Technology for the "Masses"

I'm spending some vacation time with my family, my in-laws, and my wife's sister and her family. We're at my in-laws cabin in Clear Lake California. Clear Lake is a beautiful place with a interesting juxtaposition of multi-million dollar homes right near people living at the poverty line. I've been coming to Clear Lake with my wife since before she was my wife, almost twenty years. It's great here, blue skies, a big lake, and lots of good wine! I find that being here affords me the opportunity to clear my mind and let it wonder.

Over the past few days two interesting thoughts entered my mind. My father in-law just bought a previously-owned personal water craft from a guy up the street. Let's call him Hank. When we picked up the craft Hank invited us in for a beer, Miller High Life of course. Hank's a nice guy, he's in his 60's and a good guess says he's not married. Hank's house looks like it hasn't been redecorated since 1977. Thick brown shag carpet and wood paneling provide most of the character. I noticed about a dozen pocket watches sitting on his kitchen table. Hank goes around to garage and estate sales with a purpose of finding watches. It doesn't matter if they work or not, if he can get a good deal the sale is done. Hank has a friend, we'll call him Ed. Ed's in his 80's and was a watch repairman. None of Ed's children were interested in watches so he had no one to pass down the craft to. That is until Hank came along. Ed is teaching Hank how to fix watches. Some of the broken watches Hank buys are for repair parts for the ones that also don't work but are worth fixing. Out of the blue Hank mentioned he was not a technology guy. His impression is you have to spend too much time making sure the kids (for which I don't think he has any) aren't going to inappropriate places. My father-in-law proudly mentioned that I work for Microsoft, one of his sons works for IBM, his nephew works for Apple, and his other son works for a company contracted by Apple. The conversation didn't go anywhere, probably because Hank is not a technology guy.

This got me thinking though, what will we "technology guys" pass down? Our craft, unlike watch making, is constantly changing. We must continually revamp our skills lest we find ourselves obsolete. Working in an industry that's largely IP based with a skill set that must be remade every 3-5 years doesn't lend itself to passing down knowledge or a skill. I found this somewhat worrisome. I felt a little panic wash over me. What will I pass down to my kids or my grandchildren? This is something I'll likely ponder until I return to Clear Lake next year.

My in-laws don't have Internet access at the cabin. They do at their primary house just not at the cabin. Each morning I've been driving 10 minutes to Mary Lou's coffee shop in Lucerne with free Wi-Fi. The coffee shop has a computer sitting in the corner with a Linksys wireless router attached to it. The owner, Rob, mentioned the computer is his girl-friend's. He used to let people access their email from it but it got screwed up. So much so it cost him $250 to have someone come in and fix it (translated as re-install the OS). He was not happy about spending $250 to fix it. Now no one is allowed to touch the computer. It just sits there.

I get a medium (no Talls, Grandes, or Ventes here) Vanilla latte with nonfat milk. Tax included it comes to $3 even. It's a good coffee and is just what I need to get the engine started. I sit at a table on the patio that over looks the main highway. There's an interesting mix of people that come through the place. I sit next to the front door and great each patron with a "good morning". There's something refreshing about being friendly to strangers.

Yesterday one guy made a comment about me spending time in cyberspace. I hadn't heard that reference to the Internet in a long time. This got me thinking about what a different world we in technology live in. At Microsoft we often talk about building technology for the masses. Now I'm starting to believe there are more people in the world like Hank and the guy at the coffee shop than like us. This means we're building technology for the minority to benefit the majority. I like this characterization simply because I think it's purposeful to build something that benefits a tremendously large number of people in an indirect fashion; they won't spend a minute in their life thinking about it but it does change their life for the better.

As I was leaving the coffee shop yesterday morning the owner said I can come back any time and use the wireless. He said if he's closed to just sit on the patio - it's on all the time. You won't get that service at Starbuck's.

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