Why I’m Editing a GetMobile Column

A few months ago Eyal de Lara approached me about editing a column for the SIGMOBILE GetMobile magazine, which is replacing a previous incarnation known as the Mobile Computing and Communications Review (MC2R) 1. I considered the offer for as long as I was able, because there were two very good reasons to say no. First, I don’t need anything else to do. Second, I don’t need anything else to read—​at least not about mobile systems. I’ve heard that concern echoed by others who, like me, take their work-related magazines 2 on the shortest-path trip from mail slot to recycle bin. But in the end I did end up agreeing to edit a new column. Given that the main goal of this post is to convince some of you to contribute to this new endeavor, let me try to explain why.

It’s Not About Me

Thankfully requests to review journal articles have an "Unavailable" option.First, let me say that this was in no way a CV-boosting move. Over time I have learned, like other junior faculty before me, to be more careful about issuing blanket agreements to participate in the review and publication process. Thankfully requests to review journal articles have an "Unavailable" option. I could be at sea without Internet access, or in the hospital, or taking care of new quadruplets, or have lost all use of my fingers, or just not want to read what looks like a long and terrible research paper and have it and its revisions haunt me for years. That "Unavailable" options provides so much useful ambiguity…​ Plus, the rename has ensured that GetMobile sounds more like a teenage zine than the kind of venerable and reputable "Transactions of"-type publication that a status-conscious junior faculty member would want to be mixed up with. So believe me or not: whether this would be a good thing for me to do for me didn’t cross my mind.

Some Magazines Are Good

The main thing I considered is what would I want a mobile systems magazine to be like? Again, I certainly don’t need more to read—​just keeping up with the major conference proceedings related to my area would be a full-time job. At the same time, I do like to read magazines. Well, to be exact, as my partner and friends know very well, I read to read one magazine specifically: The New Yorker.

I have been a New Yorker subscriber for years now and read it semi-religiously. I skip the fiction pieces (and issues), some of the less interesting "Talk of the Town" items, and Sasha Frere-Jones’s self-promotional attempts to write about pop music, but otherwise read it weekly almost cover-to-cover. I’m aware of at least some of its many shortcomings. It has a specific style, publishes way too many articles related to health and medicine, sneers repeatedly at West Coast technology culture, and occasionally allows Jonathan Franzen to let his bird obsession get the better of him. But overall it’s fantastic and has been consistently so during the years I’ve been a subscriber. Reading the New Yorker has improved my own writing, and it’s pretty much the only reason I know anything about anything unrelated to smartphones and mobile systems 3.

What’s nice about reading articles about technology in popular magazines is that the cognitive load is much lower compared with a research paper.What’s nice about reading articles about technology in popular magazines is that the cognitive load is much lower compared with a research paper. This isn’t entirely because the research paper is more detailed, although that’s undeniably part of what makes them denser and more complex. Partly it’s just because popular articles are better written than most research papers: more interesting, clearer, possessing a captivating narrative arc, and freed from the formulaic "Introduction, Contributions, Motivation, Design, …​" structure that research papers are expected to follow.

I Want to Want to Read This

So that’s part of what I see as the potential for a mobile system magazine: to publish articles that are technically illuminating while being easier and more fun to read than the research papers we are all constantly bombarded with. Things that I want to read, not just have to read or feel like I should read. And part of the goal for my column will be to get contributions to that level of quality and readability.

Of course, no promises about my ability to actually facilitate that process, given that my credentials for this role are limited to (1) writing a lot of research papers and (2) reading a lot of New Yorker articles. But one of my strategies for achieving this is to encourage contributors not to start with or pull text from research papers. Too many of the things I’ve read in research magazines seem to have that lineage, and I think it’s hard to start with a research paper and get it anywhere close to realizing the full potential of the magazine format.

Use the Past to Predict the Future

Magazines also give us the option to break away from the structural single-project confines of the research paper, another freedom that should make it possible to create more interesting and readable pieces. One way that you see this manifesting itself is in the form of retrospectives, like "A Brief History of Cloud Offload" (PDF) by Satya in the last edition of GetMobile. I think that these can be extremely interesting, at least when they are more than a string of "paper-lets" arranged in chronological order.

For my column I’ve settled on asking contributors to connect cutting-edge pre-publication research with past work in similar or related areas: to "use the past to predict the future" in the words of the mantram that I repeat in front of my operating systems students. So my second goal is to use the column to provide the kind of context that a good retrospective can deliver, but put in the service of motivating, explaining, or even dismissing new research directions.

I’m Just the Editor

So if you think that you’re up to the dual challenges of both using the mobile systems past to predict the mobile systems future, and putting together a piece that paper-weary mobile systems researchers will want to settle in to a comfortable chair with a comfortable beverage to enjoy, please contact me directly. Editors are standing by.

To be honest, I have no idea if this will work. Maybe the community really doesn’t need this venue. Maybe it’s already covered by Wired, Maker, and the MIT Technology Review 4. Maybe mobile systems researchers just can’t write and edit well enough to produce things that we’ll be excited to read. But at least now if it doesn’t work, it won’t be because you didn’t know what I was trying to do.

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