Industrial magic

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” claimed Otto von Bismarck. He might well have said the same of iPhones, rockets, or the Cloud.

We’re at a point where every company that makes stuff aspires to the condition of magic. How the hell does Space X land the rocket boosters back on the ground again? Clearly, it’s magic. It’s like watching the film in reverse when you see those things settling back down on the ground. Wait — is that how they do it? Maybe they invented a time machine.

How does the iPhone automatically connect with my headphones and play music from the Cloud? It’s magic.

We come to rely on the magicians to provide us with services like this and the magicians love it, because magic is very hard to figure out even if we know it’s just magic. And once the magician has you in their grasp with a spectacularly useful trick, you can’t do without them to continue the magic for you.

Think you may ditch your iPhone because the Apple magicians are charging too much for it? OK — but you’ll lose all the magic you’ve accumulated this far. Your headphones will need some intervention if they’re going to work on your new phone.

You’ll have to delve into the unpleasantries of wireless sausage-making. No longer shielded from the harshnesses of reality by industrial magic, you will need to get down and dirty with the awkward mundanity of how stuff actually works in order to get your headphones back, where previously you had the magic on your side.

That’s why Microsoft is going gangbusters with their Cloud services. They’ve finally learned that in order to beat Apple and the like they need to be magicians. Cloud magic is now their thing, and pretty soon you won’t be able to do without their magic if you want everything to work.

They must avoid being smartasses, which was their previous modus operandi.

Or more recently, patronizing know-alls. “Wait while we set things up,” they would say, shielding you from something you would doubtless never understand. “There was a problem accessing a property or method of the OLE object,” make what you will of that. And the classically passive-aggressive “It’s now safe to turn off your computer.”

Not magical at all.

To be a magician you need to do amazing stuff, solve impossible problems. Provide stuff and services transparently, with a sleight of hand that avoids drawing any attention to the process. The end result is all that counts — we don’t want, and in fact we cannot stomach, magicians who try to bolster their reputation by reminding us of the complexities of the trickery they’re concealing.

“This is really hard — don’t take any of my skills for granted, will you?”

That doesn’t work. Instead, just make stuff happen.

How did they get the Segway scooter to balance like that? It defied possibility. How do those rockets land back on earth without falling over? We thought we had to drop them in the sea. How does Shazam recognize the tune I’m listening to?

That’s fine, don’t tell me — I don’t have the time, the education or the experience to follow.

That’s the refreshing new direction Microsoft is taking — and about time. They’re ditching the image of nerd for that of magician, and in the process saving us from the sausage.