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zero mass design

This morning, I woke up and looked out on a new landscape:

What I love about snow is what I love about writing: the clean sheet of paper. There’s that sense of fresh perspective, that anything is possible.

The best software design starts the same way: without assumptions. Some call this “thinking outside the box.” To me, even that phrase is too constrained. My view is that you’ve gotta think as if the box never existed, or put another way, do “zero mass design”.

Zero mass design starts without constraint. You begin with the impossible, then scale it back to something buildable. In design sessions, I often make people nervous with questions like “Do we even need menus?” and “What if we had infinite bandwidth?” Some people look at me like “Who is this guy?” Usually I win them over when I switch to “reality mode”, outlining practical steps to my previously impossible scenerios.

Down in Sanibel, I talked with a lot of people about web services, wireless task computing, and image recognition. Here’s my favorite “impossible scenerio” from those talks:

Imagine you had a kind of picture frame with comfortable grips that was about same size a laptop screen. Instead of an LCD, the frame held a clear plastic viewscreen that you could easily look through. This viewscreen would have image sensors that could instantly (and fluidly) digitize whatever you looked at. There’d be no shutter to click. It would continually capture whatever image hit the screen.

Now imagine this “magic frame” could do on-the-fly feature recognition. Furthermore, assume it was wirelessly connected to the Internet, and that it could instantly tap into an ever-evolving image recognition database. Finally, imagine the frame had a simple text readout, which displayed the name of whatever object you were looking at.

So, I look through the glass at a tree, and the magic frame breaks down its features, then compares them to the global database. Back comes “Red Oak.” I look at a plane passing overhead, and it reads, “Boeing 767.” The magic frame could teach people the names of everything, from constellations to landmarks to garden tools.

Impossible, right? Good, now we’re getting somewhere!

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