Something which the book Racing the Beam, which is about the 2600, got me thinking about was affordances of the kind where a platform’s hardware features end up enabling new types of applications or games that, even though they existed before using expensive or bulky hardware, are now cheap enough and small enough that the typical consumer can use them.
In design, one talks about affordances as the things you can do with an object and how that guides you to do the correct thing. In hardware, it’s similar, except that it’s more about allowing the programmer to do things a certain way. A programmer with an idea but hardware which doesn’t give the right affordances will have an uphill battle ahead of them.
The Atari 2600 allowed for video games to be cheaply duplicated, distributed, and sold, using a cartridge that contained a ROM, instead of having to sell an entire unit for each game. Video games and electronic games existed before the 2600, but sales didn’t get big until the 2600 came along.
The way the hardware was designed gave affordances for certain types of games. Its lack fo a frame buffer, many individual sprites, and other features, which made it look primitive compared to other game consoles which came out in the same era, ended up allowing creative programmers to do things with it that would have seemed impossible when the 2600 first came out. While this made it difficult to do a faithful port of the arcade game Pac-Man to the 2600, it allowed for some great original 2600 games such as Pitfall.
The book is part of a series on platforms. Someone once told me that platforms don’t matter anymore. They must have been a Java programmer. It turns out that platforms matter a lot in terms of what affordances and constraints it has.
When I look back at the affordances of the platforms I’ve programmed on, and look at what new products and platforms came out during that time, one thing has struck me as being true. It’s that when a certain type of hardware becomes cheap enough or small enough, you can create new apps or games which take advantage of that hardware and sell well. It creates a new market.
With Sound Studio, it came out when hard disk prices were low enough and capacities high enough to record an entire album’s worth of music uncompressed. Then with MP3 compression, you could store dozens of albums on your hard disk. Then the hard disks were small enough at that capacity and price to make the iPod feasible as a mass market device.
Sound Studio wasn’t the first computer-based waveform editor. SoundEdit existed long before, but that was before all Macs had built-in audio inputs that digitized CD-quality audio. ProTools also existed, but it only came bundled with their audio hardware. And after you’ve recorded a couple hundred megabytes of audio and filled up your hard disk, you couldn’t do anything else with your computer, back when having a 80 or 120 MB hard disk was considered the norm.
The iPod wasn’t the first hard-disk based MP3 player. I’ve seen the MP3 players based on 2.5-inch hard drives which required heavy batteries to keep it running long enough to play an album and had lots of buttons and a text-based LCD display. I think people focus on the aesthetic design and usability design of the iPod too much when they analyze its success. Its design is one of the factors of its success, but it would have been just another expensive Apple product if Apple did not also jump into the market just when hard disks which had enough capacity, had low enough power usage, were small enough, and were most importantly cheap enough to make the original iPod what it was.
Another product which took advantage of the increasing storage and decreasing price of such storage on computers was the EyeTV. If you didn’t have a huge hard disk, where were you going to store the GBs of video data? Like the TiVo, it required a lot of hard disk space, which was becoming cheap enough that it just came with your computer. Unlike the TiVo, it wasn’t a separate device running Linux that had to be on all the time.
And then when you look at iPhone games, the most successful games took advantage of the touch screen’s affordances of direct manipulation. The games which required the use of a directional-pad controller or joystick, emulated on screen of course, and especially games ported from other systems which came with such input devices, generally don’t do so well. Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Flight Control and even Words With Friends: all these games work with the affordances that the touch screen gives, instead of trying to shoehorn a D-pad onto the experience.
My Couch to 5k app wasn’t the first one of its type, but it took advantage of the iPhone’s portability and small size. The same app running even on a 11” MacBook Air doesn’t make any sense, because you wouldn’t bring your MBA out on your jogging or running path or to the gym. Note that I wasn’t thinking about this when I was making the app. I just was trying to make a better-designed version of an app that already was in the App Store that looked like someone’s first iPhone app.
When the size, power consumption, and cost of a technology gets down to a certain point, all sorts of new applications become feasible to the mass market. The thing is, news sites rarely analyze the industry this way, but are instead driven by the PR that companies put out. The process by which components become better is a gradual one, and pretty boring compared with the dramas at AOL or Yahoo or Google or Apple.
But if you understand how things work, you can be one step ahead of the people who only follow the news, since they’ll always be chasing after stories from other people who have already done their thing.