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Futurist Mark Pesce on Macs, VR and 'that' tablet

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Mark Pesce. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
Mark Pesce. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

Mark Pesce worked in California as a networking coder for Apple in the 1980s and '90s then went on to invent virtual reality patents.

After moving to Australia, he has been working with media and business professionals to integrate the lessons of the first decade of the web into 21st-century business practices using social media and other tech phenomena.

I saw his riveting presentation – the last one of the conference – last week at the Webstock conference in Wellington covering tech, now and the future, and interviewed him afterwards.

Mac Planet: You used to live in California, now you live in Australia – what led you to move?

Mark Pesce: I was offered an opportunity to work with the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, guiding them into digital media and digital distribution.

That, in turn, led me to my research into social networks, which turned out to be very fruitful.

I did fall in love with Sydney pretty quickly, and with Australia in general. It's a size that makes it knowable. The US is far too large to be knowable.

Mac Planet: Have you noticed any obvious difference between the NZ coding and development industry and the Australian?

Mark Pesce: Not noticeably. I don't spend a lot of time inside coding and development firms these days – certainly not like I used to. [NZ/Australian web startup] Silverstripe seems to be very much like any of a dozen other web startups I've seen over the years, in the US and Australia.

One thing I will say – Kiwis do seem to feel that they have 'something to prove'. That shows in the quality of their work.

Mac Planet: Decades ago you were involved with Apple coding; in particular, for networking. Wikipedia says your first patent was for a 'Sourceless Orientation Sensor,' which is used to track the motion of persons in virtual environments. (This was not for Apple, but for the Ono-Sendai Corporation Pesce founded in 1991.) Was this SOS used in gaming environments?

Mark Pesce: The Sourceless Orientation Sensor was invented to be used for a VR gaming system of our own design, but was licensed to SEGA for use with the Sega Virtua VR headset, which was designed to be a peripheral for the Sega Genesis/Sega Mega Drive system.

So yes, you could say it was designed to be used in gaming environments. But we quickly realised it had a lot of other potential. We designed a remote control that could understand body gestures – something you wouldn't see again until the Nintendo Wiimote.

Mac Planet: What concerns me about the iPad is the difficulty inputting data (a virtual, or plug-in, keyboard). But Brian Fling divides people into two different types of mobile users: those very particular about their mode of input, and those who think in services. "Destinations like sites or apps, or their social connections, are the tools to perform tasks, the method of access is completely replaceable. "Twitter is a perfect example of a non-3A service: I can interact with it in a number of contexts, devices and inputs to the extent that is makes the mode of access irrelevant." Fling also thinks that for 80 per cent of the people he knows, the iPad is the only device they'll need. What's your take on this shift in computing models?

Mark Pesce: We're seeing the birth of web-as-appliance, and that's all to the good. For a long time we've been promised that computers will vanish into things – the same way electric motors did a hundred years ago – and we're finally seeing this happen. The number of highly intelligent devices surrounding us – GPS wayfinders, mobiles, toys, cameras, etc – has increased exponentially over the last decade. This is happening again. At this point, the interface is (one hopes) driven by the task at hand. That becomes more problematic when the device (like iPad) has multiple functions. One of the consistent critiques of iPad is that it is excellent for consuming media and not really very good at creating it. This design methodology affects the users' expectations when they approach the device – but, that said, industrious individuals will always find their way around it.

I'd ask Brian Fling if he'd tried typing on an iPhone. It stinks. And that's by design. You lose some specific capability for an exponential broadening in overall capability. It's a trade-off. All designs have tradeoffs.

Mac Planet: You said at Webstock that books (ie tangible, with covers and pages) are at the point of being on the way out, since they're increasingly being digitised.

(For me, this sounds like a good thing, as for a couple of decades already I have been annoyed that books don't have a clock in the corner and I still find myself groping for a keypad to type in a search.)

But there are many purists who will regret and resent the downturn of traditional book publishing. Will history just consign these book fans to the ranks of collectors?

Mark Pesce: Traditional book publishing is already dead. Mainstream book publishers are only interested in 'celebrity diet books' which can sell in the hundreds of thousands. Mid-list authors (who sell in the thousands) are simply not being offered publishing contracts any more. Those authors will need to develop their own systems of distribution, which will not look like the traditional models.

As for the collectors, there will always be a market for printed books, just as there is a market for vinyl.

Mac Planet: One thing the iPhone did was make tech even friendlier. People who find computers intimidating seem to have no problem with the iPhone, and even toddlers take to it immediately. With the iPad as an 'internet appliance' (a long-cherished dream of Steve Jobs), barriers to entering the world of tech come down to price and bandwidth.

This further disenfranchises many technocrats who seem to bitterly resent the ease with which people can achieve computing tasks – they dislike Macs for this reason, and the iPhone and iPad must be perceived as even greater threats. Do you have any advice (or sympathy!) for them?

Mark Pesce: None whatsoever. That said, I do like to have the option; I use Terminal all the time on my MacBookPro, and I do like the fact that jailbroken iPhones offer me the same capability. I don't trust a computer I can't get a shell into.

Mac Planet: Finally, do you think Apple wants to rule the world, or just push it along?

Mark Pesce: I think Apple is as much the accidental 'victim' of the era of computers-as-cool as the instigator of this era. They're simply in the right place at the right time. That said, they have a very good sense of what makes the device cool. Why Nokia or Microsoft haven't been able to 'get this' themselves is one of the biggest open questions in technology. This is emphatically not about Steve Jobs. This is about doing your UI/UX homework.

Now, that said, I don't think Apple really wants to rule the world. They had DRM on iTunes for precisely as long as it took until the labels realised that DRM-free tracks make the public happier. Then they dropped them and moved along. Apple does not need DRM to survive and thrive. Not on music, not on movies, not on books.

Against that, there's the strictly locked down nature of iPhone OS. Where did Apple learn this from? Nintendo. Nintendo was the first company to strictly test and quality-control all the titles released for their platform – standard procedure among the gaming console vendors today. Apple is simply replicating this extremely successful strategy. (The game console is not thought of as a computer, is it? Neither is iPad.)

To the degree that Apple makes stupid decisions about what can and can not run on that platform, they make Android and Windows Mobile 7 more alluring. Apple understands this. So there's a balance. That balance will become more nuanced this year, as the two other competitive platforms mature into serious gravitational forces in the app phone space.

- Mark Webster

(The full version of this interview is available at mac-nz.com)

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