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


Mon, 2008-Nov-24, 09:16

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Today's Repair Job, or Why Mac Remains Superior to Windows

I've just gotten off the phone with Apple's tech support. It turns out that I knew the answer to my question and they didn't, but what the heck.

That's not why Apple is superior to Windows. I'd forgotten my FileVault master password, and I wanted to reset it, and I couldn't convince the machine to cough up a hint to what the password was. Since I had access to the computer and since all of the Mac's configuration information is kept in separate, disaggregated files, I knew that I could probably remove one simple file and reset the password that way. I was right. (Tech note: "mv /Library/FileValue/FileVaultMaster.keychain /Library/FileValue/backup.FileVaultMaster.keychain" does the trick and keeps a copy just in case.)

Compare that structure to Windows and its elaborate and delicate "registry," a master database file of all configuration information and one of the reasons Windows machines are a breeding ground for viruses. The wrong move in that database file and you've trashed your Windows machine. Windows machines are built around rigid central control; Apple machines are built around disaggregation and work far better.

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Thu, 2008-May-22, 08:51

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Microsoft to Enslave the Third World via the One Laptop Per Child Project

One of Microsoft's worse nightmares is that one day ordinary consumers may wake up and discover that, fundamentally speaking, there's no real need for Microsoft at all. Microsoft received a foretaste of this during Vista's disasterous release; Vista provides no benefits to its users relative to previous versions of Windows, and companies clearly saw that the emperor had no clothes. This brings companies closer to the realization that Microsoft's inferior, bug-ridden, resource-intensive operating system and applications can be replaced — for free — with open-source software running on less-expensive hardware that's relatively immune to viruses and spyware. One way for Microsoft to avoid that dreadful fate is to capture children at a young age and indoctrinate them with the idea that computers mean Windows and vice-versa.

Microsoft hated the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The OLPC project puts computers into the hands of children in less-developed countries, places where computers are prohibitively expensive. OLPC distributes small, rugged laptops with easy-to-use software and child-sized keyboards; the cost of these laptops continues to drop towards the OLPC goal of $100 each. The criteria of easy-to-use and low cost led the developers to create an interface just for children based on the Linux operating system. Linux requires less memory, less computational power, and let the software developers exercise remarkable creativity.

While the OLPC project successfully distributed their machines in some parts of the world, in other places the educational authorities demanded that the laptops be available with Microsoft Windows. (Given Microsoft's history, I have dark suspicions about the possible sources of this requirement.) Recently the OLPC project agreed to provide Microsoft's Windows XP on their computers.

This decision spells the end of the OLPC project. Some developers immediately quit the project because they have no desire to work in Microsoft Windows' proprietary and frustrating environment (and some for other reasons). The cost of the laptops will increase by about 5%, which is a big step backwards. But most of all, I believe the utility of the OLPC will suffer in several important ways — even if the project survives, it will still be a failure.

First, a Microsoft version of this product will lose many of the remarkable pieces of software that are in the current version. For example, the innovative "mesh" networks that allow a classroom full of children to connect effortlessly to each other's computers is not compatible with Windows.

Worse than this, the children will become Microsoft serfs. They'll learn to believe that it's reasonable to go to the "Start" menu to stop the computer. They'll think that odd quirks, strange commands, annoying pop-up notifications, and "My This" and "My That" are reasonable methods to approach a computer system. A cesspool of viruses, spyware, and other dangers will probably infect entire classrooms.

Finally, the students and their teachers lose the chance to become computer experts themselves. The current OLPC environment, an open-source effort, provides all the right tools for experimentation with computers. The deal with Microsoft will snatch all that away.

Tue, 2006-Oct-03, 06:03

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How the Other Half Lives

After Intel acquired my company, I had a conversation with two long-term Intel employees about a new product. They were shocked by one of my suggestions, and almost whispered in response, "Microsoft wouldn't like it." I don't recall if I said out loud that Intel was a pretty large company itself and didn't have a lot to fear from Microsoft.

Intel is the other half of the "Wintel" duopoly, the combination of Windows operating system and Intel processors that completely dominates the desktop computing industry. Microsoft's unsavory practices result in a constant stream of court cases against it in various jurisdictions. Now Intel feels the same heat: competitor AMD launched a series of court cases against Intel, alleging classical, illegal anticompetitive behavior.

A letter from AMD's attorney [subscription required] appears in today's Wall Street Journal in response to a recent pro-Intel article, and I think it's worth quoting extensively:

It is not competition when Intel pays a computer maker millions of dollars to cancel a new product containing AMD CPUs or when Intel threatens them with retaliation if they publicly support new AMD products. And the list of Intel tricks goes on. That's why computer makers tell us, "We think that you have great products and we wish that we could buy more of them but Intel prevents us from doing so."
The Japan Fair Trade Commission has already found that Intel violated its antitrust laws by imposing illegal, exclusive contracts on computer manufacturers. The Korean FTC is investigating and last year the European Commission gathered evidence via dawn raids about Intel's behavior. Most recently, the Financial Times Deutschland revealed the existence of an illegal and secret deal between Intel and Germany's largest retailer, Media Markt, to exclude AMD from the consumer segment.

AMD's accusations and the commission findings make me think that Intel borrowed Microsoft's tactics; perhaps Microsoft's attitudes are contagious. Competition by intimidation works for a time, but eventually fails. AMD can't be squeezed out of the marketplace forever.

Fri, 2006-Mar-17, 09:09

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Multi-Player Games with Multiple Skill Levels

An interesting discussion on multi-player games: Can you accomodate different skill levels in a single game? Golf and go both have handicaps; poker does not. Computer games make it possible to pit one player against another and compensate for different skill levels.

Thu, 2006-Feb-23, 12:09

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More Hot Water for Microsoft in Europe

Microsoft faces additional anti-trust action in Europe. Microsoft was already in hot water with regulators for fighting disaggregation by refusing to disclose how its networking programs work. Now a new anti-trust complaint against Microsoft targets its secretive interface to programs such as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Other companies can't interoperate with those programs because Microsoft refuses to release crucial details.

And there's nicely ironic news here in the US as well. As I discuss in the book, Microsoft is attempting to stave off inroads by Linux; lately their FUD ("Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt") campaign seems to have picked up steam again as Microsoft hints at intellectual-property problems with Linux. Plenty of people speculate that SCO, which is suing IBM over Linux intellectual property, was funded by Microsoft to launch the lawsuit against IBM to an attempt to smear Linux.

And now Microsoft finds itself in the spotlight in the SCO case. IBM has subpoenaed Microsoft for documents relating the SCO transaction. Despite cheering from the crowd, given Microsoft's history in court, I very much doubt that any documents that Microsoft really wants to conceal will ever show up in court.

Mon, 2006-Feb-13, 07:35

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Disggregation in Google's Desktop Search

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google's latest update to its desktop search program lets users take search information from one computer and place it on another. And another feature lets users share news with friends via a "Sidebar" program.

These services offer the disaggregation of information from the computer upon which it is stored. Like the Vizrea service, it makes the indvidual computer into tool to view the data intead of a tool that stores the data. While it isn't a new concept, Google's involvement will certainly give the idea better visibility.

Fri, 2006-Feb-10, 13:22

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The Dissaggregated Photo Album

I have photos in my digital camera, my cell phone, and on two computers. Vizrea unifies these photo albums: no matter what device I use, I can get the same view of all my photos — well, except fo the digital camera, which isn't in the pool of devices. Regardless, Vizrea is attempting to disaggregate photos from various photo-taking and photo-storage devices, the same way I discuss disaggregating name/address/contact information from various devices to create a unified view.

Note: I left a reference out of my original post. This entry was based in large part on a review by Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal.