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We could all have owned jetpacks

Column This silo culture just debases science
Fri Nov 08 2013, 14:30

THERE'S A SCENE in Mars Attacks where the US president, played by Jack Nicholson, turns to the charred remains of Washington DC, gives the smile that won him the election, and pleads to the aliens, "Why can't we all just... get along?"

That's where I'm starting my column this week. Of course, shortly after Jack Nicholson said that he was blasted to bits with a laser, so heaven alone knows what I'm in for.


Since I joined The INQUIRER I've been accused of being biased towards Apple by Android fans, towards Blackberry by Windows fans, and every other permutation possible.

Here's the truth. I'm all and none of these things. I'm a technology fan. Same as you, deep down. Same as the rest of the team. Of course we all have our preferences and there's a bit of office banter as a result, but we're all excited about technology, no matter who makes it.

I get excited by launches from every company - it's like Christmas. However, of late, I've become more and more "meh" about it all. Things aren't moving as fast. The Nexus 5 is nice, but there was no wow factor. The iPhone 5C was more of the same. And I think part of the reason is that companies are scared to innovate, in case they tread on anyone else's toes.

I'm sure some people are reading this and thinking, "What more could they have done?" Well, my friend, to quote the immortal Bard, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". This loses some of its impact if your name isn't Horatio, but I'm sure you get my meaning.

So for me, all this factionism is, not to overstate the matter, a debasement of science. Imagine how much further technology would have got if the technology companies cooperated!

In last week's column, Dave Neal talked about patent trolling. Can you imagine the moon landings if Samsung got the contract for the onboard computer and Apple had kitted out mission control? Either bits of Armstrong and Aldrin would be splattered across the moon's surface because of some gross incompatibility, or they'd land safely, and immediately Apple would sue Samsung because the compatibility must mean that somewhere along the line one had copied the other.

Apollo 13 wouldn't have got back to earth because as soon as one of the ground team had invented a filter for the carbon dioxide, they'd have copyrighted it, triggering a three year court battle for the rights for the astronauts to be allowed to use it, two months and 29 days ago when they were still alive.

In a recent interview, Steve Wozniack suggested that Apple and Samsung ought to form an alliance. I think he's on to something there. And I don't mean that everyone should use Android - we'll let history be the judge of that - or that we should all be using some state sanctioned tablet like the North Koreans, but just a little less isolation on common standards - work more closely for the benefit of science and indeed the consumer.

Look at instant messaging (IM) clients for a start. You've got iMessage, Chaton, BBM, Hangouts, Skype - all completely independent. Surely it wouldn't kill the main competitors to form a common protocol? Nobody is going to choose their OS on the basis of which proprietary IM system it uses.

Bluetooth brought accessory compatibility and file transfer across networks. No one died. Kind of ironic to say that about a protocol named after the King of the Vikings, but hey.

We managed it for chargers too – did the world end? No. We ended up with a common standard that has saved millions in useless proprietary charger waste and brought the price of phones down. In fact, the move has been so successful that Apple, who have resisted up to now, are going to be forced to tow the line, at least within Europe.

Technology is moving forward at an amazing pace. But it's still being smothered by a culture of silos, market forces dictating the pace of change. Sure the format wars have been with us for as long as there was technology, and I don’t mean VHS/Betamax or Marconi/Baird. There were probably two different versions of the wheel to start with one slightly rounder and made out of bracken to ensure it didn't infringe the copyright of the other. Maybe if they'd worked together, by now we would have those jetpacks we were promised.

Again, I'm not saying we should live in a world of homogenised devices that are much of a muchness - that's more where I feel where we now - but if we got the basics right together, then programmers and developers could spend a little less time reinventing the wheel each time, and a little more making something better.

So here's to the future. A future where we all work together, a future where collaboration isn't a dirty word, because we're all striving to a common goal, and support each other in trying make each device for the benefit of science, gadget lovers and consumers not lawyers, marketeers and morons. µ


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