OSD 167: Gun culture is v2.0 software on v1.0 hardware
It's time to build.
This week Walther introduced the PDP F-Series, a compact gun designed for women:
What “designed for women” usually means is that you paint the gun pink and call it a day.
But the problem is that most female-focused products in the gun space stop there. Design isn’t the color that you paint your product. Design is how the product works. And from that perspective, there are actually almost no products for women in the gun space.
This new Walther is an exception. The grip is smaller. The trigger reach is shorter. Big slide serrations and a new striker design make it easier to rack. Its grip texture is high-friction without being abrasive.
We haven’t handled the gun, and this isn’t a Walther ad. The point is that if you want to design a product to appeal to more users, a good place to start is to design the product for those users. And surprisingly often, making it better for those users ends up making it better for everybody.
There’s a famous line from the the president of IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., in 1953: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Here’s the thing: he was right. That’s a roughly accurate description of the computer market at the time.
Here’s the other thing: he never said that. IBM clarifies this on their site (page 25 of this PDF):
Q. Did Thomas Watson say in the 1950s that he foresaw a market potential for only five electronic computers?
A. We believe the statement that you attribute to Thomas Watson is a misunderstanding of remarks made at IBM’s annual stockholders meeting on April 28, 1953. In referring specifically and only to the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine — which had been introduced the year before as the company’s first production computer designed for scientific calculations — Thomas Watson, Jr., told stockholders that “IBM had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use such a machine. I would like to tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”
The corrected version amplifies the point. This wasn’t a clueless suit dismissing a newfangled trend he didn’t understand. It was an exec accurately assessing the demand for the product he was selling at the time.
A book called The Dream Machine describes some of the early figures who steered computing from that era into what we have today. (It focus particularly on a visionary psychologist and computer scientist named J.C.R. Licklider, mostly known as “Lick”, who was a seminal figure in the 1960s-era research that led to personal computers and the internet.) The whole thing is quite good, but there’s a passage that captures the first stages of what it looks like to build a next-generation product. It’s about CTSS (Computer Time-Sharing System), an early operating system that an MIT professor named Fernando Corbató wrote in 1961 to allow colleagues and students to share the computing resources of the university’s IBM mainframe.
Corbató had designed CTSS as an inner core of lower-level functions surrounded by an outer periphery of higher-level commands. The core took care of chores such as reading and writing data to the disk, interpreting user commands, and shifting the machine’s attention millisecond by millisecond from one user to the next — the time-sharing equivalent of unconscious functions such as heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. Corbató and his team took direct responsibility for that part of the system and worked hard to keep it as simple and as comprehensible as possible. “I was always conscious of how we would explain this to a newcomer in a way where he could understand it quickly, without having to read a manual,” he said.
The periphery, meanwhile, was the user’s software toolbox, the collection of programs that he or she could invoke to rename a file, say, or print out a list of files in a directory. And it was here that creativity reigned. Users could write whatever new software tools they needed for the task at hand. If enough other users liked it, too, it would be placed in the public library; in effect, it would become a part of CTSS itself. This was a golden opportunity, and the Project MAC community wasted no time before taking advantage of it. Graduate student Jerry Saltzer created the TYPSET and RUNOFF commands to write his thesis proposal; together they constituted the rudiments of a word processor. “Practically from the beginning, we started using them to publish all the Project MAC reports,” says [Project MAC director Prof. Robert] Fano.
Even more popular was undergraduate Tom Van Vleck’s MAIL command, which allowed users to send text messages to one another — and which thus probably ranks as the world’s first implementation of E-mail. Meanwhile, there was Allan Scherr’s widely used ARCHIVE utility, which would take a bunch of little files and compress them into one big file, with a substantial saving in disk space. And there was the OPS, or the On-line Programming and Simulation system, created by Martin Greenberger and his students at the Sloan School in the fall of 1963. It offered commands to simulate the stock market, handle accounting, do production scheduling, perform on-line modeling, and do all manner of other things.
And so it went, leaving Fano and his colleagues to shake their heads in wonder at how fast the sociology of software had turning itself inside out. In the batch-processing world, Fano says, programming had generally been a do-it-yourself affair. Sharing a program with someone else would have meant duplicating a massive deck of punch cards, physically carrying the deck around, explaining how to format the input data on the cards, coaxing the program into running on an alien computer, and so on. Who had the time? In fact, says Fano, “in those days programmers never even documented their programs, because it was assumed that nobody else would ever use them.” Now, however, time-sharing had made exchanging software trivial: you just stored one copy in the public repository and thereby effectively gave it to the world. “Immediately,” says Fano, “people began to document their programs and to think of them as being usable by others. They started to build on each other’s work.”
Indeed, the very existence of that public data repository on the 7094 quickly transformed Project MAC’s central “power plant” into the intellectual center of the community. Through E-mail, the exchange of files, and the sharing of programs, it functioned as the town square, the village market, the Roman forum, and the Athenian agora all in one — the place where citizens gathered to talk, to gossip, to conduct business, to propose ideas, and then to argue until they came up with better ideas. Within six months of the system’s November 1963 startup, CTSS and the on-line environment it supported had become, at least in embryo, everything that would later be claimed for the on-line world of the Internet.
CTSS worked because of two things:
Deep understanding of the users. The Project MAC team were their own users, which is ideal. Who do you know better than yourself?
Super tight iteration loops. Iterative development is the compound interest of product design.
Gun culture has grown impressively these past few years. Proof of that: the fact that you’re reading a gun newsletter about that’s somehow about J.C.R. Licklider. Gun products haven’t evolved at the same rate.
That shouldn’t be too surprising. Culture moves faster than hardware. But it’s time for the hardware to start catching up. We’d love to hear about your favorite examples of gun-related startups that deeply understand their users and ship quickly.
This week’s links
A taste of the content from Headstamp Publishing’s book “SWORDS OF THE EMPEROR: A Guide to the Identification of Imperial Japanese Swords, 1873 – 1945”.
Side note: it’s a testament to the power of the internet that someone can make a healthy living and become niche-famous by making videos and books about obscure old weaponry.
Speaking of books, this one is an important reference work on the M16 and its descendants. Chris’ YouTube channel, Small Arms Solutions, is a no-brainer sub for the discerning gun nerd.
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