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, 2009-Mar-30, 09:25

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Transparent Financial Data

Today's Wall Street Journal discusses XBRL, a software language for annotating financial information. When financial companies present their data using XBRL, you can easily enter the data into programs, search the data, and compare the data with data from other companies. This makes the data more transparent, and the Journal argues — correctly, I believe — that transparency is a better solution than regulation.

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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Tue, 2008-Nov-04, 08:55

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Blu-ray Blues: "No, Lieutenant, Your Men Are Already Dead"

I noted in my book that the destructive war for the next generation of DVD players, between HD and Blu-ray formats, would lead to nothing but trouble for the industry. Now a quick market analysis shows that Blu-ray, the putative winner in the war, has just 4% market share and formidable competition from other methods to deliver video. As the article puts it, "Who dreamed they could both lose?" Well, I did.

There's nothing quite like a standards war to slow down technology and kill sales. When the battle was between DVD "+" R and DVD "-" R, I saw consumers walk forgo purchase of a DVD drive rather than get risk getting stuck on the losing side. That war kept CDs alive for years. Now the HD/Blu-ray battles gave the regular video DVD players enough time to upgrade their players to emulate Blu-ray resolution.

Standards are a crucial example of disaggregation in action, and the failure to carry through on the standards effort has cost the participants dearly.

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Mon, 2008-Mar-31, 07:48

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Microsoft Learns from Mistakes, Replaces with New Mistakes: Microsoft vs. ISO

I remember when Microsoft introduced the SALT "standard," which — Microsoft employees explained — was an industry standard, instantly, because Microsoft issued it. SALT's purpose was to sabotage VoiceXML, a true industry standard. Eventually SALT vanished without a trace and the entire Microsoft program was an exercise in futility.

Microsoft learned from these old mistakes; they've decided their next effort to sabotage an industry standard should go through a real standards body. Many large organizations, in particular governments, now realize that using a proprietary Microsoft format to run their business is foolish at best; among other things these documents become unreadable as time goes on and Microsoft fiddles with the format to make old documents incompatible with the new systems. Microsoft is absolutely desperate to prevent Open Document Format, ODF, from replacing Microsoft's proprietary Word, Powerpoint, and other Microsoft Office formats. ODF is a full ISO/IEC standard.

To sabotage ODF, Microsoft introduced "Office Open XML," OOXML, which they've placed before ISO. The OOXML specification runs to 6,000 pages and makes many people nervous, both because of its technical content and because of its licensing arrangement. And there's the subtext: six thousand pages of specifications is another way of saying that only Microsoft, the custodian, will ever be able to implement the specification.

What's interesting is that Microsoft is apparently cutting corners to get OOXML adopted; well, "cutting corners" is the polite language. We'll see what the courts have to say about it; Microsoft's attempts to dominate the market have a tendency to run afoul of the law. As always the reason is quite simple: Microsoft impedes market and technical progress, and people won't accept those impediments in a fair and open marketplace.

Tue, 2008-Feb-26, 14:34

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DVDs and the Microsoft Revolt

Here's an article that explains the recently-ended battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray DVD formats. In essences, the article states that Microsoft attemped to use the HD to sneak its codec and WinCE operating sytem into the living room — and the manufacturers and movie studioes rebelled.

Wed, 2007-Sep-05, 08:07

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Microsoft Fails to Fool Standards Organizations

Several years ago, Microsoft felt threatened by a new international standard called VoiceXML, which allows developers to easily create speech recognition applications. In an apparent attempt to sabotage the standard, Microsoft pushed a competing "standard" out the door — it was standard, according to Microsoft, not because of community acceptance but because Microsoft considered anything it did as a standard. Although the competing went nowhere, Microsoft did manage to introduce fear, uncertainty, and doubt into the marketplace long enough for Microsoft to gain (and squander) a toehold.

This time around, threatened by a genuine open standard for office word-processing documents, Microsoft is waging an international campaign to have its Open XML format adopted by an international standards organization. Luckily, Microsoft's effort failed; unfortunately, Microsoft can continue to push its standard.

The stakes are high: some US states and some European countries are rightfully concerned that their important state documents are in closed, proprietary formats that are impossible to read without Microsoft's help; they've proposed the use of Open Document Format, a genuine non-proprietary standard recognized internationally. This trend threatens Microsoft's closed ecology, and they've been fighting hard to prevent adoption of rules that mandate open formats.

And apropos of a theme that appears in my book: Don't forget to read the discussions of Microsoft's alleged ballot-stuffing and bribery (example) as they attempted hijack the vote.

Thu, 2006-Nov-09, 08:42

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Expect Slow Sales of Next-Generation DVDs and Tough Year for Electronics Retailers

As the confusion continues in the long and pointless battle between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (which I've written about before) over which standard will dominate next-generation DVD sales, the people who actually manufacture the players that go into consumers' living rooms will soon be able to easily support both standards.

As a result, smart purchasers — the ones who usually buy the latest and greatest and lead the pack — will likely sit on their hands and wait for the new players, which will not be available until 2007 at the earliest. Your local electronics retailer won't sell many of the available next-generation players, which is a bit tough on them. And since Microsoft Vista won't be ready until 2007, computer sales will also be slow until 2007, which will make things even more difficult for the retailers.

Both these incidents are sides of the same coin. Blu-ray and HD-DVD couldn't' find common ground, share authority, and settle on a single specification. The result is slow sales. Microsoft's Vista is tied so closely to the purchase of computers — Macintosh and Linux remain distant competitors in the consumer space — that any glitch at Microsoft severely affects sales. Lack of disaggregation has very real commercial consequences.

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Thu, 2006-Sep-28, 13:45

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Why the Next Generation of TV Should Fail

Cory Doctrow has a brilliant article on why the next generation of DVDs ("HD" and "Blu-ray") are bad for the consumer and bad for the media companies. Bad for the consumer, because the media companies continue to extend their control over your TV viewing habits; his argument about why its bad for the media companies is less convincing.

His explanation of the origins of high-definition TV is priceless:

The NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] panicked -- there's nothing a corporate welfare bum hates more than an end to its government handouts. So the broadcasters cast about for an excuse, any excuse, to continue to hold onto our valuable radio spectrum while doing nothing much with it.
And once they came up with hi-def TV as an excuse, and the FCC handed the broadcasters even more spectrum, they proceeded to absolutely nothing with the spectrum for another twenty years:
The broadcasters approach spectrum like a dragon approaches gold: it is something to be hoarded and jealously guarded, but they're not much interested in using it. So they took all that high-def spectrum and built a nest of it, rested their ponderous, scaly bellies on it, and never lit it up.

Doctrow points out something that I've mentioned before — according to the Blu-ray and HD-DVD specs, the media companies can disable your equipment by remote control:

The new HD technologies include anti-user nasties like "renewability" -- the ability to remotely disable some or all of the device's features without your permission. If someone, somewhere, figures out how to use your DVD burner to make copies of Hollywood movies, they can switch off *everyone's* burner, punishing a limitless number of innocents to get at a few guilty parties.
I've mentioned this ability of the media companies — or a hacker — to turn your expensive TV equipment into a pile of useless junk as a reason not to bother spending any money on the next-generation equipment. On further reflection, it occurs to me that when, e.g., Sony (the most likely culprit in my opinion) does this for the first time, they'll open themselves up to a massive class-action lawsuit as lawyers argue over whether Sony properly warned purchasers and whether they have a legal right to disable someone else's equipment. Still, the best move a consumer can make is to sit on his hands and not purchase HD-DVD or Blu-ray.

Mon, 2006-Sep-11, 05:36

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Is the Next Generation of DVD Players Doomed?

Let's say that every time you wanted to take a trip in your new Ford or Toyota automobile, you had to contact the manufacturer for permission: You would go to a web site and enter your starting point, destination, names of all passengers, and purpose for the trip. Certain trips would require a special, extra fee to the manufacturer if it decided that your trip wasn't on the list of "standard" uses for your car, or even if you gave too many rides to a neighbor who didn't have his own car. Oh, and good luck if the Internet was down, because you wouldn't be able to start your car — the manufacturers have to send an unlock code before each and every trip.

Not very attractive, right? In fact, if all new cars were made that way, you'd do everything you could to hold onto your present-day car and keep it running as long as possbile, and pray that the manufacturers regained some sanity before you were stuck with one of those new automobiles.

Sound ridiculous? Unfortunately, it describes exactly why I will hold onto my current DVD player as long as possible. Here's how the next generation of DVD players [Site requires free registration], HD-DVD and Blu-ray, will work:

If a consumer wants to make a copy of copyrighted content in his HD-DVD recorder, he first needs to hook his recorder to a network via Ethernet. Then, he goes to a Web site made available by a content owner, where he finds out how much it costs to make a copy in a certain resolution, such as high or standard definition. The consumer also has to inform the content owner of a destination medium (a portable media player, for example) where the copied content will eventually be played back.

I've written before about the incredible concepts behind Blu-ray; for example, the manufacturer can disable your player by remote control if they think you're using the player in ways they deem inappropriate. But I see the insanity isn't confined to Blu-ray, and that HD-DVD also contains these amazing "digital rights management" schemes.

The large "content providers" — the handful of music companies and movie studios that control the vast majority of entertainment in the US and worldwide — continue their campaign to redefine ownership. Digital rights management disaggregates ownership of "content" from the physical ownership of the data: I might own a DVD and the digital data burned onto it, but without a DVD player that has the correct cryptographic codes, I can't play the DVD and it's worthless. The large content providers are attempting to use that disaggregation to seize ownership and centralize it; they prefer that I purchase the DVD and then pay rent afterwards as well, a business model that brings them a steady revenue stream. Fortunately, current-generation DVD players won't go away soon, and the confusion in the marketplace between HD-DVD and Blu-ray will open up competition, and I can hope that competition will lead to more sane policies — ones that give me ownership of the content I purchase.

Fri, 2006-Aug-04, 14:00

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FTC Penalty for Abuse of Standards

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission just slammed Rambus with a penalty:

The FTC unanimously ruled that Rambus violated antitrust laws when it failed to tell memory chip makers that it had applied for patents on technologies for speeding up memory chips that the industry had chosen to use in everything from personal computers to set-top boxes.
The case seems to be quite complex, and the FTC commissioners unaminously reversed the ruling of an administrative judge when they issued the penalty. I've heard of this case on and off for years, and I didn't realize that Rambus continued to fight it.

Given the recent spat at the IEEE over allegations of fraud in the standards-setting process, it's easy to be cynical about standards. But let's look at the flip side: standards have become so important that fraud has become worthwhile. In the case of Rambus, the FTC found that Rambus fraudulently slipped their patented technology into the standard, knowing that later they could extract royalties. In the case of the IEEE, the goal is allegedly to prevent the adoption of a standard that would wipe out proprietary technology. As the complextity of technology increases, the importance of standards also increases.