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


Tue, 2009-Dec-22, 15:51

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Patent Troll

A patent troll continues to prevail in its lawsuit against Microsoft. Given that the underlying patent at issue is absurd and that the troll company has (in my opinion) done nothing to advance technology, this lawsuit illustrates once again how far the patent system has spun out of control.

One possible benefit: maybe Microsoft will support a rationalization of our patent laws.

Mon, 2009-Apr-20, 08:44

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Microsoft Rises to New Heights of Goofiness

Microsoft has never been on my list of favorite companies; as I've explained in my book, they've built their business around retarding, rather than advancing, innovations.

But sometimes they really astonish me. The latest is reports about their "Windows 7 Starter" package. Windows 7 is the successor to the ill-fated Windows Vista, which offered nothing to the computer owner except expense and headaches. Windows 7 Starter is even worse: according to reports, netbook computers with Windows 7 Starter will only be able to run three applications at a time. If you have email, instant messaging, and Skype open — and then you want to run another program, such as browse the web — you're out of luck.

Other reports I've seen claim that you won't even be able to change the "wallpaper" on a Windows 7 Starter netbook — you'll be stuck with whatever wallpaper comes with the machine.

I know what I'd do with a computer that could only run three programs at once: I'd return it to the store immediately. I'd like to say that I find the report unbelievable, but unfortunately I find the report all too believable: Microsoft has enough money and a defacto monopoly, and thus even the most spectacularly stupid ideas and spectacular failures don't seem to result in a reality check.

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."

Wed, 2008-Nov-19, 08:47

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"Terrible" and "Misleading" Marketing from Microsoft

Those quotes in the title are from an internal Microsoft email, produced in evidence during a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft.

"I believe we are going to be misleading customers with the Capable program," Allchin wrote in an e-mail to a group of Microsoft product executives. PC makers "will say a machine is Capable and customers will believe that it will run all the core Vista features," wrote Allchin, in the April, 2006 message.
As I said in the book, Microsoft's technology model is to oppose innovation instead of supporting innovation. As a direct consequence, Microsoft constantly finds itself pushed to the edge — or over the edge — of ethical behavior in order to resist the forces of technological progress.

Mon, 2008-Sep-22, 05:52

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Tempest in a Teapot: Microsoft (Not) Caught Once Again Using Non-Microsoft Software

Back in the earlier days of the Internet, as Microsoft aggressively pushed businesses to use their software as Internet servers, Internet-savvy individuals noted that even Microsoft didn't use Microsoft servers for their Internet hosting — Microsoft used Linux instead. As time went on Microsoft switched over to Microsoft products.

There's a little tempest in a teapot going on right now; Microsoft made some images available on its website from its most recent advertising campaign, and some of those images were created on a Mac. I should like to point out that the images came from an advertising agency, not Microsoft itself, and therefore it's hardly a case of Microsoft once again not using its own products. (On the other hand, of course, it's another demonstration that creative individuals who are not trapped by corporate policies often favor the Mac for its ease of use.)

Mon, 2008-Jul-07, 05:06

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Six Hundred Million Users, Just Waiting to Be Infected

Another interesting side-effect of Microsoft's persistent attempts to suppress innovation and integrate Internet Explorer into the operating system: a cumbersome update system. The Firefox web browser, like many other non-Microsoft programs, incorporates an independent update system and performs updates whenever one becomes available; Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser uses Microsoft Update and Windows Update systems, which are much more "intimidating." As a result, many uses refuse to update their systems. (On a personal note, when I wrote my book, I didn't accept any updates from Microsoft until the final text was in the hands of the publisher; I'd heard too many horror stories of botched Windows updates and lost data.)

I'll hazard a guess that part of the reason Internet Explorer is never released independently stems from Internet Explorer's tight integration into the Windows operating system.

The article cites a study that shows 637 million unpatched, vulnerable copies of Internet Explorer remain in use today, each one of which is an open invitation to viruses and identity theft. Remarkable. And to think that lead paint manufacturers can be sued for creating a public nuisance, while Microsoft continues to enable the flood of spam and viruses yet escapes liability.

Fri, 2008-Jun-13, 09:50

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European Union vs. Microsoft Again

The European Union continues to encourage people to use well-documented open standards instead of Microsoft's proprietary formats.

Tue, 2008-Jun-03, 07:21

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Microsoft Starts Imposing Live Search, Which Will Be Very Entertaining

Microsoft's deal with HP to make "Live Search" the default web search engine on all HP computers starting in 2009 accomplishes two things. First, HP will suffer because they're imposing a second-class search tool on all their computers, which consumers will rightfully scorn as an inferior offering, akin to malware, motivated by a cash payoff. Secondly, the long delay means that Microsoft concedes yet another six months for Google and other competitors to move ahead in the marketplace.

Frankly, I expect endless entertainment from Microsoft's move into web search. Since Microsoft's motto is perhaps the exact opposite of Google's ("Don't be evil"), in my opinion Microsoft will undoubtedly play all sorts of games with the search engine results — they simply won't be able to help themselves from meddling if they think they can boost revenues. In addition, Google shrugs off political pressure to adjust "politically-incorrect" search results, but Microsoft will likely concede to special-interest groups because of Microsoft's continuing problems with government regulators.

The article also mentions that Microsoft's latest strategy to push its "Silverlight" web browser technology is — can you guess? Yes, that's right, Microsoft modified parts of its web site to require Silverlight. I expect that fairly soon consumers will suddenly need Silverlight for all sorts of mundane tasks, for no particular reason and for no particular benefit.

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.

Fri, 2008-May-02, 08:42

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The Great Yahoo! Beer Money Caper

Microsoft's quest to purchase Yahoo! continues to puzzle me. First, there's Yahoo! itself as a company; I can't quite figure Yahoo's business model and why the company might be worth $45 billion — I can't help but thing of advertising revenue as just beer money. And Yahoo! itself evolved from a simple list of Internet resources into a huge aggregation of barely related resources. (I stopped reading Yahoo's new pages when Google News provided a more interesting new feed.)

The other question is about Microsoft itself. As others have pointed out, a hostile takeover rarely works in the Internet world. As far as I'm concerned, however, I can't imagine that Yahoo! would survive a Microsoft takeover even if it were friendly. Despite Microsoft's deep pockets and rigid control over the desktop, Microsoft's internal efforts to create a popular web site relevant to Microsoft's business model failed utterly. Microsoft clearly intends to modify Yahoo!'s operation to support Microsoft's goals (so I expect that Yahoo! will one day suddenly stop working with non-Microsoft browsers, for example).

This entire operation reminds me of AT&T's purchase of NCR. AT&T failed to create its own computer business; they purchased NCR instead, installed the managers who had failed at running AT&T's internal attempts, and promptly ran NCR into the ground. In the end, the mistake destroyed AT&T: AT&T's "trivestiture" allowed them to dispose of NCR while distracting investors by with the creation of Lucent.

Pointless aggregations are not a sign of strength. Disaggregation fosters innovation; random aggregations and forced integration generally fail miserably. Microsoft is about to make a company-killing mistake.