute journey across central London.

However, the police had erected roadblocks all over the place, to force road traffic away from central London locations such as Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. Time and again, I had to drive in a different direction to the one I intended. My car wasn’t the only one that was frustrated by the re-routings. The few roads that were still open were jammed to a snails pace. We rang the Mango Tree to say we might be, err, 20 minutes, or maybe even 40 minutes late. Come anyway, they said. We’re trying, I said. After painfully slow progress along Marylebone Road, Edgware Road and Park Lane, we finally reached the restaurant, just as the DJ was starting the countdown to the chimes signalling 1.1.2009. (Talk about last minute…)

Not unreasonably, the tempo and ambience in the restaurant by that time was a lot noisier than would normally accompany selecting starters from the menu. The staff did a fine job in the circumstances. In the end, I managed at least a grin as the sound system was belting out Mick Jagger’s “Honky Tonk Woman” at high volume. And Hyesoon and I got to our feet for some middle-aged boogie to Abba’s “Dancing Queen”. My mum said, it was quite an experience. Many thanks to both my mum and Hyesoon for being (mainly!) calm and supportive through all this trauma.

Being stuck for so long in slow-moving traffic gives you time for a lot of “if only” thinking. If only I had followed general advice and taken public transport rather than my car. If only I had realised that most routes would be blocked, and had started on a wide berth earlier. If only we had booked a venue closer to home. And, if only my satnav was hooked up with current road and traffic information, rather than relying on hard-wired map information that failed to match the reality of the moment. As a fan of Agile, that’s a lesson I ought to have learned already.

I wonder how many other aspects of life will, in 2009, suffer from being similarly misguided by automated or semi-automated responses that are based on out-of-date conceptual maps?

Our collective infrastructure is continuing to change in many ways, probably more than we expect. The market landscape is highly fluid. Items of our economic infrastructure that we thought we could take for granted, are falling away while our attention is focused elsewhere. Woe betide us if we stick on auto-pilot, trusting that our past processes are sufficient to guide us safely through the new terrain.

A few days ago, Kevin Kelleher forecast in GigaOm that 2009 could be “The year of the hacker“. In short, our tough new economic climate could result in new creativity from talented people who are struggling in their old jobs (or who lose their jobs completely):

I don’t mean to downplay how hard it is to be unemployed. But with tens of thousands of skilled tech workers being kicked into a hostile job market, the effects could prove to be positive for the Internet and its community over the long term…

I wonder what kind of creativity could be unleashed by workers who, though deprived of a steady paycheck, are freed from tedious tasks. Some could come up with new ideas that help vault the web to a more advanced stage. Others may make micro-contributions that are equally powerful in aggregate. Such creativity could then foster an entirely new generation of startups, which would eventually lure away some of those who had remained at steady jobs all along…

Of course, money will be hard to come by for such labors of love. Some of the best ideas since the last downturn have failed to find a viable business model. A gift economy would be an especially profitless form of innovation. But that notion lies at the heart of the hacking ethic.

Building on Kelleher’s ideas, Brad Feld of Mobius Venture Capital plausibly suggests that 2009 could see the “re-rise of open source“:

Kevin Kelleher’s article on GigaOm this morning titled 2009: Year of the Hacker made me think back to the rise of open source after the Internet crash of 2001. In the aftermath of the crash, many experienced software developers were out of work for a period of time ranging from weeks to years. Some of them threw themselves into open source projects and, in some cases, created their next job with the expertise they developed around a particular open source project.

We are still in a tense and ambiguous part of the current downturn where, while many developers are getting laid off, some of them are immediately being picked back up by other companies that are in desperate need for them. However, many other developers are not immediately finding work. If the downturn gets worse, the number of out of work developers increases.

If they take a lesson from the 2001 – 2003 time frame, some subset of them will choose to get deeply in an open source related project. Given the range of established open source projects, the opportunity to do this today is much more extensive than it was seven years ago. In addition, most software companies – especially Internet-related ones – now have robust API’s and/or open source libraries that they actively encourage third parties to work with for free. The SaaS-based infrastructure that exists along with maturing source code repositories add to the fun. The ability to hack something interesting together based on an established company’s infrastructure is omnipresent and is one of the best ways to “apply for a job” at an interesting company…

When plans for the Symbian Foundation were announced in June last year, we did not foresee the substantial economic downturn and the fact that many fine software developers would, through no fault of their own, find themselves out of work. This changed landscape, unexpectedly, makes it all the more important for software platforms to be sufficiently open to allow a wide number of developers to engage deeply and easily with the system. If the case was strong last June to open source the Symbian Platform, it has, unexpectedly, become even stronger in the intervening seven months.

If 2009 will be the year of the hacker and/or the year of the re-rise of open source, it changes the priorities of all software systems, to become friendlier to hackers and open source practitioners. The systems that can best leverage this new latent talent pool will be the ones that are the most likely to be flying high in 12 months time when the chimes of Big Ben ring out 2009 and herald in yet another new year. (But on that occasion, I will definitely not be driving anywhere near Central London!)

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