Developer Week in Review: Sometimes, form does need to follow function

Why remotes need buttons, lawmakers need a clue, and life-critical software needs many eyes.

It was 56 degrees in Boston on Tuesday. It wasn’t a record (you need to go back to 1999 for that, when it hit 62), but it definitely is another page in what has been a very, very bizarre winter (so far, the largest snowfall occurred back on Halloween, for example). Call it climate change, call it elves, call it sunspot variations, but whatever you call it, call it weird.

Meanwhile, while we wait for the the great Northeast Football War to commence, a few notes on the week’s events.

Sometimes, you need a button

I suspect that somewhere, once a day, a journalist is taking a pair of 20-sided dice and rolling on a table called “What product Apple might work on next.” The latest incarnation of this madness is a rumor that Apple might enter the smart remote control market with a touchscreen product.

The problem is, there are already touchscreen apps for the iPhone and iPad that talk to remote control widgets. And they suck. As much as Apple hates buttons and clutter, remote controls need buttons, or at least a few. The problem is kinesthetic, and has to do with the fact that many activities that we do with a remote control involve looking up at the screen while using the remote, such as skipping through commercials. Touch screens, by their nature, don’t provide tactical feedback, which means you need to look down to see what you’re pushing.

This is a powerful reminder that as much as we want cool interfaces and minimal design aesthetics, sometimes it’s more important that the darn thing does what we want it to do. The Apple crew has (to date) been great at paring devices down to their essential functionality, but it may meet its match in the remote.

Maybe Apple will come up with a work-around for this. One answer would be to have a duplicate of what’s on the TV appear on the remote, so that you could see what you were doing while pushing buttons. But that would require DVR, Blu-ray and cable companies to adopt a universal way to get the video streaming to the controller. Of course, they could make it only work with the Apple TV (and rumored new Apple televisions), but that would be vendor lock-in, and Apple never does that …

Time to invest in disk drive companies

Should you have any doubts that Big Brother is watching more and more, Australia is now proposing that telcos and ISPs be required to retain data about all emails and phone calls made in the country, and make it available to law enforcement officials. Apart from the privacy issues, think about the data management nightmare that would be — because it’s not just a month or a year that they would be required to retain, but all records in perpetuity (or until the policy is overturned). This means that providers will need to figure out how to store this data in a way that will allow it to be accessed decades into the future.

Like SOPA and PIPA, this is an example of legislators writing checks that the providers have to pay. Add in the U.S. Patent Office, and you have a grand collection of bureaucrats and politicians trying to regulate technologies that they understand not a wit. Maybe it’s time for all the technically adept of the world to form their own country, but I fear civil war would break out the first time they had to decide if Greedo shot first.

Open source heart code

Software operating in life-critical environments, from aircraft to medical devices, is nothing new. Unlike “Angry Birds,” however, bugs in this kind of software come with a high price tag. Just this year, there were disturbing reports of hacks that allowed third parties to override the dosage delivered by insulin pumps.

Now, one lawyer has stepped forward to demand that she have access to the software that drives the pacemaker that was to be implanted in her. GNOME Foundation director Karen Sandler is spearheading a campaign to have the source code to implantable devices be open source so that it can be inspected for vulnerabilities and bugs.

As more software is embedded into high-risk devices (such as the autonomous vehicles Google is getting ready to deploy or software for voting machines), the potential for accidental (or intentional) disasters grow. How does society weigh the intellectual property rights of the manufacturers against the rights of the public to ensure that they are safe?

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