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There’s always something to howl about

Illustrating a software paradigm shift in the simplest possible way. Or possibly I’m just simple-minded.

I have every intention of talking about the paradigm shift in software engineering that is being ushered in by the iPad. The iPhone pushed us half the way there with “apps” — dedicated client interfaces into server-based databases. The iPad pushes all that much further, with interesting implications for real estate marketing.

Meanwhile, I’d like to use a very simple example to illustrate how a small change in the way software operates can result in big changes in the way we live our lives.

Consider the alarm clock: Big, clunky and loud, a magnificently useless dust magnet. One alarm, one time a day, set it and regret it. The digital age brought us the snooze alarm, and micro-electronics gave us the his-‘n’-hers alarm clock with a weekend override. But still very dumb technology, guaranteed to fail — partially twice a year at daylight savings time and completely every time the electricity goes out.

Enter the iPhone:

What you are seeing are my early-morning alarms: I get up early to deal with my email and to work out, then I get back into bed with Cathleen to snuggle for fifteen minute before we both get up to walk the dogs and get our days started.

The point is, I can have as many alarms as I want. It’s useful for software engineers to replicate analog tools in digital form. End-users already understand the concept, and so the new software simply seems to replicate the familiar analog functionality.

But this is not true, all appearances to the side. By enabling you to set up — say the word: to program — as many alarm clocks as you might need, the iPhone’s implementation of the alarm clock idea permits you to shift the way you have always thought about that wretched noise that greets the dawning.

This is an extremely simple example, but a useful one, I think. Software, at a minimum, permits us to do a better job at the things we’ve always done. But if we stretch our minds and use the tool as it can be used, and not simply as we have always used it in the past, then software helps us to do things we have never done before.

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