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Bill Joy

Some time ago Bill Joy (who is famous among other things for being a co-founder of Sun) [1] wrote an article for Wired magazine titled “Why the future doesn’t need us” [2]. He wrote many sensible things but unfortunately focussed on the negative issues and didn’t receive a good response. On reading it today I thought more highly of the article than I did in 2000 when it was printed, largely due to having done some background research on the topic. I’ve recently been reading Accelerating Future [3] which has a more positive approach.

Now a talk by Bill Joy from 2006 has been published on the TED.com web site [4]. He starts by talking about “super empowered individuals” re-creating the 1918 flu. He also claims that “more technology super-empowers people more“. Such claims seem to be excessively hyped, I would be interested to see comments from someone who has a good knowledge of current bio-technology as to the merits of those claims.

He talks briefly about politics and has some good points such as “the bargain that gives us civilisation is the bargain to not use power” and “we can’t give up the rule of law to fight an asymmetric threat – which is what we seem to be doing“.

He mentions Moore’s law and suggests that a computer costing $1000 then (2006) might cost $10 in 2020. He seems to be forgetting the cost of the keyboard and other mechanical parts. I can imagine a high-end CPU which cost about $800 a couple of years ago being replaced by a $2 CPU in 2020, but I don’t expect a decent keyboard to be that cheap any time before we get fully automated nano-factories (which is an entirely separate issue). Even the PSU (which has a significant amount of government regulations for safety reasons) will have a floor cost that is a good portion of $10. Incidentally the keyboard on my EeePC 701 sucks badly, I guess I’m spoiled by the series of Thinkpad keyboards that I keep getting under warranty (which would cost me a moderate amount of money if I had to pay every time I wore one out). I will make a specific prediction, that by 2015 one of the better keyboards will comprise a significant portion of the entire cost of a computer system (more than a low end computer unit) – such that in some reasonable configurations the keyboard will be the most expensive part.

It would be good if PCs could be designed to use external PSUs (such as the Compaq Evo models that took laptop PSUs). Then the PSU, keyboard, and monitor would be optional extras thus giving a small base price. Given that well built PSUs and keyboards tend not to wear out as fast as people want to replace computers, it seems that financial savings could be provided to most customers by allowing them to purchase the computer unit without the extra parts. People like me who type enough to regularly wear out keyboards and who keep using computers for more than 5 years because they still work are in a small minority and would of course be able to buy the same bundle of computer, PSU, and keyboard that new users would get.

In 2020 a device the size of an iPaQ H39xx with USB (for keyboard and mouse) and the new DisplayPort [5] digital display interface (that is used in recent Lenovo laptops [6]) would make a great PDA/desktop. You could dock a PDA the way some people dock laptops now and carry all your data around with you.

Bill cites an example of running the Mac interface on an Apple ][ (does anyone know of a reference for this) as an example of older hardware being more effective with newer software. It’s a pity that often new software needs such powerful hardware. EG it’s only recently that hardware developments have overtaken the developments of OpenOffice to make it deliver decent performance.

He has an interesting idea of using insurance companies to replace government regulation of food and drugs. The general concept is that if you can convince an insurance company that your new drug is not a great risk to them so that they charge a premium you can afford then you could sell it without any further testing. Normally I’m in favor of government regulation of such things, but given the abject failures of the US government this idea has some merit. Of course there’s nothing stopping insurance companies from just taking a chance and running up debts that they could never hope to repay (in a similar manner to so many banks).

Finally I think it’s interesting to note the camera work that the TED people used. My experience of being in the audience for many lectures (including one of Bill Joy’s lectures in the late 90’s) is that a speaker who consults their notes as often as Bill does gives a negative impression to the audience. Note that I’m not criticising Bill in this regard, often a great talk requires some significant notes – very few people can deliver a talk in a convincing manner entirely from memory. It seems to me that the choices of camera angle are designed to give a better impression than someone who was seated in the audience might receive – there’s no reason why a video of a talk should be spoiled by seeing the top of the speaker’s head while they consult their notes!

2 comments to Bill Joy

  • Screwtape

    I’m guessing he was thinking of MousePaint, the fairly Lisa-like paint application bundled with the Apple II mouse.

    http://www.guidebookgallery.org/articles/apple2userinterfaces (search for ‘Apple II graphical user interfaces’)

  • Anselm Lingnau

    “Bill cites an example of running the Mac interface on an Apple ][ …”

    There used to be a machine called the Apple //gs, which was based on the 65C816 CPU (a 16-bit version of the 6502 processor used in other Apples at the time). This was apparently beefy enough to run a Mac-like WIMP-style GUI, although by the time it came out most people were more interested in IBM-style PCs and real Macs, so it wasn’t a big commercial success.