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, 2010-Feb-09, 07:44

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Apple's Prison Farm

I'm not fan of the term "walled garden," which is the term almost everyone uses to describe the closed system created by telecommunications companies on their networks. The idea of a "walled garden" is that only the nice, pretty applications are allowed in and the bad, disruptive ones are kept out.

I prefer to use the term "prison farm" because the term is more accurate: guards prevent the prisoners (the customers) locked inside the system, unable to experiment or experience other ideas, views, and methods.

Tech Crunch's article on Apple's "walled garden" discusses how Apple intends to keep its customers locked into an ecosystem that will create revenue for Apple. He notes, as I have often done vis-a-vis Microsoft, that once applications become locked to a particular vendor innovation suffers. In the terms we use in this blog, Apple is attempting to run the wheels backwards to prevent disaggregation of applications on the iPhone and iPad — this will inevitably result in less innovation. And ultimate failure.

Wed, 2009-Aug-12, 09:07

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Video Available: "VoIP: Is It More Than Just a Terrible Mistake?"

Although the idea is very popular, multi-tasking is actually a myth. When you do two or more things "at once," you're actually switching from task to task in a linear fashion. If you're a knowledge worker, this lack of focus and concentration — "flow" — will decrease your productivity. And that's not a mere assertion: that's science.

In a keynote address to Cluecon 2009 (video here), a conference for Voice over IP ("VoIP," otherwise known as Internet Telephony) developers, I discuss the problems associated with VoIP. In particular, VoIP makes it possible to put telephones into all sorts of locations, including light switches and car keys. Given that phones interrupt our concentration, and interrupting our concentration reduces our productivity, can VoIP ever be more than just a terrible mistake? (The answer, by the way, is a somewhat-qualified "yes.")

Thu, 2009-May-07, 06:05

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Talking Quickly

I have an article in SpeechTek Magazine about a highly innovative new form of telephone calls. Think of "TiVo for telephones."

Tue, 2009-Mar-24, 09:13

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Sprints Sells Bits Wholesale

I have to admit that I don't like most cellular companies; I particularly find it galling that even after you've paid off the price of your handset, the cost of monthly service remains the same. With an artificially limited resource (cellular frequencies and towers) the companies can offer a take-it-or-leave-it package.

Sprint, a cellular company that continues to perform "poorly" according to Wall Street standards, has decided to branch off into other business models. Sprint provides the data service that downloads books to Amazon's Kindle book readers, and is rumored to be in talks with other companies for embedded data service — Eastman Kodak (photo sharing?) and SanDisk (wireless remote storage?). I'm impressed that Sprint has the foresight to disaggregate their cellular business into transport and telephony pieces, and the further foresight to consider per-bit charges instead of the usual monthly subscription model.

Tue, 2009-Mar-10, 05:31

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Phone Calls and Time

I was tremendously impressed by the first public demonstration from RebelVox at the Emerging Communications Conference in San Francisco. In a word, RebelVox created a system to deliver both live conversations and voicemail messages without the usual "overhead" of dialing, ringing, and waiting for voicemail to take a message.

By something of a coincidence — the conference organizer and the CEO of Voxeo both recommended my book to conference participants — Mary Panttaja of RebelVox read The Pebble and the Avalanche just prior to the conference and gave a terrific explanation of the key disaggregations in RebelVox's technology.

RebelVox's system demonstrates an absolutely compelling new approach to telephone calls. Aside from other disaggregations, at the core they've broken the relationship between telephone calls and time, a very difficult task indeed; calls no longer must proceed through a strict linear time sequence. I look forward to a great future for this company (and to seeing a copy of their demo tape online sometime soon).

Thu, 2009-Feb-12, 09:12

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Facebook and Nokia Enter Battle for Address Books

As I've stated elsewhere and especially in my book, one interesting battle in the digital age is the fight for your address book. Everyone wants to own it: the company that manufactures your PDA want you to keep the information there; your telephone company want it online in a speed-dial list; your cell phone manufacturer wants the information inside their handset; your "contact relationship management" software has it's own specialized database of your contacts; Google, Plaxo, and a dozen others want you to keep the information in their online services. And if you use some or all of these various devices, web sites, and telecom services, you know that it can very difficult to keep them all in synchronization.

I hadn't noticed that what I think of as the more "casual" social networking web sites had entered the battle. Facebook and Nokia have discussed how to integrate Facebook into Nokia cell phones, and in particular how to move address book information between the two companies. I'll be interested in how these new partners settle their differences and enter the address book battlefield — and which new fronts open up in this long war.

Tue, 2009-Jan-20, 12:33

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Silence (and Cheaper Rooms) at eComm

For once I'm attending a conference without speaking — from the podium, that is. I certainly intend to pay careful attention to the talks and to allocate generous dollops of time for networking.

The eComm conference schedule and registration is here. I have a discount code which ought to get you 10% off the registration: YFEDHW5E. Oh, and sometime in the next 24 hours it ought to be fixed, but the room rate has now dropped to just $159 per night (instead of $189 per night as listed on the web site and with the call centers).

Fri, 2008-Dec-12, 08:55

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Informed Speculation About Voxeo and Text

Another tidbit about speech technology. It's become easier and easier to add new modes of communications to the platforms that support telecommunications (think of Skype, which supports both voice calls and instant messaging). Conversely, the people who create applications are starting to expect support for not just voice but all communications methods on the "platforms" that support their applications. For example, I'd never advise a client to install a call center that didn't also support instant messaging.

Given Voxeo's purchase of VoiceObjects, I speculate (in a telecommunications blog) about whether or not Voxeo plans to offer text processsing, instant messaging, and/or methods to understand plain text in its application platform.

Thu, 2008-Sep-11, 08:40

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RCN Telemarketing: Not Legal and Not Smart

When I give talks about interface design, I often use RCN as an example of a poorly-designed phone system: Years ago I was unable to give RCN money using my credit card because their telephone system gave the wrong instructions on how to enter my credit card number. And RCN didn't ever put a live operator on the line to accept money, which I found truly weird (not to mention counter-productive).

Yesterday I received a prerecorded phone call from RCN that violated FCC regulations. RCN must give me a phone number to call to stop futher calls but they didn't do so.

But RCN made an even worse mistake: RCN made the call in the first place — to someone who vehemently hates prerecorded phone calls. I'm on the "Do Not Call" registry; RCN may be legally entitled to call me because I am a customer but that doesn't mean that it's smart to call me. Instead of honoring my clearly stated "Do Not Call" preference, RCN chose to harass me with an unwanted call.

Of course, I know how to fix this problem: I can drop my business relationship with RCN. That would be a pity, because their Internet technical staff actually has a clue. If only their marketing folks could learn elementary rules of etiquette. Let's see how they respond to my email to them. And maybe an official FCC complaint as well...

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.