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You know what would be innovative? Building stuff that works really well...

— Friday, July 5th, 2024

If we could send today’s brightest innovators back to the Stone Age, would they help accelerate the development of tools and weapons? Or would they come up with clever ways to sell spears that come with a subscription service?

In today’s blog post, some personal thoughts from our CEO, Harm op den Akker, about the state of innovation in the world today.

As someone who is spending his working life behind a computer desk, my days are usually spent reading and writing emails, editing documents, joining online meetings and doing software development On most days, it doesn’t take long after waking up my laptop, and trying to wake up myself with a cup of coffee, before something goes wrong (see Figure 1).

Something happened! Someone didn't pay attention when they were explaining how to write useful error messages...

Figure 1: Something happened...

Besides the software development part, most of my work involves tasks that are done using “Office” software, and because I work together with other people, the de facto standard for that type of work is done using “Microsoft Office” applications to be specific.

I am old enough to remember a time when Office applications, like Word, were not particularly known for their reliability. Changing a heading, inserting a reference to an image, trying to adjust some line spacing options, or any other random basic document editing function would regularly result in your whole document being royally f*cked. Back in the day (early 2000s), and among my people (computer science students), you were considered a bit of an idiot if you didn’t just use LaTeX for any serious document editing.

But somehow, sometime during the 2010s, Microsoft Word seemed to have become actually quite a decent piece of document editing software, and I found the need to use LaTeX lessen gradually (my final LaTeX work was probably my PhD Thesis, published in 2014). It was a time at which the technology we were using was getting better.

There were other things that got better between the early 2000s and the late 2010s. I got my first real smartphone, bought it at the electronics store, played with it ‘til my fingers bled, it was the summer of 2010. An HTC Hero, running Android, an ‘open-source’ operating system that allowed you to deploy your own Java-based apps. That was great, and obviously the proliferation of smartphones and the many useful apps that came with them, rapidly changed our lives.

I’m also old enough to remember going on holidays and bringing a paper map, looking for a parking meter and throwing coins in them, or choosing which couple of albums to bring along on a road trip (and I’m really not that old). Now we navigate everywhere with our phone, pay for parking with our phone (for exactly as long as you actually parked), and we have instant access to the world’s full music catalog anywhere and anytime. It doesn’t take much brain capacity to realize that smartphones are both a blessing and a curse, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t an innovation, and things were getting better.

After a couple of years of using your smartphone, the battery had died and the screen was cracked, so it was time for a new one, and back on those days it was always at least a little bit exciting. Your new phone would be more responsive, seemed to have unlimited storage, could suddenly run 3D games, and really felt like a “step up”. Just recently, I “upgraded” my iPhone 11 to an iPhone 14, and I genuinely don’t notice a difference at all. It felt much like buying a new set of drinking glasses at IKEA after your old ones have cracked. In both cases, the risk of getting pieces of glass stuck in my fingers has now been reduced, but otherwise my life after this purchase is completely unaffected.

There is a reason for bringing up document editing and smartphones. In my view, these technologies are — much like the shovel, the drinking glass, and the electric nose hair remover — done. We can stop trying to improve them, and instead should focus on making them robust, readily available, and cheap.

Instead, new smartphone devices are still being brought to the market, for a premium price — usually including “new” stuff that nobody actually needs. I don’t need 4 camera lenses on my phone, I don’t need to shoot video in UHD, or take 16mp photos of my vacuum cleaner so I can remember which vacuum bags to buy when I’m in the hardware store. I don’t need a faster network connection to watch even higher resolution YouTube videos about how TikTok is ruining our children’s lives — it’s depressing enough as it is in 1080p.

Similarly — back to document editing — I don’t need my document editing tool to be fully integrated with my online meeting software, my email client, and my god-damn cloud collaborative environment. I don’t need the ability to respond to emails with a smiley face or a thumb’s up picture. And god forbid, I don’t need my email client to suggest how to politely compose an email saying “Thanks, but it seems you forgot to actually attach the file” (a feature I’m sure is coming soon).

There was a time — not that long ago actually — where we had perfectly fine tools for document editing, email, scheduling meetings, having video calls, sharing files, and doing boring office work in general. Now, we have Microsoft 365 that integrated all of these tools, and in the process made everything worse.

Building software is hard — nobody fully understands all of the complexities involved in doing the simplest of things using technology, like telling someone on the other side of the world that he’s wrong about something on Reddit — and it’s actually a miracle how often things like this do work at all.

So why are we so desperately trying to make technology even more complex? Why do I need to be able to “tag” someone in a comment in a Word document (getting their name and email address from my address book), who will then receive a notification within his MS Teams application, and later a summarized email of all the comments in which he or she was tagged delivered to their inbox. In order to achieve this pointless application feature, we now need to connect our document editing tool with our address book, an email service and whatever the hell “MS Teams”-type of application is. And the proof that these types of ‘integrated features’ are complex is in the fact that things so often go wrong (see Figure 1 above).

"Sorry I can’t access that file. I can only see the folder on SharePoint, but it doesn’t have the same contents as my colleagues are seeing in their OneDrive folder."

"Sorry my MS Teams wouldn’t start, so I had to join online, but it’s not recognizing my camera."

"Sorry I ran out of antidepressants and can’t take this shit anymore without a heavy dose of medication."

If you’re working in an office environment, I’m sure at least 2 of the 3 above statements sound familiar.

And of course, the reason why Microsoft is spending all this effort on tightly integrating all of their different services is not to solve any actual problem that users have, but to tie up users into their ecosystem. Fortunately, the European Commission is taking issue with these practices, and once again steps up to protect us, poor consumers without any say in the matter.

How do you run a successful business? You deliver a product or service that is really good, and then people will pay for it. Haha, just kidding. There was a time when this may have been true, like during the time when Blizzard Entertainment was considered a great company that took existing video game concepts, polished them to perfection, and deservedly broke sales records. Now, that same company has fired all their enthusiastic game designers and replaced them with data- and behavioral scientists to help create the most effective and insidious methods to sell microtransactions.

The other method of running a successful business — or so I’m told, I’m obviously not speaking from experience — is to convince a small number of people with more money than sense to invest in the next big hype. That next big hype is obviously The Internet of Things Blockchain NFTs Generative AI. Another piece of hype technology that nobody asked for and is here to solve exactly none of people’s actual problems (while creating a host of new problems).

I will save the topic of generative AI for the next time my wife will be out of the house for a couple of days, and I’m left with nobody else to complain to except for the blank page. For now let me conclude by saying that there is something depressing going on in the world of technology. Too many people with undoubtedly an above-average level of intelligence are spending so much time on coming up with new pointless software features that nobody is asking for, or finding the optimal way to squeeze money out of gamers, or desperately brainstorming how to justify the next generation flagship smartphone without offering anything new.

For those people, I have a novel idea: let’s stop trying to be innovative, and just start making stuff that works really well, ok?