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, 2008-Dec-09, 06:37

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Voxeo and VoiceObjects Build on Top of Open Source Editor

In addition to my work on innovation, I also work on speech technology projects. One of the most complex programming languages I work with is the speech recognition programming language VoiceXML. For the purposes of this blog, the interesting thing about VoiceXML is that the VoiceXML programming language incorporates many other programming languages: Javascript for calculations, a specialized programming language to describe what we expect a person to say so we can recognize his speech, and another programming language to describe how to read announcements to the person. On top of all this, I rarely bother to write in VoiceXML directly and instead use PHP or some other programming language to produce the VoiceXML pages.

In other words, VoiceXML programming is complicated, as if speech technology wasn't complicated enough on its own. One of the things that usually saves developer's sanity when writing in other programming languages is a decent "development tool" that helps make the task of programming easier. The tool will often automate certain tasks, find errors in the program, and sometimes even help the developer remember all the various features of the programming language. I've had one situation, programming in a new (to me) language, where the right tool spelled the difference between success and disaster.

The name of that important tool, by the way, is Eclipse. Eclipse is an open-source project that has a modular structure. People build new tools on top of Eclipse to support new programming languages as well as new methods to program — for example, a new way to visualize the program you're writing. Over the years I've tried a few packages that purport to provide VoiceXML language programming via Eclipse, and never found one that was satisfactory. I embarked on a quest to find a decent tool — which led me to organize and run a public demonstration of different tools at a recent industry conference.

A company I often work with, Voxeo, announced the purchase of VoiceObjects today. VoiceObjects makes an Eclipse-based VoiceXML editor. This is a funny coincidence because I'm in the middle of writing up an assessment of that public demonstration of speech application tools and VoiceObjects is one of them; I'll reveal in advance of my article that I liked VoiceObjects.

I recommend a look at Voice Object's extensive documentation to get a better idea of what they offer. I particularly like the idea of generating project documentation from within the design tool. Even more importantly, Voice Objects' tool output is "standard" VoiceXML, not a proprietary flavor, and the output interoperates with many VoiceXML platforms (not just Voxeo's, for example). This quote from Voxeo's press release is particularly important:

Voxeo will continue to openly and actively support VoiceObjects' application deployment on multiple VoiceXML platforms including Aspect, Avaya, Genesys, Intervoice and Nortel.
In other words, Voxeo is smart enough (as usual) to realize that they should compete on cost and service instead of attempting to lock in their customers through the use of tools that generate output that only works on their system. I know that I prefer a tool that interoperates over one that does not.

Strategically, this fills out Voxeo's suite of tools. Their current design tool ("Evolution Designer"; I've never used it) is suitable for entry-level programming; VoiceObjects is suitable for high-level developers. Speech technology programming is difficult work, with only a (relative) handful of VoiceXML practitioners worldwide; from Voxeo's perspective, the more programmers, the more speech technology applications and the more business for Voxeo.

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Fri, 2008-Oct-24, 09:47

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"Rails Rumble"

The results of a 48 hour contest to write the "best" application. Contestants wrote their software in Ruby on Rails, a software package that makes development of database-driven web sites almost ridiculously easy.

Mon, 2008-Oct-20, 08:55

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Curse that Curses!

I've decided to migrate to a better Internet-based phone system — one that works would be nice — and as an experiment I'm trying to use some open source software. All's well, but of course each open source package relies on another open source package, and so and and so forth.

One package, often called "curses," controls the cursor on your terminal screen. I have a version installed, but for some reason my computer couldn't seem to find that version when I tried to use it. I've come up with a work-around, but I dread trying to get this straightened out "upstream" with the people who make up the packages...

Disaggregation works wonders with computers, but we on the leading edge have to invest work to make it safe for the rest of humanity.

Fri, 2008-Jul-25, 09:17

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Can It Be Turtles All the Way Down?

I'm a big fan of open source software, and I found some very interesting speculation on the TechDirt web site. The author asks if Google has trouble absorbing acquisitions because the upper layers of Google's software are highly proprietary.

This speculation also raises the question of just how far open-source software can penetrate a company's operations. Can it be "turtles all the way down," or does it make sense that at some point — at the highest layers — software must include some proprietary, unique approaches?

Wed, 2008-Jun-25, 09:15

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Symbian: Is It Really Open Source? Can It Beat Google?

Google's Android project should release, sometime in the near future, an operating system for cellular telephones. An open-source platform means that developers can do as they please with the operating system of the telephone, which in turns means that many of the obstacles that stand in the way of creative cell phone applications will melt away. Android provides real benefits to both users and developers, Google offered $10,000,000 in prize money for creative applications running under Android, companies are building cell phones to use Android — in short, Android poses a real and very direct challenge to traditional cell phones.

To fight back, cell phone manufacturer Nokia recently unveiled a very bold initiative: they're making the operating system in their telephones, Symbian, into open source as well. They've bought up the company that makes Symbian, created a Symbian foundation, and asked other companies to join the alliance. Other companies joined and are donating important software that also makes sense for hand-held telephones (and other devices).

I was a bit suspicious at first when I read the press releases because the Symbian Foundation is "open to any organization," which is usually another way to say that joining the organization incurs large fees. However, according to their web page any "organization" can join for $1,500, which frankly is not a lot of money to be part of the inside track. And the Symbian Foundation promises to release their code under a recognized open source license within the next two years. They have made explicit promises.

This Symbian maneuver shows that the companies involved are truly brilliant. Instead of whining about a changing business model — the way the RIAA and MPAA do about new distribution models for music and movies — the founding members of the Symbian Foundation realized that only this radical change could preserve their core business. This initiative challenges Google's Android. Android has the advantages of good will and earlier release dates; Symbian has the advantages of a huge installed customer base and the world's most popular handsets.

Oh, and don't be surprised when developers start releasing "Android on Symbian" and "Symbian on Android" modules to let applications developed on one system work on another system. And don't be surprised if Symbian's open source operating system imposes restrictions on what works on the Symbian platform — open source doesn't mean that you can necessarily make the telphone do exactly that you want it to do.

This battle ought to prove quite interesting, and amazingly beneficial to consumers.

Fri, 2007-Jul-06, 10:27

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Microsoft and Open Source, Again

Microsoft just can't seem to co-exist with open source software — not surprising, of course, as Microsoft continues to fight tooth and nail against true open document formats such as ODF to prevent erosion of Microsoft's Office monopoly. According to Groklaw, Microsoft is so spooked by the latest "GPL" license that Microsoft refuses to honor their customer commitments.

Wed, 2007-Jan-24, 20:26

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Doing Well by Doing Good: Brilliant Marketing by Second Life

Earlier today I was thinking of how certain companies stomp all over their biggest supporters. Apple is famous for intimidating bloggers who reveal any information about Apple products; lately it's threats against anyone who "skins" a phone to make it look like an iPhone.

I was thinking to myself how smart it would be for a company to encourage, rather than discourage, people who use discarded or neglected bits of intellectual property. If your fan base finds something of value that only they care about, and the money is insignificant, why not just let the fans work hard to spread buzz about your product?

This evening I received a link from a friend of mine to a blog comment written by the lawyers from Second Life. Someone had created a parody web site called "Get a First Life." The usual way this story goes is that the lawyers write to threaten the parody web site; since they're lawyers, and since the parodist can hardly afford a day in court, the parodist closes the site and the joke is over.

Not the lawyers for Second Life, however:

We do not believe that reasonable people would argue as to whether the website located at constitutes parody — it clearly is. Linden Lab is well known among its customers and in the general business community as a company with enlightened and well-informed views regarding intellectual property rights, including the fair use doctrine, open source licensing, and other principles that support creativity and self-expression. We know parody when we see it.
Moreover, Linden Lab objects to any implication that it would employ lawyers incapable of distinguishing such obvious parody. Indeed, any competent attorney is well aware that the outcome of sending a cease-and-desist letter regarding a parody is only to draw more attention to such parody, and to invite public scorn and ridicule of the humor-impaired legal counsel. Linden Lab is well-known for having strict hiring standards, including a requirement for having a sense of humor, from which our lawyers receive no exception.

The lawyers then go on to remove any doubt over the right of the parodist to modify Second Life's logo by granting him a license. This is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, the triumph of common sense, and a move guaranteed to bring Second Life enormous good will.

Fri, 2006-Sep-29, 15:11

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New Project

I've been busy again. I've just released some open-source softare, the Disposable Phone Numbers™ project.

I've written an article that explains my motivation for the project. The project has its own web site.

Wed, 2006-Sep-27, 07:29

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Without Bitterness: Political Life in the Open-Source Community

A somewhat overblown article complains that one of the biggest open-source projects is in danger of "dying" because of internal politics. After reading the evidence, I don't agree with the conclusions.

But here's a fascinating passage about an internal motion to recall the head of the Debian project:

Interestingly, Towne [the project head] has seconded the motion for his own recall, to bring the matter to a decision.
He wrote, "I'm seconding this because I do think it's a fair question for the project to consider, and to make it clear I don't personally have any problem with being recalled if that's what the project thinks is right and proper..."
I read this differently than the author of the aritcle. This passage indicates amazingly healthy debate within the Debian project, an interesting internal culture, and how very different an open-source project can be from a commercial project. The disaggregation of ownership and the diffuse governing structure (the disaggregation of authority) produced a situation in which someone can sincerely consider resigning without bitterness — a situation that's exceedingly rare in any traditionally-structured community service project, and almost unthinkable in the corporate world.

Thu, 2006-Aug-03, 11:33

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RocketSource Initiative is a new site dedicated to the RocketSource initiative, which will specialize in open source applications for speech technology. See the press release which includes pithy quotes from yours truly. My Voice Conference Manager, which remains one of the top-ranked open-source projects on SourceForge, is part of RocketSource and is now automatically installed as part of Voxeo's Prophecy platform.

I've been at a conference this week; they asked me to give an impromptu talk this morning about innovation — or, rather, the lack of innovation — in audio services and the Internet. I hope to have that talk available sometime soon. But the upshot is that I haven't had time to update this blog the past couple of days; with any luck I'll be able to post some comments soon.