The Setup

Interview

What do people use to get stuff done?

Matt Webb

Matt Webb

CEO (BERG)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Matt Webb and I'm CEO of BERG. We make a cloud-based platform called BERG Cloud to invent and then run web-connected physical devices. We also make hardware developer kits, leveraging BERG Cloud for quick and easy prototyping. And we manufacture and sell our proof of concept product, Little Printer, which is a cute, web-connected newsreader for the home.

What hardware do you use?

I carry a MacBook Air 11" everywhere. I have mixed feelings about it -- I also use an iPad Mini and would much prefer to carry that everywhere instead, but Keynote on iOS can't use non-system fonts, and we have an awesome corporate font called Granary, customised for us by the typographer Phil Baines. It's like Gotham, but based on the painted signage of the canal-side warehouses in London. So it's very us.

At home I use my Little Printer daily, and in my pocket is my new iPhone 5C. It's blue with the pink cover. It pops wonderfully.

I was debating the 5S but seeing it in person I had a strong adverse reaction to its fussiness. It's all edges and lines! And the removal of the app icon shape from the home button took away a lovely resonance between hardware and software. The 5C? A gorgeous object, a great frame for iOS 7 -- easier to hold too and less fragile.

My camera: Sony NEX-5N with the pancake kit lens so it fits in the front pocket of my bag. Plus: no zoom. Less to think about.

And what software?

My Little Printer is set to deliver at 7am, and I hit the button to print the delivery while I'm feeding the cat. Every day I get my schedule from Google Calendar using the Sunrise publication, also which of my tweets have done well overnight, and a tiny graph of how my Gmail inbox has grown so I can get feedback on whether I'm managing to keep on top of it. While I'm on the road, I send messages and pictures to my wife on it, like Little Printer is a tiny fax machine -- it was her birthday last week, so I hid a gift for her in the house and sent instructions on how to find it.

On my Mac I live in Mail, Keynote, and Notational Velocity (synced to Simplenote on my phone). My entire setup is in Dropbox. When I was burgled last year, getting up and running again was a matter of signing into my Dropbox account. So easy. And then the Dropbox web interface gave me the IP address of where my stolen Mac had been briefly connected to the network, and the police were able to trace that, raid the premises, and get my laptop back. That was good. And I still use that machine, though it's a bit battered now.

I keep tasks in TaskPaper, and on the rare occasions that I blog I write Markdown in TextMate. I wrote my own Python scripts to publish and display my weblog.

Then there's the usual collection of mobile and web software: RunKeeper for training, Kindle app (not device) for reading - though I prefer paper books - Xero for accounts, Citymapper and Hailo for getting around.

What would be your dream setup?

I used to live on the command-line, and I loved the ability to write my own software -- to chain together functionality and write my own to create my own experience.

But either software's harder than it was, apps and applications are less open to being hacked and recombined, or I've lost the knack.

It disappoints me that Excel hasn't learnt from Python and Github and become a great environment for coding and modelling. It's sad that there's no plain text backend for Twitter, Foursquare and everything else I use. It's annoying that Aperture owns all of my photos, and there's no IMAP-like protocol for keeping my photos in the cloud forever, being able to hop between applications and code my own custom views and actions against an API.

I cut my teeth on the open web of the early 2000s. It was APIs, and mashups. Mac OS X turned my laptop into a web server and coding machine, just the same as where I hosted the toys and tools that I wrote. This is what the future was going to be like.

And then it didn't happen. Code is fragile because APIs keep changing and nobody cares about scripting anymore. There are no text and image file formats anymore, practically speaking, because there's no file interchange. Once photos are on Instagram, that's it.

We've lost the ambition of the early web and early internet to create an inclusive, level playing field. It's clear what the technical challenges are - HTTP needs micro-payments at the protocol level to support businesses outside advertising, we need portable high level standards for photos, streams and identity - but we're kinda not thinking like that anymore.

So in reaction I stick with plain text as much as possible, and continue my computing life vaguely resenting the software world we've built.

That said, I'm a hypocrite. I'm not doing much about it (except that architecturally BERG Cloud is going to great lengths to avoid lock-in, and uses web APIs for integration), and ease of use trumps everything. Which means I use Apple all the way. So I'd love a fictional iPad Mini with a great display, a real keyboard for when I'm at the office, and a stylus for precision work. I'd like a camera that has Dropbox built-in. And I'd like to write code that deals with both of these. I'm not very good at writing code so it had better be easy.

So is that okay? My dream setup is an alternate global technical paradigm? There's no point thinking small I guess.

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