After doing this kind of thing for a while, you might think you know a bit about the relevant data types in your applications. I suggest, however, that there are at least two things that a developer needs to reconsider from time to time about what one might know that ain’t so:

  • the nature of security threats and the need for every application to withstand them
  • the nature of data and the need for every application to make good use of new data types and sources

What brings these thoughts about data to mind is John Murrell’s commentary today on the expanding universe as viewed through Google Maps. He reminded me of an early (very early) Saturday morning a few weeks ago, when my 17-year-old son was about to leave the house at 3 a.m. to catch a ride to Mexico to build a house for a family there. His team would be meeting at a shopping mall near San Diego, and he was wondering if there would be a place to grab a hot breakfast while waiting for the rest of the group to assemble: Google Maps allowed me to drive, virtually speaking, up to the meeting point and look around to spot a fast-food restaurant where I knew he’d find a hot meal at a pre-dawn hour.

At no point, before I had this capability, did it ever reach even my wish list of things that I thought the Web should someday do. If anything, the Star Trek captain’s command "On screen" — allowing remote surveillance of any corner, it would seem, of the galaxy — always seemed like one of the most disbelief-suspending demands placed on fans of that genre. Yet, in a limited but quite useful sense, here it is.

My larger point is that data types change, over time, as new data sources and appropriate data channels emerge. When mere on-off switching of a radio signal was the frontier of long-distance communication, Morse Code was a crucial protocol — and one that I’m not sorry to have programmed my brain to demodulate. But times change — and the level of investment in past capability is not a good measure of its future value. What matters is what people want to be able to do tomorrow.

Research has shown that when your brain knows what to do with something, it sees it in a different way than when it sees something that it doesn’t know how to use. Work on that. What you see as irrelevant eye candy or cumbersome content, someone else may see as a way to deliver function that users will find compellingly attractive.

November 28, 2007