Stephen Downes

I have to admire and respect the radical gusto with which Stephen Downes postulates What Not To Build — it matters not even if I agree or disagree (which I do), is that he puts out there no holds barred, as he has done for longer than some of you kids have known what a browser is. And I always learn things–

My sort of environmental scan is a bit different from what you’ll get from consultants and venture capitalists. Don’t ask me what companies are developing what products, how industry stocks are performing, or where all the ‘smart money’ is going. I don’t know and I don’t care.

What I can tell you, though, is what technologies are working, what technologies are flopping, and what technologies are fads. It’s practical, down-to-earth advice. For example, if you are a technology developer, you already know that you should not try to build a new operating system, a new word processor, an online store or an auction site, for example. These have been built and have established a mainstream presence. You would need thousands of engineers and billions of dollars to compete with them.

But when it comes down to it, it is an opinion, based on a lot of things Stephen looks at, but we all carry the perspective of our own goggles. So of course there is going to be a lot of vehement agreeing/disagreeing with his convention that “the iPhone is a fad”. And… mostly it is “people who have/want versus iPhones” versus “people who don’t/hate Apple”.

Even if it is a “fad”– and in technology, for that matter, what is not a fad? What really lasts? What is the staying power required to be “not fad?”… Videodiscs? fad. Floppy disks? fad. 256 color web safe color palettes? fad. Stephen’s position seems to be it is a fad if all you think of it as a phone. That’s just part of the name, dude.

So if the iPhone is a fad, it is without doubt, IMHO, a game changer. If it were not, why are all the competitors rushing to make clones? Without the iPhone, would we see other phones with multi-touch screens or would it be a proliferation of more years of button machines, sliding keyboards, and horrific interfaces?

nmc-search I’ve been tracking the stats on the NMC web sites this past year with the nifty Clicky service (click image for larger view). Without wavering, for as many months as I cannot remember, the top search terms coming inbound to the main NMC web site have been combinations of “iphone” “iPod Touch”.

And consistently over a stretch of 6 months, one of the top 3 or 5 pages accessed has been a May 12 blog post by Keene Haywood Keene Haywood on iPhone vs iTouch and why I would always choose an iPhone. The blog part of the NMC site is hardly used, Keene and maybe 5 others out of 3000 accounts actually publish on this site, but this relatively obscure post (no offense keene) has been a top accessed page for 6 plus months.

That seems interesting.

vworlds-searchBut this is even weirder. (click image for larger view)

Another site, NMC Virtual Worlds, has nothing to do with iPhones- it is about our projects in the virtual worlds space — and here too, we get a steady stream of search terms leading here on “Second Life iPhone” mainly from one post from August 6 Second Life Communication via iPhone— which again has consistently been in the top 5 or so accessed URLs.

But in some interpretations, this is the sign that this is a fad… or really?

In the end, or not the end, I am not standing on either sign of the “fad” sense as I don;t even fully understand what makes or breaks a fad. If it is a fad, it will fade? Or it means other phone makers should not copy it? or they will?

Informally, and when I travel, I watch the people using iPhones. They don’t look like all geeks, or Apple heads, just ordinary folks.

And I find my access to information is changing with the iPhone. You do get accustomed to being able to have access to email, the web, RSS feeds, twitter where-ever you are (that gets a signal). This, yes, is not unique to the iPhone, but BI (before iPhone) I don’t recall so many people getting the web in a web browser on a phone; it was always a stripped down WAPpy web.

Looking at the innovative developments with the accelerometer, the camera/microphone as an input device, the integration of portable apps with web content… seems more ripe for expansion than fade to fad-dom.

I await the response 😉

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Since I am reading this on my iPhone and typing this responce I guess I have to agree that the iPhone is a game changer it makes using the mobile web finally usable and the switching from 3G to wifi is great. All this and I haven’t mentioned the apps. Palm treo apps installed 2. iPhone apps 33 and counting. I sure ain’t going back.

  2. i agree with you when you say that it has changed your access to information. i can now have the answer to almost any question in a matter of moments.
    don’t know that song? use shazam.
    don’t know anything about the author of that book? use snaptell.
    want to find out the latitude and longitude of where you are standing? use google earth.
    and just today, i realized i could probably have access to tide information for when i go kayaking at the beach. i looked in the app store and what do you know? an app called tides.
    really, really, amazing.

  3. Part of a being a fad is, “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm” (New Oxford American Dictionary). That there is such wide interest in iPhone, iPod touch, and virtual worlds makes them prime candidates as fads. I believe being a game changer and the overall lifetime of something are irrelevant to being a fad.

    I think what defines something as a fad is how quickly it moves from “technology trigger” to “peak of inflated expectations” based on Gartner’s hype cycle. Move quickly and move high: fad. What happens after the peak, determines its value and game changing power. If it falls low and falls quickly, then there probably wasn’t any actual substance to the fad. If it doesn’t fall much and moves quickly through the remaining phases, it’s a game changer.

    For me, iPhone, iPod touch, and virtual worlds are all fads. I think iPhone/iPod touch have passed their peaks and become game changers. Virtual worlds has also passed the peak, but slid down and isn’t coming back up.

  4. @King: I like your framing of this, thanks! The placement of a large scale phenomena on a single point on a curve feels, though, arbitrary, too simplified for my taste– like trying to pinpoint the location of Gibson’s unevenly distributed future. I see it more of some kind of probability cloud, and I would expect there are place, organizations, cultures where something like virtual worlds is more up curve than down.

    It does seem, that the word “fad” has a bit of a condescending negative connotation moreso then your dictionary definition.

  5. My reading of Stephen’s post is slightly different I think. He doesn’t say that the technologies embodied by the iPhone are a fad, he says that the iPhone is a fad.

    The issue I see here is that the iPhone is a proprietary platform – and Stephen advice is “don’t build platform specific apps”. Stephen is clear that alternative interfaces are an interesting area, as is portability.

    In terms of the Gartner hype cycle, I don’t think the ‘iPhone’ as such would be something they would plot (I may be wrong). However, if we were to look at ‘mobile internet’ I think we can say that this has now passed through the trough of disillusionment, and is now moving along the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity. That the iPhone has contributed to this there is no doubt in my mind – whether the iPhone as a product lasts or not is not really relevant though.

    1. @Owen – Good points, thanks; my small views are always expanded with comments. Yes, Stephen did give the thumbs up on the broader areas of interfaces and mobile-ness.

      Many people I know and respect, like Stephen, are adamantly against closed platforms, to me at almost a religious level. I am less sure (and I think there is also a level of difference between apps and platforms…) – I would say, “don’t build proprietary BAD apps” – I have yet to find a need, a restriction in my use of the iPhone, or “closed” Apple products that prevented me from doing something or making me need to hack it– ahem, maybe not– I don;t like the lock in to AT&T.

      Good point too on Gartner not being specific to a tech like the iPhone.

      I am enjoying being corrected, believe me; keep ’em coming.

  6. @cogdog I also disagree with Stephen to some extent on the closed/proprietary platforms in that you need to understand the cost/benefit, and your audience (where they are and what they want)

    If it is trivial to build (e.g.) a Facebook app, then I think if yoiu have an audience who will appreciate it.

    I wouldn’t say don’t build for iPhone as Stephen does, although I would say the cost is likely to be on the higher end, so you’d want to know it was worth it.

    I’d go a bit further and say ‘use technology that makes building apps easy’ so that not only is the cost low for you, but also your community can look at building apps on their desired platforms – be that MySpace, Facebook, iPhone, WordPress Widgets etc. etc.

  7. @Owen I don’t think Stephen is saying “don’t build for iPhone” (or some other platform), full stop. The first risk he cites is that when a platform declines, “it takes the set of platform-specific applications with it.” So, don’t build platform-specific apps, as the section is titled, and which I fully agree with.

    To not build a platform-specific app, I think it’s necessary to not think of apps as atomic units, but to separate out (1) the actions/activites performed by the app, (2) the information/data that the app uses or creates, and (3) where the human interaction points of the app are. 1 and 2 must be platform independent to ensure survival, and open source is usually an expected component to achieving this. 3 can be (must be?) platform-specific, to fit the user interaction models and unique capabilities of each platform.

    When 1 and 2 are independent, a failed platform demolishing 3 is not a major concern. 1 and 2’s independence also leads to the triviality of building 3. The trouble with building 1 and 2 away from 3 is that framework mentality tends to creep in. But, Stephen also warns against that two points down.

  8. @King I don’t think this is particularly clear from Stephen’s post. He says “don’t build a platform-specific app” and goes on to list the following specifically:


    Although I think your breakdown of apps is broadly a good one, Stephen doesn’t do anything to make this distinction as you have – that is he doesn’t define what he means by an ‘application’.

    I’d also still say it is about cost/benefit and audience. To break two of the commandments above, if I build an iPhone app to browse Flickr collections, I accept that I’m at risk of the things that Stephen says (platform decline, being outcompeted) – but if the the cost is low and benefit high then it seems rational to build it (especially if the benefits can be realised in a short timescale)

  9. Neither Android nor Second Life-like systems (thanks to the team at are proprietary platforms.

    I’m not sure what Stephen is driving at with the competition argument, actually. Success has little to do with avoiding competition altogether (it simply can’t be done, for one thing — anything you do that proves successful is going to inspire competition, no matter what the underlying platform might be).

    All platforms disappear in time. I’ve been working for CTER since 2002. Since then nearly every instructional technology we use has been replaced, in some cases multiple times (sole exception: email).

    The half-life of technology is very short. If you want to build something for the ages, you’d going to have to go into a different line of work. 🙂

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