The Pebble and the Avalanche

Moshe Thumbnail
Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

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


Fri, 2008-Dec-26, 10:55

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The disaggregation of doorbell handles, in a charity housing project in operation for nearly 500 years:

The handles on the iron doorbells have different shapes such as a cloverleaf and a pine cone -- a holdover from when there was less lighting and residents needed help at night to recognize their doors.
Clearly, not every handle needs to be the same.

Tue, 2008-Nov-25, 09:11

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Telephone Calls from Your Plants is So Last Year

I've heard from Kate Hartman again; it seems that phone calls from your house plants are just too dated for advanced thinkers. She and Kati London and the rest of the gang now have a kit that lets your house plants contact you via Twitter.

This is a team to watch, with tremendous creativity.

Fri, 2008-Nov-14, 09:19

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RED Camera

I'm not in the market for a professional high-defintion video camera — but if you are, you might want to see this one. The camera mechanical, electrical, and software design is fully disaggregated: you can mix and match modules to reconfigure the camera for different purposes. It looks quite remarkable.

Mon, 2007-Apr-16, 12:49

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Tearing Apart a Prius

A group of automobile designers tore apart a Toyota Prius to see how it was designed, and the results are slowly making their way into print and online. From an overview article, an engineer explains how Toyota ensures that its cars will meet its quality standards regardless of where the cars are manufactured:

"with modules, bits and pieces--from electronics to doors and other components--that readily fit in place, enabling building the same vehicle, with the same quality, anywhere in the world."

Another, not very surprising finding:

"Mission-critical subsystems rely on relatively conservative design choices in both IC packaging and IC components--some microprocessor designs were up to 12 years old--while infotainment systems are implemented in a form closer to state of the art."
A malfunctioning DVD player is a problem certainly — and you can't use a 12-year-old DVD player part, after all! — but a malfunctioning engine is a different problem entirely and it's not too unreasonable for Toyota to make conservative choices.

Wed, 2006-Nov-29, 05:19

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Photography and Waste

When I lecture about the principles of disaggregation, I often use the example of digital photography to explain how "taking things apart" makes things better.

  1. Digital photography breaks the connection between photographs and media. Digital photographs are not "stuck" to a piece of paper or trapped on a slide.
  2. The quality of a photograph is no longer related to the "generation" of a photograph. A copy is just as good as the original.
  3. Cameras no longer require film; they have become small electronic components that appear inside other devices.
I have other examples; for example, digital photographs (and music and movies) pose new challenges to copyright laws — the old concepts of ownership have started to change.

In an article [free content] called "The Internet Allows Consumers to Trim Wasteful Purchases," William M. Bulkeley points out an additional important disaggregation: the connection between individual photographs and the roll of film. Unlike a roll of film, which had to be developed all at once, digital photographs are almost always separate files that are easy to copy, save, and print individually. Mr. Bulkeley captured the reason why I purchased my first digital camera:

But customers are happy to pay for new digital cameras because the cameras let them pick the good pictures without having to pay to print out a roll of mostly mediocre shots.
Better yet, from my perspective, was the notion that I could take as many photographs as I wanted and see them without having to pay for film and prints; I could take a half-dozen photographs of a person to make certain that at least one would be decent. I happen to believe that an ultimate benefit of digital photography will be, over time, better and better photographers, not just fewer unwanted photographs.

Fri, 2006-Nov-17, 09:21

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Amazon's Other Business

Amazon, the famous online bookstore, now offers a completely different set of services, ones that are geared not towards book buyers but towards Web developers. Amazon took its expertise in building large-scale reliable services for the World Wide Web and packaged it — amazingly affordably — for other people to use.

Let's say, for example, that I've developed a new online business that requires highly-accessible and reliable storage space. I can build a storage system myself, but that can be expensive and poses a huge barrier to entry. Amazon lowers that barrier — that's one of their stated design goals, to lower barriers to entry — by providing high-speed highly-reliable storage for rent. At a price of $0.10/gigabyte stored per month, and $0.20/gigabyte transferred per month, as an aspiring entrepreneur I can try something out to see if it's feasible without a huge up-front cost.

Or let's say I need a stack of 100 computers to test something, or perhaps I need this stack to run a web service. If I purchase these computers I must not only spend a few hundred dollars or more apiece, but I must also find an air-conditioned office with reliable Internet access, lots of electrical power, and a sercurity guard. Amazon will provide me with a single "virtual" computer, accessible online, for $0.10/hour. That stack of 100 computers would only cost $10/hour to run — testing a service or keeping it online becomes dirt cheap.

Amazon provides these services and more, including what they call "artificial artificial intelligence," a topic for a different day. Amazon has done an amazing job of disaggregating their business to resell some of their expertise, and even better they've done it in a way that has already jump-started dozens of new Web businesses.

Wed, 2006-Nov-15, 10:37

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Elevator Entertainment

I admit it: I had hoped for endless cheap entertainment — confusion, bewildered customers, whining, protests, and long delays. When I first heard a few years ago that the elevators at the Marriot Marquis in Manhattan were switching over to a new system, and that our conference would the first to experience the new elevators, I could only envision complete chaos. Instead, the changeover went pretty smoothly, and now that a couple of years have passed we all take the system for granted.

The new system introduces two types of disaggregation, in the categories of Mechanics and Authority. The buttons that control what floor you go to are moved from inside the elevator to outside the elevator, into the waiting area on each floor. Furthermore, with this change, the authority over the destination of the elevator moves from the passengers to the central computer. Moving the authority to the central computer allows the central computer to optimize how the elevators operate — very effectively, actually, with severely diminished wait times. Of course if you step in the elevator and change your mind about what floor you want to be in, you're out of luck.

Given the proven benefits of this innovation — cost reduction for the provider (fewer elevators needed, happier users) and the user (wait times) — I expect this innovation will revolutionize how elevators work and likely displace the previous system almost entirely.

Thu, 2006-Nov-02, 08:37

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Just Rent the Software, Dynamically

Back in my days at Dialogic, I suggested a novel approach to a hard problem. Let's say, for example, that you want to do speech recognition of someone who speaks Hungarian. Here in the US, there isn't much call for Hungarian-language speech recognition, and no one is going to install it and maintain it. So how can you do speech recognition in odd languages, or avoid the cost of installing any speech recognition, even English-language, in the first place?

I suggested that we disaggregate speech recognition; if you're in the speech industry, you may have heard me suggest it at a few talks I gave. We'd collect the voice here in the US and make arrangements with people overseas to provide recognition in their language; when we wanted a Hungarian-language recognition done, we'd connect to their overseas system and perform the recognition there. We'd get highly-specialized recognition that'd be simple to use — the usual benefits of disaggregation.

We never implemented this at Dialogic, but I've just found a company that implemented this "recognition rental" business model. They charge 750 € to purchase a recognizer, but if you like you can send data to them for recognition for 0.05 € for each successful recognition.

Thu, 2006-Oct-26, 16:13

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Fiat Avoids Kodak's Mistake

One mistake Kodak made during the digital photography revolution: Kodak failed to capitalize on its superior knowledge of chemistry. In theory Kodak could have sold ink to all the printer manufacturers; in practice Kodak kept its ink to itself and the company nearly foundered.

Fiat — a "mess" just two years ago — hired a new chairman who broke all the rules, including the sacrosanct rule that auto makers do not sell parts to their competitors. Instead, Fiat

signed a deal to produce small cars jointly with Ford, at a Fiat plant in Poland. Ford would get a small car powered by Fiat's engine and built on a Fiat platform. Fiat, in effect, would get to sell the use of some of its technology and facilities, collecting more revenue from its plants.
This is straightforward disaggregation, and Fiat earned desperately-needed cash.

Thu, 2006-Oct-12, 09:07

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Errors at the Supermarket

My local supermarket (Jewel, a division of Albertsons) installed self-service checkout lines a couple of years ago, which lets shoppers scan and bag their own items. The store's goal is to cut down on the number of employees; the incentive to the customer is something I've never figured out. Usually the lines are shorter at the self-service stations. I won't use them again, however, because of a design flaw that punishes me the better I get at using the scanner.

After I scan an item, the scanner says the name of the item, weighs what I put into the bag, and detects if I take the bag away and put it in my basket. That's fine, but unfortunately the designers decided to make these actions sequential instead of disaggregating them into separate processes. The name must be completely spoken by the system before I put it into the bag; if I work quickly and toss the item into a bag, and then take the bag off the shelf, the system throws a fit. The system halts, plays a short video of putting items into bags, and after about 10 seconds gives me the option to state that I've put the item into my cart. In a further bit of annoyance, the system doesn't give you an audible indication of the halt, so I'll be busy trying to scan an item, wondering what's wrong, while the system displays an error message on a screen that isn't anywhere in my field of vision.

The solution to this problem requires a re-design of the scanning station, disaggregation of the spoken prompts so they can be played simultaneously with the weighing of the items, and adding an audible prompt to warn me that the system wants my attention.