Monday, March 14, 2011

Tackling the Simple Problems: The domain of the minimalist

The hard problems are more interesting by nature and the world is full of hard problems.  This blog post isn't about them. Instead, I want to talk about simple problems.

Simple problems are still problems, they just don't have world shaking impact (or so you would think).

To be honest: most simple problems are only simple on the surface.  Underneath, complexity is always lurking.

Take, for instance, my desire to (re)build a very simple blogging system (for my own personal use).  Blog software isn't all that hard to build. If you don't care about performance and scalability, then it is pretty straightforward. That is, until you get down to building one. As soon as you start thinking about security, feeds, multimedia, etc.  you start to expose the underlying complexity of "working" software.

Now, as I said earlier, this is still something of a simple problem. Developing blogger software isn't rocket science.  But, in some ways, that makes it harder.

When something is so simple (conceptually), it can be quite difficult to "get it right".  Getting it right is about hitting that sweet spot. Blogging software needs to do its simple job correctly and intuitively. If it is hard to install, or has "hard to grok" idiosyncrasies, then it doesn't solve the "simple problem" of blogging.

Consider another "simple problem".  I have around 40GB of music (mostly in MP3 format) that I want to play on my living room stereo (away from a computer). There are solutions I can buy, but none quite fit. I don't need streaming (although I would like to listen to online radio sometimes) and I don't need a "total entertainment solution".  I tend to listen to whole albums, not mixes or "randomized" selections based on genre.

All I need is a single MP3 storage device, the ability to add/delete queued albums  from any of my household PCs (web browser NOT a hard requirement), and a simple "remote" (pause, play, next song, previous song).  What I want is a music "server" and it only has to serve one sound system. (Wi-fi streaming of music is broken in my house -- too much sporadic interference).

There are server based (free!) software solutions out there, but they usually solve (only) 90% of my "simple problem".  They then throw UPnP, webservers, GUIs and all sorts of networking into the mix.  This is more than I want (after all I am a minimalist).

Note: Before computers, my problem was solved 100% by a CD player w/ 200+ CDs and before that it was solved by vinyl LPs.  Now I have a bunch of MP3s and less capability to enjoy music than when I had CDs.

Simple problems are harder than you think.

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