Sun

Future Visions

by Joey deVilla on October 28, 2011

Welcome Daring Fireball readers! In case you were wondering if I’ve prepared a response to the article titled The Types of Companies that Publish Future Concept Videos, take a look here.

Pictured above is Microsoft’s most recent technology concept video. Here’s their description:

Watch how future technology will help people make better use of their time, focus their attention, and strengthen relationships while getting things done at work, home, and on the go.

As you might expect, John “Daring Fireball” Gruber, who’s often been called Apple’s freelance PR guy, viewed it with a jaundiced eye:

This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary futuristic bullshit. Guess what, we’ve all seen Minority Report already. Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.

Of course, he’d never say such a thing about Apple’s classic Knowledge Navigator video, which at the time it was made – circa 1987, when the Macintosh II and SE, IBM PS/2 series and Amiga 500 and 2000 were brand new machines – was at least as pie-in-the-sky as this newest Microsoft video. It’s contained within one of the segments of the video below, which features videos by Apple:

Now I’ll agree with Gruber that by and large, Apple technology is generally more enjoyable to use and feels more like “the future”. I will also agree that my former employer, whom a former coworker recently referred to as “The Fail Ship Microsoft”, seems a shadow of its former self and far less likely to be the company to create future industry-defining products than Apple — or at least the incarnation of Apple with Steve Jobs as Chief Tastemaker. Today’s Microsoft doesn’t have a keeper of the vision: Bill Gates has left to focus his on saving the world, Ray Ozzie, the guy who took on the role of “chief visionary” at The Empire, resigned last year along with the Entertainment and Devices division’s last, best hopes, Robbie Bach and J Allard. The people who remain are extremely skilled techies, astute suits who can continue to drive sales and “keep their managers’ scorecards green” (that’s a common expression within the company) and an evangelism team that’s second to none and of which I was a proud member, but they’re all hamstrung by decision-makers with the sense of vision that God gave oysters. That’s one of the reasons I left the company: to be an evangelist, you have to believe, and I didn’t believe anymore.

I part ways with Gruber in his declaration that Microsoft should spend more effort making some cool stuff today and less on creating concept videos. Concept videos aren’t promises of products coming in the next one or two years, but act as a star by which people can navigate the future and an inspiration to invent it. Working with technology means dealing with overwhelming amounts of minutiae, and it’s all too easy to get lost in the technology for technology’s sake and forget about what it’s all for. I would argue that if Microsoft wants to rehabilitate its image and regain its relevance in the hearts and mind of both the alpha geeks and the public at large, they should probably make more of these videos, not only for the public, but for their own benefit as well. Without visions like concept videos to guide them, especially with the lack of someone in the visionary role, they may remain stuck on their current course: doing well but effectively coasting, content to make incremental improvements to already successful products or playing catch-up as with Internet Explorer, phones and tablets in efforts that are in danger of being too little, too late.

Some other concept videos worth watching include these old AT&T ads from that played all the time between shows in the early 1990s. Many of the predicted devices and services in these ads came to be, but AT&T had little to do with their creation:

Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini was a user interface guy at Apple from 1978 to 1992, after which he worked at Sun and created the Project Starfire concept video, a little drama that illustrates his vision of the office of the future. Just as Apple’s Knowledge Navigator has the 1980s all over it, this video has all the earmarks of early 1990s television, right down to the incidental synth music that’s straight out of the better, earlier seasons of Beverley Hills 90210.

Here’s part one:

The first thirty seconds of the video shows how risky it is to try and add little “realistic” touches to a story about the future. In the first thirty seconds, Princess Di is mentioned as having joined the British House of Lords; in real life, she died seven years prior to the story’s setting of 2004. Also sad is the fact that while Sun existed in 2004, it would be absorbed by Oracle six years later.

Here’s part two:

Compare the Starfire video with this “vision of the future” video that Microsoft debuted at the TechReady conference in early 2009. Popular Science said that "The 2019 Microsoft details with this video is almost identical to the 2004 predicted in this video produced by Sun Microsystems in 1992." I’ll leave it to you to make the call:

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

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Shipping Container Geekery

by Joey deVilla on October 19, 2007

Enterprise Computing in a Shipping Container

The idea of setting up a computing center in a shipping container isn’t new. Sun has Project Blackbox, “a prototype of the world’s first virtualized datacenter–built into a shipping container and optimized to deliver extreme energy, space, and performance efficiencies”. The idea is create a computing center that you could move anywhere in the world with relative ease:

A “Project Blackbox” container with its doors open, revealing the computing center inside.

If you’ve ever watch ships loading and unloading, you’ll know that nobody handles cargo containers gingerly. A shipping container full of computer equipment would have to be able to withstand a fair bit of abuse, and it looks as though the Blackbox container can take it — here’s a video of one in a simulated earthquake of a 6.7 magnitude on the Richter scale:

Sun’s not the only company working the the concept. Google have patented a similar idea. One major difference is that while Sun’s container-based datacenter would be a self-contained computing cluster, Google would treat their containers as very large rackmounts, where a container could operate on its own or as part of a cluster of other computing containers. Robert Cringely has some interesting speculation on the way Google might use these datacenters.

1337 H4X0RZ in a Shipping Container

Invisigoth from the “X-Files” episode “Kill Switch” — a skinny pale blonde woman, dressed in black, wearing way too much makeup.
“Invisigoth” from the X-Files episode Kill Switch

The idea of setting up a non-enterprise computing center in a shipping container isn’t new, either. Kill Switch, one of the X-Files episodes written by William Gibson, featured a hacker who went by the handle “Invisigoth” who lived and did her work in a shipping container.

The episode also featured a down-market version of a computing cluster in a shipping container: an old trailer, packed with computers, sitting in a remote field and connected to the internet through a T1 line, which was an even bigger deal back in 1998.

A Cafe in a Shipping Container

Where there are computer programmers, there must also be caffeine. Consider the fact that the nerd store ThinkGeek has a whole section devoted to the substance. One of my favorite sayings was adapted from a line in mathematician Paul Erdos’ biography, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: “A programmer is a machine for converting caffeine into software.”

It logically follows that if there are computing centers in shipping containers, there should also be some kind of caffeine dispensers in shipping containers as well. Here come artist Adam Kalkin and fancy-pants coffee vendor Illy to the rescue:

Shipping container that converts into an Illy Cafe.

Here’s an excerpt from Illy’s news release:

For the 52nd International Art Exhibition in Venice illycaffè is partnering with the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia for the fourth time.

At the Biennale illy will provide art-lovers and coffee connoisseurs a beautiful space to relax, reflect and enjoy a perfect cup of espresso. Visitors to illymind, the rest and refreshment area founded by illy in 2003, will be introduced to the Push Button House which opens like a flower and transforms from a compact container into a fully furnished and functional space with the push of a button. View video.

After the preview at Art Basel Miami Beach, the Push Button House, a work designed by American artist-architect Adam Kalkin and redesigned for the presence of illycaffè at the 52nd International Art Exhibition, arrives for the first time in Europe.

Kalkin is known for designing comfortable spaces and placing them in unusual contexts. Visitors to the Push Button House will experience the artist’s ability to transform industrial materials into a domestic masterpiece, beautifully contrasting between the indoor and outdoor worlds, while enjoying complimentary illy espresso for a complete authentic Italian experience. The entire work was created from recyclable materials.

If I had the money, I’d take one of these things wherever I went.

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The Lightswitch That Might Explain a Lot About Java

by Joey deVilla on June 28, 2007

John Maeda at The Laws of Simplicity has an interesting photo of a lightswitch at Sun Labs:

Lightswitch at Sun with a lot of confusing features and instructions.
Click the photo to see the original.

He writes:

I gave a talk at Sun Labs where I encountered a special light switch in one of their conference rooms. At first I thought it was some kind of silly “engineer” joke. But the light switch functions as stated for real. Does it win the award for the most confusing light switch? I bet there are other ones out there that are equally complex to use.

The lightswitch design philosophy at Sun is quite clearly reflected in Java.

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Yesterday, I wrote about how the “cyberwar” in Estonia seemed rather different from the way William Gibson depicted cyberattacks in his “Sprawl series” novels, most notably Neuromancer. I thought that as long as I was comparing speculations of what future tech would be like against how the future actually turned out, I should tie it in with the hot news of the moment, Microsoft Surface.

Microsoft Surface’s Promo Videos

In case you haven’t seen the promo videos for Surface yet, I’ve posted them below. Here’s the first one: Microsoft Surface – The Magic:

Thos one’s called: Microsoft Surface – The Power:

And finally, Microsoft Surface – The Possibilities:

Sun’s Starfire Concept Video (1992)

I mentioned Sun’s Starfire project in my post about Surface, but thought it deserved a front-and-centre mention. Starfire wasn’t a project to develop an actual platform, but to develop concepts that would eventually find their way into future platforms when the technology made it possible and show them in a video. The video is available online in MPEG-4 format, but you’d better have a good connection: it’s 270 megs in size:

Still from Sun’s “Starfire” video.
Click the image above to view the Starfire video.

Apple’s Knowledge Navigator Video (1987)

If the Starfire video gives you a sense of deja vu, it’s probably because you’ve seen Apple’s Knowledge Navigator concept video, shown below:

If the Starfire and Knowledge Navigator videos bear similarities to each other, they should; Apple UI guru Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini helped create both.

Next…

I’m going to post some notes on some of the concepts in the Starfire video that appear to have come to fruition with Surface as well as my notes on what they thought 2004 would be like back in 1992.

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