Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Apple File Store

How often have I been annoyed because I forgot to sync something on my iOS device before leaving the house. I store a lot of data in the cloud. There are my own personal files, of course, usually work-related Office documents (Word, Powerpoint, Exchange Outlook emails). But I store a lot of other stuff too:

  • Podcasts, music, photos – the normal content you associate with Apple.
  • Content apps, like New York Times or Economist. If I forget to download the latest, I won’t have it once I leave the house.
  • Personal content apps, like Instapaper or Evernote. These carry important data that fundamentally exist in the Cloud, but are useful to me only when regularly synced to my devices.
  • Other private information, like from my banking app, or Paypal, or LinkedIn.

Each of these is useful only if it’s up-to-date. If I have a network connection each time I access it, then it’s up-to-date. If not, I’m out of luck.

One straightforward way to give me this is to have something that downloads the data from each app in the background whenever I have network connectivity. I’d need to solve a few multi-task issues to make sure this doesn’t slow down the rest of my experience, but generally it would work.

But there’s a more clever way. What if there were a single, central store someplace, run by Apple, that apps can plug into. The data from each individual app would be stored there, in Apple’s central cloud. Then it would be Apple synchronizing my device, through whatever mechanism they like, perhaps even taking advantage of whatever newfangled subscription mechanism they can get away with.

How it works:

Apps like the New York Times or Instapaper or Paypal or Kindle save their data to Apple’s store, not to my individual device. Developers can continue to use whatever file IO they currently use; maybe Apple updates it to allow for more fine-grained control so it behaves more like IP packets rather than disk read/writes, but whatever: the point is that your app doesn’t need to care exactly where the data is kept.

My device has a file system just like today, except the data itself is in a cache, synchronized to the cloud, magically in the background, whenever the OS thinks it’s okay.

When I start an app on my device, it gets whatever data it needs from the on-device cache. An app that is currently running gets first dibs on the synchronization, so the experience works just like today.

Apple can also make a number of optimizations to make this system work more smoothly. First, there’s no reason to dump an item from the cache unless it needs the space. Play a YouTube video once and you have it for as long as the cache isn’t full. Same goes for Safari itself: don’t go online unless you know something needs to be updated.

Second, it can tell when the same data is being downloaded multiple times. So for example, if my RSS reader has an article that’s also being downloaded by my dedicated NYTimes app, it should only download it once. Similarly, if I have multiple Twitter clients on my device, it’ll only grab the tweetstream once.

Note that Apple can encourage third parties to do their own optimizations. If content publishers put an “official” copy in the Apple cloud, any app that wants to subscribe to that content can explicitly subscribe to the one from Apple. For example, an app that wants a map, or some Point Of Interest (POI) information in order to compute something can simply link to an Apple-hosted geo database and let Apple take care of storing and sending the original data to the device. The app does its processing in the Cloud: no need to bring it down to the device a second time.

Finally, the data of course can go both ways. Your photos or text messages or any other content you create on the device can automatically go to the Cloud, for backup or for different processing when you want it. You can ask FlickR or Facebook to get the photos from Apple’s cloud whenever it has a chance. You don’t need to explicitly do a thing.

Of course there are a bunch of privacy issues you’d need to square away before this can be implemented, but responsible data storage companies do that stuff all the time.

There are so many obvious benefits for Apple to build a system like this, I think we can assume it’s a matter of time before it shows up on a future iOS update.

I can’t wait!

Apples for sale

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Britannicans vs. Wikipedians

Attach a label to a political discussion and people immediately take the same, tired, positions that quickly devolve into heated discussions that more resemble “politics as entertainment” than an honest search for truth. If you really want to resolve some of these disputes, it seems to me that one way to start is by re-categorizing along a different axis.

Instead of dividing the world into Liberal and Conservative or Republican and Democrat, what if we divide everyone into Britannicans and Wikipedians?

Britannicans prefer expertise and experts. They are most comfortable when a well-respected authority is in charge. Wikipedians have less patience for authoritative answers, preferring an iterative approach that gradually converges on truth, rather than single, large revelations.

In most debates over policy or group actions, Britannicans have some big advantages, like decisiveness and accountability. Wikipedians are harder to pin down, and they tend to be more tentative or indecisive.

On the other hand, Britannicans suffer from the seen vs. unseen problem. They do better when a policy or decision has an obvious precedent, or it fits clearly into an existing category. They can be caught off guard in new or previously-unimagined situations. They hate Black Swans.

Wikipedians, though, thrive in the creative destruction that happens in new or uncertain situations. Even in more familiar contexts, they recognize that decisions have outcomes beyond the obvious, so they are skeptical when somebody appears to “have all the answers”.

Wikipedians see “benevolent dictatorship” as an oxymoron; Britannicans are more sympathetic, preferring to emphasize the “benevolent” part.

Wikipedians are often criticized for being ignorant or misinformed, especially by Britannicans, whom Wikipedians in turn accuse of arrogance or hubris.

Britannicans rely on “mainstream news” like the New York Times, CNN, or Fox; they have great respect for universities, especially those with “prestige”. Wikipedians use a diverse set of news sources, many of which are obscure or highly targeted to specific niches; sometimes they just rely on friends.

On health issues, Britannicans listen to their doctors; Wikipedians try everything, including alternative medicine, supplements, or home remedies. Britannicans might disagree about whether universal coverage is important, but in principal they respect the idea of a national health service, staffed by well-intentioned experts who decide the best medical treatments and policies, making reasonable and impartial tradeoffs between outcomes and costs. Wikipedians would be terrified of such a single arbiter of medical “truth”.

Britannicans like strong, well-funded public education. Wikipedians mistrust anything centralized, so you’ll see them favor a wide range of things, from volunteering in their local school, to supporting charters, to home-schooling.

Wikipedians are by nature skeptical of anything large, including the military, though they’ll have a wide range of opinions depending on what kinds of threats exist. Britannicans too have many opinions, but generally are more comfortable the larger the scope of influence; for example, they prefer a defense based on cross-national units like NATO or the United Nations.

You’ll find religious Britannicans as well as Wikipedians. The idea of a strong, all-knowing God comes naturally to Britannicans, so they also make good atheists if they reject religion. Non-believing Wikipedians are more agnostic; the believers gravitate toward decentralized groups.

The environment is important to everyone, but Britannicans are particularly attracted to Global Warming as an opportunity to impose sweeping international policies. Britannicans who deny global warming are the types who will spend hours pouncing on every fact trying to “prove” the other side is wrong. Wikipedians are more skeptical, either that the consequences are well-understood, or that much can be done. They may respond with personal lifestyle decisions, like buying organic or driving a Prius.

I’m deliberately trying to draw lines that cut through the traditional political divides; I know both die-hard Democrats and Republicans who would find themselves on the same side of this split.

As for me, I think I’m a Wikipedian because I tend to appreciate bottom-up solutions over top-down ones. I’m skeptical of experts (even when I am one myself!) and I enjoy understanding both sides.

How about you?


Wikipedia Logo Encylopaedia Britannica 1875 edition

Mac needs a half-way decent blog editor

Say what you want about Mac versus PC, but if you are a blogger there’s no question: Windows7 PC is better.

I’m writing this sentence on a Mac (Word 2011) and all is well: matching quotes “”, great spell- and grammar-checking, best-of-class tables, footnotes, and much more. Nothing wrong with this experience.

If this were a PC, I’d simply take this note and copy/paste to the free Windows Live Writer app, maybe add a photo from FlickR (by searching for a keyword on the fly), hit “publish” and I’m done.

Here on my Mac with the $40 MarsEdit that everyone claims is the “best on Mac”, the process is awful. Copy/Paste and (of all things!) it pastes an image of the text . Sure, I can copy/paste the HTML but I lose the formatting. Worse, once in the editor -- even the "Rich Text Editor" -- it’s not WYSIWYG: how unMac is that?

I paid the $40 because I believe in supporting small developers and because I truly need the best blog editor on the Mac. But is this the best Mac can do?