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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!

10 Reasons Your Kids Need

“You’re crazy!” a voice booms through the open water; it’s the high-pitched yell of a boy, no older than ten years old. I was venturing past the first swimming posts at Lake Erie at Beaver Island State Park, swimming fervently with motorboats racing by in the near-distance causing waves and currents for me to battle and endure. I thought about her words: what’s so crazy about swimming around in a Lake? Sure, it was past 7pm and all the life guards were gone. It was just me and the Lake with its weedy bottom, over-run by algae dirt, pollution and sewage. But, I felt free and self-reliant; swimming in the open water like an eagle gliding through the sky with no particular purpose but to enjoy wherever the wind current decided to take me. A wave crashes into my face and water starts filling up my throat as I reflexively cough. I start swimming back as I think of the year’s worth of mercury and lead I just swallowed.

As I made my way back to the beach, I walk past the boy who turns out to be a girl and am accosted by her curiosity: “Were there any holes back there? Were you bored? Were you scared?” If there were holes, I’m glad I didn’t fall into one.

I field more questions later, this time from someone closer to my age: “How is it out there man? Is there life? What’s the visibility like?” I can’t be the only person who decided to swim this far out.

I think back to my childhood in Russia when things seemed so carefree and exciting, where we swam in little ponds and then later fished in them; inadvertently catching creepy looking cages with dead fish trapped inside them.

 [At least all Russian women look like this]

Now people are afraid; fed into the fear-machine of the nightly news. Most people don’t swim. They don’t explore. They sit around, monotonously stuck in the same routine, their dreams extinguished, their wings broken; feathers half-plucked. They tune out after coming home from the same banal job they’ve been doing for twenty years, feeding their fear tubes with TV, food, drugs, distractions (average American watched 34 hours of TV per week in 2010, according to Nielsen). We’ve all been there. What other option is there? They need the health insurance for their families, while ironically their health gets beat down by the stress, fear and extinguished passion. Kids suffer when their parents are beat-down. They don’t learn to explore. They may become afraid of the world.

So what can one do? Teach your kids to treat life like an experiment. How do you do that? You can be an example for them. Another thing you can do is explore something with them. Demonstrate your own curiosity, excitement, wonder and awe of the world. If you are 60 years old and you’re still excited about picking and blowing a dandelion, your kids will pick up on that energy.

Why not explore our Games section with your kid? Kids are naturally drawn to video games. Why wouldn’t they be? It allows them to live the life of a hero, before they are heroes. It allows them to go on virtual adventures and become pirates, cowboys, even Kung-Fu Pandas.

Here is why your kids need older versions of software. (Disclosure: I run and want your kids to know about it):

1)      It will teach them the history of computing.

You may think, they can just watch Pirates of the Silicon Valley and learn the history of computing. You would think that, you lazy parent! Shame on you, putting your kids in front of the tube so you can go listen to your old Pink Floyd vinyls. No, you are going to spend some quality time downloading old versions from this site and not learn “Hollywood’s history of computing,” but instead experience with your kids the evolution of video game and software design. After all, old versions are cultural artifacts.

2)      It will be a fun exploratory journey for them without the risk of them drowning in the Lake.

Too chicken of a parent to let your kids swim out and handle the elements of nature? Indeed, why not opt for the safe journey by browsing around our site? You can read about the history of Winamp, analyze Firefox’s version progression with me, and then download the damn things and play with them! Play a game with your kids – go from the first released version to the last and see if your kids can spot the differences. What is your kids’ favorite version of Firefox? Oh and did I mention:

3)      It doesn’t cost any money.

Entry to the Beaver Island State Park is like $8. Not to mention the cost of gas of getting there. Did I mention the beach had cigarette butts on it? What if your kid got too curious and picked it up and ate it? You would have to hit that damn thing out of his/her hand and then he might sue you for child abuse once he gets old enough. You don’t want to take that risk!

 [Lawsuit kid is coming for yo' house!]

Instead you can download some software with your kids – without even leaving the house. Make it a family event, so that:

4)      You will be spending quality time with your kids.

Between the times you spend watching TV, browsing Reddit (or whatever news site you go to), mowing the lawn and going grocery shopping for your spouse, how much serious one-on-one time do you actually spend with your kids? The last time you probably even talked to your kids without pulling out your iPad and sending a Tweet was years ago. Its okay, I understand. But, now listen: you can kill two birds with one stone: feeding your technology obsession AND spending time with your kids like your wife always nicely asks you to. Bam!

5)      You can even introduce them to cool games like The Secret of Monkey Island.

Aren’t you curious what the secret of Monkey Island is? Well, damn. Now you can find out. This game is incredible; it follows the journey of an everyday guy who wants to change his life around and make a fortune by becoming a pirate.

You and your little loved one can download and play the game here.

6)      Your kids WILL learn a life lesson.

7)      They will appreciate the progression of technology.

Aren’t you tired of explaining to your kids “In my day we had rotor phones, we had old Atari games, we used AIM 5.9 with DeadAIM and Windows 95 and didn’t have any confabulated text messages – we just used AIM, BBS and Usenet AND we went skinny dipping with our coworkers after work in the 60s and then came home to our spouse and talked about washing machines all day. Well, listen…now you don’t have to tell them. You can show them. Show them Grand Theft Auto 1 and then the trailer for GTA5. Bam! Now your kids appreciate it more!

8)      They can imagine they are back in time.

Who doesn’t dream of having a time machine? You could be rich AND as creepy as Bill Murray in the Groundhog Day! So why not play a little game with your kids? Tell them you invented a time-machine! If they are young, they will get super excited and then you can deck out your computer to look like a time-machine and transport them back to 1986!

9)      They can learn new typing skills from Mario.

Learning how to type is a key-skill in today’s world. What if your kids could learn that now? I did. I learned how to type when I was 9 years old. Now, I’m a successful typer writing this article to you. You don’t want to deprive your kids of the same glory. May I recommend a personal favorite? Mario Teaches Typing. I remember playing this on my elementary schools Macintosh Plus. It was probably the highlight of elementary school career (that and Dinopark Tycoon).

10)   It will challenge them.

What if you wanted to up it a notch and teach your children how to hustle in business? No problem! Just download Theme Park. You and your kids will learn how to manage a theme park and run the fryer stands. In this game, you get to control how much salt and ice you put in your fries and drinks which directly impacts the amount of money you make. If you add more salt to your fries, people will buy more drinks, but if you add too much salt people will vomit and you will need to hire more janitors. So challenge your kids to figure out the perfect balance of salt and ice for maximum profit. They will be the next Bill Gates!

Take my word for it. You’re a bad parent if you don’t.