The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Fri, 2009-Feb-13, 08:49

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Now Imagine the Aesthetics of a Microsoft Retail Store

Apple's retail stores reflect the Apple aesthetic design: the stores are white, clean, and clear. You can sign up online, in advance, to get help with your Apple product at the "Genius Bar."

Aside from imagining the frantic "scrum" at a hypothetical in-store help desk, I have a very easy time imagining how a Microsoft store will look. To get an idea of how Microsoft aesthetic differs from Apple's, you should probably see the rather famous video "Microsoft re-designs the iPod box." Not to mention that Microsoft is bringing in an executive with experience at Wal-Mart to work on the new Microsoft stores — I'm certain the logistics will be excellent, but Wal-Mart's retail stores definitely lack allure and cutting-edge design. I think that Microsoft will find it extraordinarily difficult to break with its internal culture to create a unique experience in their proposed retail stores. Well, make that "positive and unique experience."

Mon, 2009-Jan-26, 14:03

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Apple Upgrades Its Help Line

Apple just upgraded its 800 number to use more advanced technology. If you call 1-800-MY-APPLE (1-800-692-7753) from Illinois (and a few other states) your call will be answered by the new service.

Instead of the old "press one for..." service, the new service accepts any spoken request and routes your call. You can ask "Where's the closest store to zip code 60645?", ask for help with a drive problem, or ask to purchase a Mac computer. The application doesn't actually do trouble-shooting or let you order something — it either gets you the address and number of a local store (and/or connects you to that store) or it routes you the proper human agent. The accuracy is very good, considering the complexity of the requests.

In fact, in my opinion it's a little too accurate to be a purely automated system. I suspect that it uses a mix of human and speech recognition. Of course, when it comes to customer service, I really don't mind if the application is better than expected.

Of course I fiddled with the system a little to see how well it works. As you can imagine I did find a few errors and gaps in the system.

Can you break the system too? Sure, if you want, but what's the point of breaking the system if you don't learn anything? We in the speech technology business have enough real problems without worrying about contrived ones.
When I did a trial of one of my first speech recognition systems, a tester wrote to say that the system didn't recognize his Southern accent. I wrote back and asked if he really had a Southern accent — I already knew enough about non-expert testers to inquire — and he didn't. He faked an accent and (of course) the speech technology failed.
Experts generate
useful failures, that provide information about the system to either the expert or the people maintaining it. Trust me, Apple will have a sufficient number of real errors and doesn't need your help generating contrived ones.
Overall, however, the system worked as well as can be expected for the first few days in service. Any new speech technology system (even one that uses humans for part of the recognition, assuming it does) requires tuning and tweaks; but so far, so good, and it'll be interesting to see how far Apple pushes this high-level speech technology — I'd be interested to hear how this technology would work to automate common help calls.

Wed, 2007-Jul-11, 10:49

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Some iPhone Customers More Equal than Others

Sometimes it's good to have a loud voice. My colleague over at O'Reilly relates that AT&T spent an hour with him on the phone, getting all the problems with his iPhone straightened out. But as he also mentions, this help isn't available to just anyone. It's designed to "fix problems that people on the Internet were having," i.e., bloggers.

Personally, I won't touch the iPhone. I'd rather have the OpenMoko phone, which uses open source — that is to say, infinitely clever — software and isn't locked to AT&T's network.

Thu, 2007-Jan-18, 07:36

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Microsoft Vista: "Largely Unexciting" and Very Confusing

My five-year-old HP laptop rebooted itself for no reason the other day, which worries me. I replaced the disk drive last year. The internal sound card has failed and the batteries are shot. I need to replace the laptop, but the problem is, with what? Should I get a Microsoft operating system, an Apple operating system, or a Linux operating system?

I've just written about Apple and their new iPhone ("Is the iPhone Actually eVil?"). I have to admit that despite Apple's closed hardware, I am drawn to their machines because they (a) actually work and (b) have some real hacker capabilities built into their "OS X" operating system.

But Microsoft was coming out with Vista, and I figured I'd wait until it actually shipped before I started to shop for computers. I'm glad I did; not because I want Vista, but because Vista pushes computer makers to create even more powerful machines.

As I've written many times before, Microsoft actively retards most innovation. Walt Mossberg over at the Wall Street Journal published a review today, and he makes it quite clear that Vista for the most part just imitates what Apple had six years ago — only their imitations aren't nearly as good. And Vista runs slowly from time to time, even on high-end hardware. (I should mention that from a computer-scientist standpoint, Vista apparently stripped out just about every improvement they'd originally announced for Vista that would make the operating system more secure and more robust. Vista demands significant hardware and runs slowly but provides no significant benefit other than new "eye candy.")

So Vista is "largely unexciting," as the title of Mossberg's article states, but what I found even more interesting was how confusing Microsoft made Vista:

Vista comes in six versions, two of which are primarily aimed at consumers.
Mossberg then goes on to give details on some of those versions, and warns you that even if you purchase the high-end versions, Vista might suddenly decide to run in a stripped-down basic mode. And Mossberg doesn't mention that Vista's "digital rights management" software monitors how you use the computer, and might suddenly decide to revoke your privileges to your own computer.

So, another backwards-looking operating system from Microsoft, which will earn them a ton of money regardless... but I still don't know if they'll be getting my money or not. A less-expensive Microsoft-compatible laptop? A more expensive Apple laptop? Or should I go for a moderately expensive laptop that runs Linux?

Wed, 2007-Jan-17, 07:29

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Is the iPhone Actually eVil?

Despite all the hoopla about the iPhone, I begin to suspect that it's actually eVil. The iPhone follows the typical Apple pattern of locking other companies out and locking customers in. While that may make good business sense in the short term before people quite realize what they're getting into, in the long term it kills a product or innovation. Apple's Mac was far superior to Microsoft's junk in every way, but Microsoft was relatively more open and hence conquered the world.

Sometimes people call this business model a "walled garden," a method to create something beautiful and keep out baneful influences. I propose that we call this business model a "prison farm" instead: Yes, you can grow things on the inside; and yes, they will work and keep you alive. But guards with legal sanctions keep you locked up inside, and all the good things in life are happening someplace else. Apple is particularly adept at dressing up the prison guards in designer outfits by Gucci carrying weapons by Brooks Brothers, but they're prison guards all the same.

iPhone has (according to all reports) a wonderfully innovative interface, but at the same time iPhone locks to you to Cingular's wireless network. That's not the worst of it; the iPhone has just one approved supplier of software, namely Apple. If Apple doesn't bless the software you can't load it onto your iPhone.

Now, sometimes restrictions actually help a product, for example, the restrictions imposed by the wonderfully loony kosher cellphone providers. Apple may be able to sell their restrictions as a method to prevent viruses and malware from appearing on the cellphones; but since the "unintended" consequence of these restrictions results in a steady stream of revenue to to Apple, I admit that I'm a little suspicious. I am forcefully reminded of the amazingly overpriced ringtones that every cellphone company sells.

I fully support Imran Ali's call to create an open-source competitor to the iPhone. Imran provides a list of the most influential articles that complain about the closed iPhone, and then asks an important question: can the open-source community beat the iPhone at its own game? Of course it can; after all, the open-source Internet crushed the alternative networks, ones that were supported by huge companies with overwhelming market power. The question is will an open-source alternative be viable, and that's a question that remains, well, open.