Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Software is Indistinguishable From Magic

Plush red curtains withdraw to the sides of the wide stage, only the dark of midnight can be seen beyond them. A tall figure with a top hat strides into the spotlight at the center of the stage. The weight of anticipation presses us into our seats like breathless astronauts at take-off as we wait for something “never before seen by any audience.”

The magician raises both hands into the air as though preparing to pull himself up on an invisible bar. After a pause just long enough to hear your heart beat loudly twice, the magician pulls down hard on nothing until his knuckles rap the floor. Lightning flashes and thunder cracks. The stage is filled with a pyramid of elephants, maidens juggling bowling pins, and a flock of doves darting over our heads and towards the back of the theater.

Software is indistinguishable from magic. It gives us the power to conjure new capabilities at the click of a mouse. Magic springs from our fingertips. We move electronic mountains of information, we uncover patterns that were previously invisible. New revenue streams well up out of the internet. Users eagerly try new software, hoping for a magical experience. Developers demonstrate new software reveling in the reaction of the users, journalists, and bloggers.

Timing is everything. The only magic of poor timing is a disappearing audience. When the search engine Cuil was launched, users of Google everywhere wondered what sort of new trick Cuil had up their sleeves. 120 billion indexed pages seemed unfathomable. Unfortunately, Cuil’s timing was off and the effect fell flat. Just as it would be if you saw a wire during a levitation act, Cuil was revealed to be ordinary software with bugs and scalability problems.

When the timing is right, as it was with the introduction of the first iPhone and its amazing user interface, software can send a tingle up and down your spine. I still remember my first experience with software. It was a simple Tic-Tac-Toe program at the Boston Museum of Science in the early 70’s. There were just a few stations and you had to wait your turn in line. It was amazing to me that a computer could play Tic-Tac-Toe against a person and win.

I kept going back for more until Dad asked me if maybe I’d like to visit some of the other exhibits. I suggested we go to the gift shop because I knew they had a plastic mechanical computer kit for sale. It was called a DigiComp and it could be programmed to do simple computation including playing the game of Nim. It was pure magic.

What was your most magical software experience? Post your comment below!

Part 2: The Magic of Demos


Anonymous said...

Good post. Timing is important but I would say that its more important that the software actually be right.

Ivan said...

I'm going to ask my boss for a title change to Senior Conjurer thanks to this blog post.

Anonymous said...

Clarke's third law...

Anonymous said...

I agree with your magic comparison, but that ends up being more of a problem than a good thing. In fact, it's the basis for my book, "Boiling the IT Frog." See for a brief explanation of why magic in IT is bad.

Damon Poole said...

Hi Harwell,

I understand your point, but for myself I can't agree. The magic of software is what drives my passion for this profession.