Last year I went to a local air show for the first time in a few years. It’s always a fantastic place to go because a fighter jet is one of the pinnacles of human engineering. Last year there was a lot of excitement because visitors were in for a huge treat; one of the few remaining Vulcan bombers  had been restored to all it’s glory and would fly before the crowds.
I cant deny it was a wonderful spectacle (and extremely loud, seriously those engines are big) but it proved not to be the main highlight of the day. No, the most extraordinary plane on show was also the newest: the Eurofighter Typhoon. This is a plane that took over 20 years to get into active service – a long time even for a plane – but yet that is not the most interesting feature.
Throwing out the Rule Book
The Eurofighter was never designed to fly – it was designed to be unbelievably manoeuvrable, astonishingly fast and brilliantly effective  but flight was an after thought. This was by design of course – the engineers had a realisation that the reason fighter technology was pushing at the edges of it’s capability envelope was because the constraint the ability to fly put on it. Prior to the Eurofighter jet design had an unspoken law: “thou shalt make sure a pilot can fly this plane“. Any decent engineer can see the flaw in this, surely; humans have very well defined limits, and so making a plane recoverable in any scenario obviously means majorly dumbing down it’s capabilities.
Over time this was addressed – the latter F series and Tornado class fighters were less and less easy to fly. The strict unspoken rules relaxed somewhat – with the new agreement being that a pilot should be able to rescue the plane long enough to eject and escape a fiery doom. But still this wasn’t going far enough. Now physics was beginning to come into play, limiting how fast and how hard fighters could fly. The combination of the 2 limits frustrated engineers for the better part of a decade.
It is apt, perhaps, that it was a British led engineering team that had the balls to tear up the rule book and design a plane that was not only unflyable  by a human pilot, but was just plain unflyable. Once it was designed *then* they started to figure out how it could fly. It was a risk but they managed it (and took 20 years doing so). The Eurofighter has a very serious number of computers keeping it in the air – if they fail the plane drops out of the sky so each one has several cut outs and backups. All of the systems are multi purpose and work well inside even their minimum operating parameters. If something fails any number of other parts of the plane are eager to take up the slack.
Indeed if the plane loses serious control in the split seconds before it begins to fall like a stone  the plane takes emergency control and ejects the pilot. The weapons systems can recognise incoming threats (missiles for example) deploy counter-measures and take avoidance before the pilot has even heard the warning sounds. No human can react this fast. So, no. This plane is not designed to fly – it is designed to move through the air in almost any direction and kill stuff. And it is incredibly effective at it.
And yet, this is still not the most interesting thing about the Eurofighter. And to understand why we have to look back at the long history of aeroplanes – right back, indeed, to 1936.
A History Lesson
It was in this year that one of the most astonishing planes ever designed was born; the Supermarine Spitfire. For this the engineers also threw out the rule book; they realised (especially later on when WW2 reared it’s ugly head) that they needed something very different from the competition.
What they achieved was both functional and beautiful – it looks really good cutting through the air and it could turn on a six pence. The MOD were very happy and busily put them into production – little knowing the effect this unassuming beauty would have.
It is common for historians to shake their heads when people gush about the impact the Spitfire had on the war; arguing that the Hawker Hurricane was more multi-purpose, slightly more reliable, and (crucially) that there were more of them. And true to character they are totally wrong. The Spitfire was much more than just a plane – it was a feat of engineering that became a shining beacon for the solitary struggle known as the battle of Britain . Not just because it looked good but because us Brits are proud of our engineering skill – and producing a machine even just slightly better than the (even then well known) efficient German war machine was a fantastic achievement to rally around. It is because of this that the Spitfire would have a legacy – one so important, and yet one so little discussed.
You see faster and “better” planes came into commission to replace the Spit. Supersonic (and subsonic, of course) jets could fly higher, faster and further. That isn’t a bad thing; the technology improved dramatically and lots of new things were being done. But the engineers forgot what the Spitfire taught us – they forgot that rule books are there to be rewritten and torn up.
If the idea isn’t enough for you the Spitfire herself can prove it too. As the war drifted into memory air shows began to take off again – and the eponymous Spitfire gained a new lease of life. If you went to a show in the past a common attraction was “old vs. new” demonstrations – usually pitting the spitfire against the newest jet plane in the skies. You might think this was an cruel fate to befall such an important machine. Except it turned out to be the other way. It’s not hard to see that the Spitfire has, relatively speaking, more manoeuvrability than a jet – it’s flying a lot slower and so has much more “time” to pull off a tight turn.
But that doesn’t do the Spitfire’s abilities justice – it literally can turn on a wing tip. For nearly 40 years  no plane could match it’s skills at top speed. The most amazing thing is they couldn’t really match it at any speed. If you take missiles out of the equation and pit a Spitfire against a modern jet and it’s guns I would bet on the Spitfire surviving for a hell of a long time. Far from embarrassing this ageing fighter the old vs. new battles simply served to show up the younger flashier sister. And the crowd loved it!
This then is the most interesting thing about the Eurofighter. Because at last years air show they pitted it against a Spitfire and, after all those years, the old war horse was soundly beaten. Not just in high speed manoeuvres but at low speeds too. The Eurofighter can fly slower than the Spit and lose none of it’s ability; indeed you have not lived till you have seen a Eurofighter seemingly float along behind a Spitfire before the Spit peels off and the jet goes into a vertical climb on after burner. No other jet plane can fly that slowly – let alone climb vertically like that! But, then, remember the Eurofighter wasn’t designed to fly anyway so it doesn’t matter that our knowledge of traditional planes says â€œit cant do thatâ€ – it was designed to do those amazing things and then made to fly.
This is the real test of plane technology – the test against the past master. Whilst more efficient killing machines have been designed and built nothing has come close to the beauty and majesty of the Spitfire; till now. Other jets fulfil a purpose; but the Eurofighter and Spitfire are above that, they are about being excruciatingly precise and perfect in what they do. They are not designed with their prime purpose in mind – they are designed to break the boundaries and the rest is added in later. To do it the Eurofighter had to ignore every rule ever written to govern it.
Back Down to Earth?
This example does serve a purpose. Firstly there should be a general ideal for us to take away; basically that we should design not purely to fulfil a purpose, but to beat the current technical leader. Because in that technical achievement is a breath taking beauty (a simplicity amongst complexity if you will) that will resonate with your users.
Take twitter for example . That is a very simple idea executed to a high level of technical competence  that has a distinct beauty to how it works. The users love it even though, really, 140 characters shouldn’t hold any value to us. Twitter is a Spitfire. Now Facebook are desperately trying to copy it – and failing. Why? Because they are trying to apply the same principles within the rules of their own network. That just doesn’t work. Twitter threw out the social network rule book, then they threw out the micro-blogging rule book, then they built Twitter. None of the counter offerings can beat it yet because they miss-understand the fundamental skill that Twitter took to create.
Another thing to take away is that sometimes you can ignore useability when beginning an application. If you build an interface before you build the core framework you end up limiting the capabilities of that framework. Instead ignore, initially, how users will interact with your system and just build all the killer features you desperately want. Then force the interface on top of it; it is that UI that should be hacked into shape – making it easy to use AND featureful – not the other way round.
I think most people would argue this is the most important concept to take away, simply because it is the most obvious. Your wrong – the really important concept is that the only person worth beating is your best competition.
Bettering the Competition
One thing a lot of people say to me (and sorry this begins as an aside) when I tell them the latest cool idea I have had is: “But XYZ already sort of do that“. It’s a common problem – someone has already nailed that idea so there is little point trying it yourself 
I just cant buy into that ideal. Aerospace engineers sort of did that for 20 years before someone came along and said “yes the Spitfire is a pinnacle of engineering, lets do better“. Indeed I am sure they didn’t do that at all – they just happened to have the same ideals as the Spitfire engineers and built a bloody good plane.
So many people  fall into the trap of saying “that’s been done so I need a TWIST to win some market shareâ€. No, no you don’t. You need a fantastic product that stands up for itself. That the product is not a hugely different take on the pre-existing theme is immaterial. There is this perpetrating myth that because one person has already done “that” it’s automatically their IP for the next few years – and unless they get really big (ala Facebook) attracting the attention of large corporations no one is strong enough to challenge them.
What rot. Yeh someone has had a good idea – and yes they hold some IP on how they implement that. But we would not be here today if society didn’t allow us to try and better it. Only one person needs to come up with the original idea, but 100 can implement it, refine it and – eventually – create a cracking utility. I call it combative collaboration  and this is how society itself has evolved for hundreds of years.
This applies to Web Apps more than most. Yep lots of stuff has been done before – some of it very very well. Which is the harder, more rewarding, challenge? Coming up with a twist on the idea – or beating them at their own game. I’m going with the latter.
A practical example is my current project: a blogging tool. I think it is safe to say WordPress hold a monopoly over the blogging tool market. Yes there are other offerings but WP is way in the lead in terms of market share. Why? Simply because none of the challengers have taken the game seriously – they just saw a huge blogging market and threw out their solutions to grab some lucrative share. Whilst that is profitable it is hardly awe inspiring.
WordPress itself is not exactly a work of engineering might – the code it messy and confused. They have (rightly as it happens) avoided a serious rewrite for a long time now and the codebase is sprawling. The plug-in system is very complicated; especially in this modern world of sexy API’s and the same applies to the template system (though to a lesser extent). But the achievement of WordPress is different: It installed itself as the blogging tool by focusing on the blogger (admittedly the 1990′s blogger but still….). Like the Spitfire, in it’s time it was a killer tool and, today, is still more manoeuvrable than many of it’s rivals (even when they sport flashy â€œnoughtiesâ€ features). Even the update of the admin panel didn’t revolutionise the way WordPress works – because it does work, and that is what sells it.
So when people turn to me and say “haha, blogging is a dead market because of WordPress” they are wrong, the challenge is to beat them at their own game. The challenge is to design a modern blogging platform that hooks into all the speed we have now BUT still has the same manoeuvrability and beauty. And if you can do that the market is almost as big as any brand new one â€“ because you just beat the one serious competitor.
This is the real lesson – no matter what people say about “the best” you CAN do better. And if you can, you should.
The final thing to take away is simply this:
It took 20 years and billions of dollars to beat a plane that is 40 years old and was built on a shoe string. THAT is how good the Spitfire is. THAT is how good we should try to be.
 For those that don’t know the Vulcan bomber was the type that flew from the Ascension Islands down to the Falkland Islands in the 1982 conflict to bomb the main runway at Stanley. A set of, still unbeaten, 4,000 nautical mile rear fuelled bombing raids. The physical impact of the raids was minimal but the sheer ability it involved (my father was an extremely minor part of the operation) is one of the most underrated achievement’s ever.
 In a strong way solitary is unfair – because the country was full of displaced European and fresh faced US soldiers. But from what I have read it was apt: the isolation of the UK went beyond nationalities and the solidarity felt wasn’t just “British” but universal.