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Cyrus Farivar Q&A – nostalgia, legacy support, product building

We’re switching things up. Today’s post is a Q&A with Cyrus Farivar.

Cyrus Farivar [suh-ROOS FAR-ih-var] is a journalist, radio producer and author. He is also the senior business editor at Ars Technica. His book, The Internet of Elsewhere – about the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world, including Senegal, Iran, Estonia and South Korea — was published by Rutgers University Press in April 2011. He has reported for Deutsche Welle English, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, The Economist, Wired, The New York Times and many others. He has a B.A. in Political Economy from the University of California, Berkeley and a M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Cyrus, thank you for agreeing to do a Q&A for our visitors!

Here, at — we have a few primary goals. One is to be a complete digital archive so that when you find your grandparent’s diary with an old floppy stuck in the midst of the ruffled pages; you can find the technology necessary to access that data. Our other goal is to bridge the digital divide (see: About Us).

Are there any web technologies for which you have nostalgia for?

I mean, I definitely remember using older technology when I first got online—my earliest memories of using the Web involve streaming KING-FM from Seattle on RealPlayer. I thought it was pretty neat that I could access radio stations nearly a thousand miles away from where I grew up in Southern California.

Is there a service you miss most on the Internet from an earlier era?

To me, tech nostalgia is like any other nostalgia—it’s fun to remember how things used to be. It still is shocking to me to think about all the technological changes that have happened within my 90-year-old grandfather’s lifetime. Transcontinental flight! Automobiles! Nuclear power! Computers, the Internet and cell phones! Seriously. That’s pretty amazing. But for me, I don’t really miss old services, in that I would prefer to use them over what we have now. Is there anyone that really, honestly prefers BBSs, dial-up services (Prodigy, AOL—which I used back when), and the like over their current broadband connection?
Editor’s note: Yes, and we’ll post an interview with that person in the next few weeks!

We’ve noticed some trends on our site. Skype is one of the most downloaded old versions and people tend to gravitate as far back as Skype 3.8. Do you use Skype? Do you ever want to revert back?

While I have some quibbles with Skype’s design choices in more recent versions, it doesn’t bother me enough to want to downgrade.

You’ve written a great article on Winamp titled “Winamp’s woes: how the greatest MP3 player undid itself,” do you see any parallels with Skype post-Microsoft acquisition? I understand we’re talking about two entirely different products, but the question I’m getting at is: “how important is it for companies to be careful when releasing new versions?”

I think that both from a design perspective and from a usability perspective, it’s desireable for any creator to be conscious of how people use their software. That is to say, it remains to be seen if/how Microsoft will pull the same blunders that it did with Skype as AOL did with Winamp. As a fan of Skype and Estonia as a whole, it’s a concern that I certainly have. (See: Microsoft Acquires Skype)

I’ve visited Tallinn, Estonia and was also amazed by the connectivity and vibrancy of this comparatively small capital-city. Is there something that Silicon Valley can learn (or has learned) from Tallinn?

While Tallinn tech companies have visions of Silicon Valley, there is certainly lots that can be learned from Tallinn and Estonia in general. As I describe in my 2011 book The Internet of Elsewhere, Estonia is a vibrant place that has gone through a unique history which has now led to Skype, among other technological innovations, such as being the world’s first country to institute nationwide Internet voting. I think that Silicon Valley (and the US in general) is often too inward focused and is largely unaware of what’s going on in other parts of the tech world, outside the US. One of my pet peeves, for example: here in the US, we still use paper checks (a technology that Estonia never had to deal with in the wake of a post-Soviet system). Today, in 2012, I have an “e-payment” on my Bank of America account, which actually just involves BofA printing a check and mailing it to my landlord. Ridiculous.

You’re AOL and you just acquired Winamp. What would you do differently before releasing Winamp 3?

I’d think long and hard about what the best way to monetize it—which is obviously what they tried to do. But, I’d also keep in mind that typical Winamp users are not typical AOL users. They’re geeks. So maybe try to sell them something that they’d appreciate? A  high-quality music download service? A streaming service? I’m honestly not sure.

A lot of users were a lot happier with Winamp 5 then version 3, yet Winamp 2.95 is still our most popular version. A segment of people were not happy that Winamp decided to try to be a Video Player as well. Do you think Winamp would have been better releasing a stand-alone product for a Video Player rather than bundling it with an MP3 player?

I honestly have no idea. I’ve always been a Mac user, and only used Winamp on friends’ computers in high school and college.

 What is your opinion on legacy-support? Obviously, we want to keep moving forward but how do we balance our march toward something new with integrating and supporting older technologies?

I think that legacy support is important, but obviously it can’t be continued on forever. There’s clearly a balance between maintaining support for older hardware.

Do you personally see value in software archives? (Feel free to say no, but we will be hurt if you do!)

Absolutely! An example from my own life: my home WiFi network has an Apple Airport Extreme and an Express. Turns out the latest version of the Apple Airport Utility (6.x) no longer supports the Apple Airport Express for some reason that I can’t fathom. It’s a nice little piece of hardware that’s not that old and still totally works. I learned this the hard way, and had to go digging around for an older version of the Apple Airport Utility (5.x) that did support my device.

You’ve written about unique nation-identities and entrepreneurial trends emerging out of different countries. What do we need to understand about this in order to build better products for an international audience?

Is historical context important in understanding current web trends?

I’ll answer these questions together. I think that before building any product, it’s important to understand that there are many cultural norms that don’t automatically translate globally. A good example of this is South Korea. Koreans have shown in the past that for whatever reason they love flashy, blinky, websites. Even Google caved for a little while, although that seems to have changed now. If you want to serve customers in the developing world, for example, many of them are first interacting with the Web on a mobile device. How does that change how you’d design your product or service?

What can software vendors do to be better at releasing less bloated software? How do they balance innovation without alienating their core users? Obviously new versions won’t please everyone (and we’re grateful for that!), but is there a check list of suggestions you’d send a software company to go through before releasing a new version?

An overriding principle would be that don’t let design get in the way of functionality. In other words, don’t just do design changes for the sake of doing them. (Oh, and everyone on the Internet gripes about design changes in the immediate term, but eventually comes to love (or at least tolerate) them.)

What are you most excited about today?

Going to see the Boston Red Sox take on the Oakland A’s tonight!

Thank you, Cyrus, for your time!