Maximum viable potential

Taken from The Invention of Printing by Theodore Low De Vinne (1876)
Taken from The Invention of Printing by Theodore Low De Vinne (1876)

Internet-era innovations often arrive to tremendous fanfare. When you consider the number of new things being made, the number that go on to be hugely impactful is extremely low. Nevertheless, the trumpeting—proportional to how much funding is at stake—goes on. This one, this one here, is the Next Big Thing. This has the potential to change everyone’s lives, forever.

The overwhelming majority don’t; some do. Those that have rarely did in the form they were in when they were touted as gamechangers. That’s the nature of it all.

Early-stage technologies suffer deeply from developer myopia. Technical teams start with the core functionality and over time fan outwards towards the exceptions and edge-cases. But the drawback of a ‘good enough is good enough’ approach is that it seldom is. The initial technologies of Uber and Airbnb did not, for example, make people safer, yet steps to ensure safety are now core to their brands.

Consider the exclusionary nature of the smartphone. The extent to which they are resilient to your lifestyle has depended on how much you have in common with Californian men: general wealth, education level, larger hands, average climate and so on. Manufacturers removing headphone jacks was a clear signal their smartphones were not ‘for everyone’: only those able and willing to buy and use much more expensive, wireless alternatives, in spite of their shortcomings. Again, myopia.

I’m reminded of a famous post by developer Patrick McKenzie: Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names. Where it is necessary to record someone’s name, developers commonly use three fields: a title, a given name and a family name. McKenzie listed extensive exceptions to this formula: it’s enough to make you realise the scale of ‘edge cases’ is vast. He also inspired others to write lists of falsehoods about phone numbers, time and all sorts of other things. Along similar lines is a recent, enlightening post entitles Horrible edge cases to consider when dealing with music.

What all these edge-cases expose is the kind of developer myopia that plagues new technologies. These simplified assumptions aren’t representative of people’s behaviours and how the world works, and therefore alienate users.

So, I wonder whether the falsehoods are a good predictor of innovation success. In scientific fields such as medicine, rigorous studies to identify edge-cases are not only commonplace, it’s critical. Therefore, in the digital domain, does the speed at which developers embrace their edge-cases offer an indicator of the extent to which an innovation has potential?

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