Inspiring a New Generation of Engineers

I used to have an old Motorola e810, a standard non-smart phone with a camera, circa 2005. Being the cheap bastard that I am, this phone doubled as my alarm clock, boasting multiple different alarms. I stumbled across an interesting quirk: you couldn't set more than one alarm for a time; that is, if you had an alarm for 6:00pm that said "Laundry," you couldn't have one for 6:00pm that said "Order Piza". Honestly, it wasn't a big deal. It didn't matter which alarm went off, as long as one did, and that was probably a design decision made when they created the phone. But it still bothered me.

The only thing I could think of that made sense was that each alarm was some sort of key/value pair where the time was the key, and duplicates weren't allowed. I can sort of see the logic for this. If it was a hash table, for instance, then at each minute you just perform a look up to see if there was an alarm set. This makes slightly more sense then iterating over all of the possible alarms at each new minute (although since most people only have one or two alarms, probably not a huge savings).

While it was a fun exercise to try and determine why the phone wasn't working as I expected, it was sort of mental masturbation. Without the source code to the phone, I have no way of knowing if my educated guess is even in the ballpark. We're in the black box stage of our information age: we don't have to know why things work, we just know that they work. Is the voodoo too complex? Maybe. Because we don't care to know? Another likely possibility. But why with electronics versus other complicated devices?

The Man Code states that you should have a certain amount of automobile expertise. Since the dawn of cars, it's been accepted, if not expected, for man to have prowess with the car. In the beginning they were simple enough that this was a feasible task: there's the carburetor, there's the engine, there's the fuel pump -- ok, I've got this. However, a 2005 Honda Civic is not a 1949 Chrysler. The Civic is exponentially more complex, with computers, fuel saving devices, emissions lowering devices, etc -- but yet you can still change the oil, replacing the starter is not out of the question, and even replacing the brake pads is a manageable task. Heck, if you don't want to pay someone to replace the rotors or the the alternator, you can do it yourself. If you're a real gear head, you can even tackle an engine swap.

Let's go back to the cell phone real quick. I consider myself the computer equivalent of a gear head, but I was unable to do anything about this problem. I couldn't even confirm why it behaved this way because the software for the phone was unavailable. Not that it was too complex for me to figure out, but that I didn't even get the chance to try. I'm sure that everyone has run into that one glitch, that one feature of a program that doesn't work quite right -- the one that makes you think to yourself, "this is so close to working, I ought to be able to tweak it." Well, if it was a car, you could. You could tweak the air to fuel ratio in your carburetor. It's not like the hood of you car was sealed shut by Honda when they sent it to you, preventing you from peeking inside to see how everything works.

In the past, complex devices like tractors, lawnmowers, furnaces, cameras, clocks, etc have been possible to tinker with, if you're willing to put forth the time to get past the learning curve. Cellular phones, Windows, the iPod, GPSes, and other electronic gadgetry aren't accessible in the same way. And don't give me that bullshit about decompiling it to assembly code and tweaking it there; a human readable form (source code) exists that software gear heads just can't get to because the company safe guards it as proprietary information.

This is why open source is important. If you're curious how MySQL or Firefox works, you simply pop the hood and look. How many inventions that we depend on have been created by creative tinkerers? It's fine that most people don't care how their web browser works -- but for that .001% of people who do care enough to want to see makes it tick, why in the world would we prevent them from that?

This is one of the reasons I am such an advocate of the Google iPhone (aka the G1 aka the Android). Linux, Mozilla, MySQL, and a slew of other software has long been freely available to tinker with, but those are limited to computers. One of the other most important devices that we all use on a daily basis, the phone, has just joined the ranks. This is going to open up the phone to unexpected innovations that we have seen with computer, automobiles, and everything else with which tinkers are free to play with. Society has everything to gain from this.

Ultimately, I'm hoping that the open source movement will inspire a new generation of engineers. Not everyone will be interested, but there's no reason to prevent the people who will be. People who learn how things work because they want the satisfaction of knowing how something works. People who want to tweak something so that it works better for them. People who see something good and want to make it great.

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