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Phone

The silent state of the explosion

When I was 15 or so, I started a BBS using my family’s Macintosh LCIII, mailing several months worth of my allowance money to a guy named Terry Teague who promptly mailed me back a 3.5″ floppy of WWIV BBS.

My BBS was pretty low-frills as far as they go, focusing on shareware distribution and other nerdtastic things – but I did a decent job advertising it through other local BBS systems (you twitter kids have it easy, let me tell you). Within a week or so, my userbase was up to something like 10 people (!), and it became apparent that I’d need a dedicated phone line. I can’t recall exactly how I convinced my parents (something dripping with guilt about not wanting me to be “unprepared for the future” I hope), but that lasted for another few months, until it was clear that I really needed a second modem because it was always in use.

Back then, it was devastatingly obvious when things were “taking off”. I’d go to use my computer, and the modem would be in use. And handling an explosion of growth was a chore, like ordering equipment and calling the phone company.

When I set up my first web site, I used an old PC and our DSL line. It could handle like 2 people visiting the site at once before its disk would whirr and the fan would enter “jet mode”. A digg back then (had it existed of course, you kids) would have been devastatingly obvious – my computer would have probably just exploded.

When Brian Hawthorne and I launched likebetter.com, we got digged, and hard. Our little Rails site got over 25 million hits that first weekend. Needless to say, with Rails 0.83 or whatever we were using back then, this wasn’t even remotely an easy thing to wrangle. One moment of elation (“we made the front page!!”), to “um, the servers aren’t looking so good”. This time, calls to our data center and some refactoring, and we were back in action.

Today, an explosion of users is handled silently with scaling platforms like S3 and Mosso. You don’t really even need to monitor your server status if you don’t want to. Scaling up to handle the explosion, is effortless. Not having to do work is awesome, absolutely, and by saying this I feel a little like that old man in the grocery store mumbling something about walking uphill in the snow, but this lack of involvement has negative consequences as well.

Over this past weekend, I launched my first iPhone application to the App Store. I half expected to sell a single unit (to myself) and let it be a fun learning experience. This morning, I looked at my sales reports and was shocked at what I saw – I’d sold lots more than 1. Still modest numbers, definitely, and it was thrilling, absolutely, but it made me feel strange. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I sort of miss the good old days of the whirring fan and that blinking busy light.

I’d liken it to the difference between jogging along Crissy Field looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge, and jogging on the squeaky treadmill at 24 Fitness. Yeah, you’re still running, and you feel the endorphons all the same, but you don’t have that connection with the pavement, the air, the world, that you do when you’re outdoors in a beautiful place. That whirring fan or real-time 14.0 load average are the indicators I once used to determine if something was successful.

I want to see those sales numbers climb in real-time, see that hockey-stick graph, and know “I made this, I made something people want!”. Without that, or some indication of growth or the “challenge” of scaling, it just all feels too easy. I’m a technology worker Apple, I grew up in the days before eWorld, let’s at least pretend this is hard, why don’t you?

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