I saw a recent post on Slashdot that got my attention – What Google Engineers do for Fun: Computerized Lego Art Project. I have to admit I am a total Lego nut so whenever I see Lego in the headline I have to read the article.
Justin Voskuhl spent his weekend writing an application that makes it pretty easy to take a photo and turn it into a Lego mosaic. I am impressed. He is even promising to release it as open source. (Please use githhub).
This isn’t the first application that performs this task. Legoizer does something similar. The Slashdot crowd was quick to point out all the ways that you could have accomplished this task before Voskuhl came along. However, what they don’t get is that this application has the potential to make the task very simple. Sure I could use Photoshop and run some algorithm, but then I would have to learn Photoshop and deal with that process. I could use Legoizer, but I don’t know anything about Lightwave and frankly I don’t have time to learn. Those tasks get in the way of what I actually want to do which is to play with Legos. Voskuhl’s application might take a while to run, but I don’t care. This application makes it possible to accomplish a fairly complex task with minimal effort. Congrats to him on building something cool and special thanks if he releases it as open source.
This situation got me thinking about how important small features can be. Once upon a time people in geographically diverse locations played chess via regular mail. I would write down a move drop it in the mail and wait for my opponents response. You can see how this would be tedious. The advent of email helped speed up the process. Now I can go online and play chess with anyone around the world. I would be few people played chess via the mail. A few more might have used email, but I would bet exponentially more are willing to use an online chess board that lets them play in real time.
Once upon a time not so long ago editing a document was a tedious task. Typewriters required that you use caution with each keystroke lest you spend the rest of the day high on whiteout. Word processors made it easier to edit documents. The addition of copy and paste I think changed the world forever. Truly, if you could pick one feature that helped change the world of writing I would bet that is it. Google docs provides us with one of the next great features – online collaboration. I think there is a way to do it with Microsoft Word, but it requires setting up some kind of server and dealing with that mess. Sure it has more features, but I don’t care. I only need to be able to type, copy/paste and share my ideas. Google docs takes care of that for me and is free.
Companies like 37signals have built their business on the idea of simple. I don’t actually think that their success is because of simple. I think their success is to due to doing it right which means picking the few features that change people’s way of doing. The simple, marginal improvement that takes us from sending letters to sending email changes the world. (How many letters were sent even before email vs how many emails traverse the world every day now?)
As the economy tanks and the world seems to crumble around us I look for the next little thing. There are innovators out there thinking of one small change that will change the world and make people’s lives easier. This time around it might be a better way to lend or a better way to deal with mortgages. The innovations might be cheaper ways to produce and exchange goods on a local level rather than bringing them from around the world. Perhaps there is a simple micro power system. Hard times breed clever, simple, focused ideas. I look to those innovations more than the 700 billion bailouts to save the economy.