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Intelligently Designed?

Entry 1199, on 2010-06-14 at 22:08:15 (Rating 3, Computers)

A lot of my work involves designing and creating database systems, web sites, and basic applications. Another part of it involves using (and helping my clients use) programs, web sites, and databases. One of the things that often surprises me is what a terrible job a lot of the "full time professionals" do when they are doing similar things to what I am doing as a part time programmer.

The best systems I have designed have resulted from a collaboration. In fact, they have gone beyond that and have become a synergy. I do the technical work and most of the design work but the feature set I create and the user interface I build are the result of my ideas and experience as an IT professional and my clients' ideas as users.

When I use a lot of database systems and web sites I often wonder whether the designer has ever had to use their own system. And if they have used it perhaps they coped OK because they were just so familiar with it but have they asked a non-expert to use it and watched what happens?

The same applies to many widely used programs. I wonder whether the programming team responsible for Microsoft Word, for example, have ever used it much and whether they have watched other people try to use it.

Either they have never done this or they have but have ignored the obvious conclusion any reasonable person would reach in that situation. What is that conclusion? It's that Word isn't designed to be used as a word processor. In fact, many people would say it isn't designed at all!

If there was a biological analogy it would be that it is the result of evolution rather than intelligent design! Like biological organisms Word does work but only because various features have been hacked around with, pushed into service in areas they were never really designed for, and added on to while maintaining the old functionality for compatibility purposes.

This is not a good way to create a living thing and it's not a good way to create a program either. It's easy to tell when you use a modern word processor like Apple's Pages that it is more the result of intelligent design, although (like any program which has been around for a few years) there is some evolution there too.

Looking at it more generally that is a major difference between Apple and Microsoft. Apple isn't afraid to start again and build things in a better way but Microsoft is so intent on maintaining backward compatibility that all they do is throw another layer on top of an already unstable structure making it even more ugly.

Of course Apple's approach does have its problems. Switching to a whole new hardware architecture (which Apple has done three times: from 6502 to 68K, then to PowerPC, then to Intel) and completely changing the operating system (from Apple II and III to classic Mac OS then to Mac OS X) does create problems in accessing old data. I have many files created in programs like Word Perfect, MacDraw and HyperCard that are very difficult (but not impossible) to access on my current Mac.

I can see a similar phenomenon in Apple's recent successful products, especially those in areas where Microsoft and other companies have failed. The iPhone was intelligently designed instead of just being hacked together like a Windows Mobile phone would be. iOS (the new name for the operating system Apple use on their mobile devices) is designed for mobile touch screen devices - it's not just a layer thrown on top of the already clunky Windows platform like Microsoft's efforts.

The same applies to the iPad. Other companies have made tablets but they have just been smaller laptops with less features. Apple designed theirs completely from the start for the functions it was supposed to perform. That's why they were wildly successful when Microsoft and its partners failed.

Of course Apple isn't the only company following this strategy. Google is doing something similar with its Android devices but it doesn't quite have the same style as Apple. But in the longer term it might turn out that Google becomes the supplier of the OS for devices which are "good enough" just like Microsoft is today.

I said at the start that my best projects were a synergy between me and my clients. Apple is lucky because they don't seem to have to rely on that so much. Steve Jobs seems to have such a good understanding of what people really want that most of the time he gets it right.

That's what makes him the world's number 1 CEO, I guess. Now I'm not a big enough Apple fanboy to say Jobs is God - but he is the intelligent designer!


Comment 1 (2674) by INRI on 2010-06-14 at 23:24:29:

Nice article.

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” This is a favorite phrase of Jobs, but he is (mis)quoting Picasso. As Newton says, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

What we see in modern computing is built on a tiny kernal of “DNA” from the past. From Ivan Sutherland’s sketchpad to Sketchup, from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre to the Mac from ENIAC to Z80 to i7 from UCSD Pascal to Delphi from Ada to Basic to C#. We can backtrack a little and pretend we have come up with something new but we rarely see true creativity.

It is difficult to determine what was design and what was evolution. Do today’s intelligent designers really need so much junk DNA in their products?


Comment 2 (2675) by OJB on 2010-06-15 at 09:32:21:

I basically agree with what you are saying.There is never anything genuinely new in either art or science. Even great new discovereis like Einstein's have their roots in earlier ideas. And Apple technology certainly uses existing ideas.

Maybe the greatest example of Apple being more innovative was the Newton and that wasn't much of a success! Apple don't really innovate, they perfect. Note that I'm not saying that is any less of an achievement than genuinely innovating.


Comment 3 (2676) by Anonymous on 2010-06-15 at 14:19:28:

You have denied that intelligent design makes sense but now you say it really happens. Are you ever consistent about your beliefs? If evolution cannot make good software why do you think it can make good living things?


Comment 4 (2677) by OJB on 2010-06-15 at 16:05:50:

If you read the post more carefully you will see I was using the idea of intelligent design as a metaphor for writing software. I dont think the concept of intelligent design is impossible, I just think it isn't responsible for the evolution of life.

And I reject ID because life *is* so imperfect, just like badly written software. If life really was designed we would expect living things to have far less defects than they do. If you look at the structure of organs and other structures in living things you will see they are the result of kludgey design, exactly as we would expect from a natural process like evolution.


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