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MacTech 2011: What keeps Aaron Hillegass up at night

Big Nerd Ranch founder Aaron Hillegass took the stage at this week's MacTech Conference 2011, and his talk was labeled, simply, "Going Mobile." That's a big topic, so after going through a few reasons why business and individuals might be for and against making mobile apps (all pretty standard discussion in the industry around the App Store), he discussed his concerns about the mobile industry; the things that "keep me up late at night."

What followed were a few questions (mostly unanswered) that Hillegass has been thinking about, relevant to IT professionals, developers and really anyone who's used Apple's mobile products. Hillegass' talk was surprisingly honest -- he tackled quite a few issues during the short speech, some of which will likely take a long while for everyone to figure out.

He started by asking how developers can benefit from the "power struggles in the industry." So far, Hillegass said, Apple, Google and others have benefited from app developers.

Apple has sold a staggering number of iPhones, thanks in part to the hard work of app developers. Of course, Apple has compensated those developers, some very well. But Hillegass wonders if the relationship could go the other way. Instead of making developers work for Apple and then even harder to make their apps compatible on Android and other platforms, is there a way to make that competition between the platform companies work for developers? Hillegass didn't have an answer just yet.

He also talked about the death of privacy, pointing out that Apple, developers, and humanity in general are collecting mountains of data all the time. What we all us it for? He suggested first that maybe we just didn't need it -- maybe creating too much data, just like creating trash in real life, would adversely affect our environment in ways we didn't suspect.

Hillegass then flipped the other way, and suggested that maybe just agreeing amongst ourselves that privacy was finally dead and actually using that data to make the world a better place would be more helpful than hurtful after all. The relatively tame example he gave was about movie theater previews and how, because they were usually targeted at the audience in the theater, are often more interesting than TV commercials. But Hillegass hinted at bigger things -- he seemed to suggest that letting go of privacy might open up a lot more doors, even if he himself didn't know yet what those were.

The talk got deeper from there. Hillegass wondered if instead of dealing with reality directly, our work with Apple's devices and computers in general was putting us in touch with a sort of "simulacrum" of reality. Instead of meeting with friends and family, we were communicating via Facebook profiles and social networking services. Hillegass wondered if the small rewards of games prevented us from really committing to achieving something great.

He shared a story about reading Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH to his son, and realizing that while he loved the book as a kid, his attention span had shrunk since then -- even he wasn't able to sit through long passages of description without a lot of action. "My attention span is shrinking," said Hillegrass. "I think that's a problem."

And with almost a tone of fear and anxiety, Hillegass wondered how humanity will keep its capacity for empathy when, thanks to our vast networks of communication, we can often be surrounded by people who are exactly like us. He pointed out that most of the people in the room here at MacTech looked and acted very much the same, and said that because of the Internet, people could find communities of like-minded individuals more quickly and easily than ever. Is that a good thing necessarily? He didn't know.

Finally, Hillegass pointed out that because of how quickly mobile applications and technology are changing and improving, users and developers are involved in what's basically an evolving relationship. He told the story of the cheetah and the gazelle, and why evolution has made both animals faster over the years -- gazelles who aren't fast enough will get eaten by the faster cheetahs, and cheetahs who don't run won't get food they need. In fact, things have moved so far, said Hillegass, that cheetahs can't even eat too much once they do catch a gazelle, because it will slow them down in the future. Users, too, are getting more and more demanding of mobile apps, just as developers are getting better and better tools to make them. When the App Store first started, fart apps were "good enough" to make money, but the bar has risen higher and higher over the years.

For all of his questions, Hillegass did end on a positive note -- he told the story of Beethoven the composer, who made some of the greatest musical pieces for piano ever written, and Broadwood, an inventor who improved the piano, expanding its versatility and range even as Beethoven pushed him to do more with his genius. Developers in the room, said Hillegass, were the Broadwoods of the world. And he and they were both working on apps that would then be used by Beethovens to make something really incredible. Apps and the app market are such a growing entity at this point in time that it's hard to see just where they'll end up, even a few years in the future. But for all of his questions, Hillegass was convinced that the progress was worth it. "We are trying to create the piano for the next Beethoven," he said as he finished his talk.

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