Bosworth’s KISS

Adam Bosworth has a transcript of the talk he gave at ICSOC 2004, wherein he discusses “the virtues of KISS which Ill conveniently describe as keeping it simple and sloppy and its effect on computing on the internet.” [KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid]

That software which is flexible, simple, sloppy, tolerant, and altogether forgiving of human foibles and weaknesses turns out to be actually the most steel cored, able to survive and grow while that software which is demanding, abstract, rich but systematized, turns out to collapse in on itself in a slow and grim implosion.

Consider the spreadsheet. It is a protean, sloppy, plastic, flexible medium that is, ironically, the despair of all accountants and auditors because it is virtually impossible to reliably understand a truly complex and rich spreadsheet. Lotus corporation (now IBM), filled with Harvard MBAs and PhDs in CS from MIT, built Improv. Improv set out “to fix all this”. It was an auditors dream. It provided rarified heights of abstraction, formalisms for rows and columns, and in short was truly comprehensible. It failed utterly, not because it failed in its ambitions but because it succeeded.

Consider search. I remember the first clunky demos that Microsoft presented when Bill Gates first started to talk about Information at your fingertips with their complex screens for entering search criteria and their ability to handle Boolean logic. One of my own products, Access had the seemingly easier Query by Example. Yet, today half a billion people search every day and what do they use? Not Query by Example. Not Boolean logic. They use a solution of staggering simplicity and ambiguity, namely free text search. The engineering is hard, but the user model is simple and sloppy.

There is a lot of talk about Web 2.0. Many seem to assume that the second web will be about rich intelligent clients who share information across the web and deal with richer media (photos, sound, video). There is no doubt that this is happening. Whether it is Skype or our product Hello, or iTunes, people are increasingly plugging into the web as a way to collaborate and share media. But I posit that this isnt the important change. It is glitzy, fun, entertaining, useful, but at the end of the day, not profoundly new.

What has been new is information overload. Email long ago became a curse. Blogreaders only exacerbate the problem. I cant even imagine the video or audio equivalent because it will be so much harder to filter through. What will be new is people coming together to rate, to review, to discuss, to analyze, and to provide 100,000 Zagats, models of trust for information, for goods, and for services. Who gives the best buzz cut in Flushing? We see it already in eBay. We see it in the importance of the number of deals and the ratings for people selling used books on Amazon. As I said in my blog,
My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. Instead, her interest is in better community tools, better book lists, easier ways to see the book lists, more trust in the reviewers, librarian discussions since she is a librarian, and so on.

This is what will be new. In fact it already is. You want to see the future. Dont look at Longhorn. Look at Slashdot. 500,000 nerds coming together everyday just to manage information overload. Look at BlogLines. What will be the big enabler? Will it be Attention.XML as Steve Gillmor and Dave Sifry hope? Or something else less formal and more organic? It doesnt matter. The currency of reputation and judgment is the answer to the tragedy of the commons and it will find a way. This is where the action will be. Learning Avalon or Swing isnt going to matter. Machine learning and inference and data mining will. For the first time since computers came along, AI is the mainstream.

Sriram Krishnan has more.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.