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A quick scan of technology headlines might lead one to believe all competing software and hardware companies are locked in a never-ending death-match. Hardly a week goes by where the latest incarnation of the tablet computing platform is held up for evaluation as the next “iPad killer”. Remember how each new first generation Android phone was seen as the iPhone’s most lethal threat. And most recently Google+ has been trumpeted as the current aspirant to the “Facebook killer” crown. Why the need for such violence?

I think most technology companies understand there are only two real dangers to a market-leading product’s lifespan: self-inflicted wounds or a failure to evolve. The introduction of a new competitor does not foretell an impending winner-take-all contest.

While Apple has been churning out hit after hit for the past five years, Final Cut Pro is in danger of dealing itself a knockout combination of radical UI redesign and reduced functionality. Facebook may indeed need to be wary of Google+ as the most recent barbarian at the gate, but they also need to make sure they don’t turn themselves into MySpace.

The public perception nightmare of Windows Vista did more damage to the Windows brand than any Linux distro could ever hope to inflict. Personally I found Vista to be a fine upgrade from XP, and never understood the reason for such vitriol pointed its way. But nevertheless the criticism was loud and frequent.

Quick! What killed the Palm Pilot? Was it some hot new portable? Plenty of Windows Mobile touchscreen devices certainly wanted to take a swing at the champ. (Like my Viewsonic V35, which I finally got around to recycling last year). But no single device spelled the demise of the Pilot. Rather the entire PDA segment was washed away in a tide of irrelevance and redundancy as cell phones acquired this functionality. At least the 3-pack of replacement styli I bought for the V35 comes in handy when my son misplaces his Nintendo DS stylus.

So while the bloodthirsty tech media may attempt to paint the competitive landscape as a gladiatorial arena, I believe most tech products leave the battle under their own declining power, and not in a body bag.

I do my best to keep up with the latest technology and I like to read a lot about what’s going on in the world of programming.  However, I also have a limited amount of time to read.  Lately, I’ve been taking a hard look at my reading habits.  This is usually made up of going to my favorite group-think sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon and see what the latest programming blog posts are.  Over the last few years more and more of my reading has turned to blogs.  It feels more in touch with the community as a whole and keeps me on the edge of what’s going on.

The let down happened when I started thinking about the content of what I’m reading now versus what I was reading about 5-10 years ago.  Blog content is great, but it’s like reading a newspaper that’s nothing but a big editorial section.  Most posts are packed with unfiltered content that often falls into one of two categories; “You know what I think?” and “This is cool, check this out!”.   Both types of blog post are great and I’ve spent many, many hours reading these.  When I really thought about the content I’m reading though, I realized that I’m actually learning a lot less than I used to.  That wasn’t the only problem either.  Reading primarily in the browser has turned me into a skimmer, something I rarely used to do.  There’s so much pure bloggage out there that you have to skim and filter what’s worth reading and what’s not.  While that’s not awful in itself, I’ve noticed that I tend to retain a lot less when I read this way.  I also found that reading the blogs was only half of the reading I was doing.  The rest was reading people’s comments about what I had just read.  I can easily spend more time reading that than reading actual blog content.

At some point in your life, you say things or do things that make you think to yourself, “I’m really getting old.”  Everything is turning digital now.  Do I sound old yet?  In addition to programming, I’ve been a photographer for a long time, almost thirty years.  I started back in high school doing black and white film and eventually built a darkroom in my house.  About three years ago, I realized that buying film, paper and chemicals and spending countless hours in that darkroom could be replaced by spending a fraction of the time, at no cost, in front of my computer with Photoshop.  It was a sad realization, but I moved on to a digital SLR and turned the darkroom back into the original walk-in closet.  The only thing missing from Photoshop is actually feeling the film and the paper.  It may not sound like much, but after so many years I can say that those things are significant.  There’s something about handling the materials that puts you in touch with the process, and I haven’t found a replacement for that yet when I “develop” my photos the computer.

Reading is the same way.  There’s something about sitting down with a book that puts you in the mode of committing to read.  I can’t browse away from what I’m reading in a book with the click of a mouse.  Actually opening the book, holding it in my lap and turning the pages makes me feel like I’m ready to learning something new.  This is all about the experience of reading, and retaining what you read, without distraction.  It’s the same reason I wasn’t allowed to do my homework with the TV on when I was in school.  I can say for sure that I retain more when I read a book than when I read a blog at the computer.

Most computer books are also directed at actually teaching something.  Whether it’s a book about a programming language, a way of approaching design, or how to see a development project through to completion, most books teach.  However, it’s a rare occasion when a blog post really teaches you something.  Opinion pieces are great and have their place, but when the scale tips from spending time reading books to reading blog posts, you’re also tipping the the scale of how much you’re learning.

So now you’ve read a blog post about why you should try to read less blog posts.  You should probably eat more green vegetables and get eight hours of sleep each night, but I’ll save that for another post.  I’m going to try to make a change in my blogging, and do more writing that leaves readers with something more useful than a simple conversation piece.  Until then, try turning off the browser and go pick up a book… the trees will forgive you.

My first blog post of this year is going to be a tribute to one of my best friends that I recently had to say goodbye to… the computer I started with here at SlickEdit.   As a programmer, your computer is something that you spend 8-9 hours a day interacting with.  My work computer gets more face-to-face time than any other person I know, so it’s only natural to develop a friendship with it.

After three years of use it had developed its own unique personality.  It had the perfect background with cool sounds to match.  The fonts were just right.  All of the desktop icons were where I wanted them and I knew exactly where everything was off the Start menu.  I had scripts, shortcuts and bindings to do all the common stuff I need to quickly.  I’d gotten to know all of its quirks, traits, flaws and mannerisms over those few years.

However, like many computers, after installing several versions of many large apps, it wasn’t the playful, energetic puppy that it was back when I started using it.  It was in no rush when rebooting, and I could hear it let out a sigh whenever started Outlook or Visual Studio.  What were once speedy builds turned into mandatory coffee breaks.  Still, I loved that computer… we knew each other and wrote software together every day.

Then, early one morning, our sys admin came over to my office.  “It seems like your computer’s been trying to send out emails directly on port 25 during the middle of the night, any idea what that could be?”  I didn’t know.  We looked up the address where they were being sent, somewhere I’d never heard of before.  “Alright, I’ll bring over the Vista DVD,” he said.

And that’s when it sunk in.  An infection… a virus… the Vista DVD… I was going to have to reformat my machine.  I was going to have to shoot Old Yeller.

[From the movie... Old Yeller's gone rabid and Mama's holding a shotgun]
Travis: No mama!
Mama: There’s no hope for him now. He’s sufferin’. You know we gotta do it.
Travis: I know Mama… But he was my dog… I’ll do it.

I sat quietly for a while after he left, realizing that this was the end.  I spent the next few hours backing up all of my important files and exporting all of my preferences.  “There are automatic updates ready to install, reboot now?” it prompted innocently.  The poor thing had no clue.  I missed him already, and I wondered if a better place awaited him after fdisk.  A place without disk fragmentation, bloated installations, useless polling auto-update tray apps and frozen taskbars.  I said goodbye and shut down one last time before booting from the Vista DVD.

I’m still sitting at the same desk, but everything feels new and a little unknown now.  It’s like working again with that energetic puppy I began with.  He’s eager to start up and get to work, builds are a snap and the desktop is clutter-free.  I’m still getting to know it, and soon he’ll develop his own personality.  I still miss Old Yeller, though.

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