jump to navigation

Just What is Silicon Valley Up To These Days? July 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I think a lot of us, both in and out of that geographical location and state of mind, wonder just the same thing. When we see fledging companies getting a million dollars or more to develop an app that lets you grab a parking space, or pay for an already-made restaurant reservation, something is clearly wrong.

The question is where is the innovation? The press seems to congregate around those startups that exploit an imaginative though trivial niche. And, to be fair, so do the venture capitalists.

Slate (I still don’t know why we pay any attention to these folks) claims that innovation is being done by established companies these days, rather than by the startups.

I seriously question large companies trying to encourage and fund true innovation. Google does moon shots; Intel throws billions of dollars at a next generation set of chips that may or may not succeed, true. But that’s what established companies do.

But there is little room for true, market-breaking innovation in Google, Intel, HP (especially!), and the rest. Established companies simply have too much invested in their existing products to enable an innovation that threatens a billion-dollar business. These companies did their innovation, and now they are just trying to hang on.

But the Slate article is completely wrong on several accounts. For example:

>> true startup companies like Apple and Microsoft, which lacked those ties to academia and government, innovated only in the consumer sector.

Um, no. That’s not how Apple and Microsoft succeeded. Both desperately pursued the business market, Apple with the LaserPrinter, and Microsoft with Office. Microsoft ultimately succeeded more, but at the expense of longer-term viability.

Academia has been irrelevant as an innovator for a long time. Those that see Xerox PARC as a part of academia are seriously mistaken; it was very much industry, without a way to commercialize. Same with AT&T (not the same AT&T today, you should be aware) Bell Labs.

I do believe that innovation occurs in waves. The fact that we see so many “me too” social interaction companies today says that we are in a period of consolidation, not innovation. Still, innovation will happen again, but the companies of today, even the leaders (are you listening, Facebook?) will not be the true innovators ten years from now.

Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,

By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?

Google Glass My Ass June 29, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

I think the onward march of wearable computers is both desirable and inevitable. And I love the idea of being able to find and research any bit of information, at any time. Almost two decades ago, Bill Gates introduced the concept of “information at your fingertips,”, but it was ultimately Google that delivered on the reality.

But, this article in Wall Street Journal describes the use of Google Glass as the essential tourist companion, able to let you research your activities ahead of time, and get information of any type as the need or desire strikes. Imagine being face to face with the Acropolis in Greece, wondering about a particular column design, and spending a minute or two on taking a photo and comparing images online to get a detailed background on the work.

But I think that the bad outweighs the good here. I caught the travel bug later in life, courtesy of my many conference speaking activities. I’ve been fortunate to mostly avoid the usual tourist hubs in favor of secondary but perhaps more colorful locales. I’ve done a few guided tours, and paid an extra few bucks once or twice for the self-guided audio tours.

The audio tours, which might be uncharitably compared to a poor man’s Google Glass, fall flat. They are mostly boring and difficult to sync up with what you are actually seeing. Guided tours are uneven; if the group is small and homogeneous, they can be fun and informative; large and diverse groups tend to be distracting.

But when you’re a tourist, what you really need to do is, well, talk to people. My collaborator Gerie Owen and I had just arrived in Tallinn, Estonia a few weeks ago, and after registering for our conference (Nordic Testing Days) went out to walk around. We happened to stumble up to Toompea Tower, adjacent to the Parliament Building, which just happened to be open to the public (35 people at a time, the old stone stairs were so narrow). While in line, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman, who told us that he was last there on the day Estonia declared independence from the old Soviet Union. You can’t buy such an impromptu conversation for any price.

Experiencing new places involves a combination of seeing things, understanding what you are seeing, and integrating the cultural perspective. Google Glass can play a minor role in a part of that, but it also risks crowding out the actual experiences of being there. We might be too busy engaging searches for similar sites, or nearby restaurants, or just about anything other than where we are and what we are doing at the moment.

I think there is a heck of a lot of value in what Google Glass has to offer society in general. But I also think it will be far too easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

And sorry about the title to this post; it was just too precious to pass up.

Can Our Shopping Cards Save Our Lives? March 17, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
add a comment

I’m a bit of a throwback when it comes to certain applications of technology.  In addition to not using Facebook, I don’t have supermarket rewards cards, or even use a credit or debit card at the supermarket.  My reasoning for the latter is simple – I would prefer not to have the supermarket chain know what I’m eating.  I realize that I may be giving up coupons or other special deals by not identifying myself, but I’m willing to accept that tradeoff.  It’s not a big deal either way, but it’s how I prefer to make that particular life decision.

But now there seems to be better reasons to use your supermarket reward card – according to this NBCNews.com article, it may save your life.  Really.

The story goes something like this.  When there is a known food contamination, health officials can see who bought that particular food, and approach those people individually, rather than send out vague alerts that not everyone sees or hears.

Count me as dubious.  This is really a sort of pie-in-the-sky application of Big Data that people can dream up when they picture the potential of the data itself.  It would take weeks to reach all of the buyers of a particular contaminated product, even if you could match all of the different systems and databases together somehow.  By then, the scare would have run its course.

The reality is that such data is stored in hundreds or thousands of different systems, without any means of pulling them together, let alone using it to query on a specific product across millions of purchases.

And then, of course, there are people like me, who still insist on dealing in cash, and remaining somewhat anonymous.  Although they could take my photo in the supermarket, and rather quickly match it up to my other identified photos on the Internet, where I am well known as a speaker and writer.

The idea is intriguing, but it falls into the same tradeoff as many other applications of technology in society today.  We can do things to make ourselves safer, but at the cost of providing more information.  Some don’t seem to have a problem with the latter, but I, in my doddering middle age, do.

My Cell Phone Becomes Useful February 24, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Since cell phones are actually computers these days, this title is slightly misleading.  But I am done having to work around the limitations of my old and flawed device.  This started a couple of days ago.  Actually, it started much longer ago.  My old HTC Merge, a US Cellular phone, had a very limited ability to actually make and receive calls at my home, in southern New Hampshire.  I generally couldn’t make calls from most places in the house, and when I could, it indicated that the phone was roaming.

But my problem was that the phone stopped making or accepting calls at all.  Instead, I got a message indicating that the phone was tethered to no network.  Almost three hours on technical support over two days with US Cellular led to a belief on their part that it was due to a switch on a nearby Sprint network.  I was asked on multiple occasions how long I had been outside of the local coverage area (not at all).

I finally hoped that a new phone would solve my problem.  The salesman at the local US Cellular store took one look at my Merge and said that it was a problem with the phone; specifically that the antenna wasn’t working properly.  I came away half an hour later with a new Motorola Electrify 2, running Ice Cream Sandwich.  It works so much better, it’s not even funny.

There are a few things that I learned here.  First, don’t trust technical support, even if they sound like they know what your problem is.  Try to confirm independently.  Had I not contacted a separate support group through Twitter who offered me different advice, it would not have occurred to me to get a new phone.

Second, if things with your gadget or software don’t seem right, they probably aren’t.  In retrospect, the old phone never worked properly within my local coverage area, and I should have recognized that.  I was fooled into thinking that roaming was my normal mode of operation, because it is when I travel, and even when at home I’m at the edge of the local coverage area.

Last, don’t accept substandard performance from your gadgets.  They are better than that today.

I May Need a Kindle February 15, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software platforms.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

I don’t have anything against a Kindle.  Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore, the Kindles generally get decent reviews, and the company has released its ebook format so that others can adopt it.

The latter, of course, was my biggest concern about Kindle and Amazon, and it’s been over a year, and I’m seeing an increasing number of sites (I mean you, Gutenberg Project) making out-of-copyright books available in the format for free download.

I have a Barnes and Noble superstore down the street, and while I don’t browse that much anymore, there is a certain comfort in knowing that I still can.

But more and more interesting books are coming out in electronic, rather than paper form.  And more and more are coming out on the Kindle first, and ePub later, if at all.  I have already bought one book that is only available on a Kindle, and am considering two others.

I suppose I can get a tablet, and use the Kindle reader.  For the Kindle books I have bought so far, that’s what I do, on my laptop.  But I’m unready to commit to a tablet, wanting to see a little more maturity in the market before I make a selection (it probably won’t be an iPad; I just can’t see buying into the Apple ecosystem).

But I fear that this trend portends larger issues for Nook, and Barnes and Noble in general.  Authors are increasingly going to ebook formats only.  That’s a good thing, because it’s increasingly difficult to get a paper book published without going the self-publishing route.  There is nothing inherently wrong with self-publishing, but it does mean that authors are also their own marketers and publicists, which most would prefer not to do.

For those who are seeking an inexpensive way of getting interesting work out to a small audience, the ebook is a natural.  But there is a cost and time commitment to place an ebook in multiple formats on multiple reading platforms.  Some authors prefer supporting a single platform only.  Given that Amazon and Kindle have the majority of sales and readers (65 percent?  I’ve heard various figures that give about two-thirds to Amazon, slightly less than 30 percent to Nook, and a smattering elsewhere.), authors want their works to reach that majority.

As more individual authors make the decision to support the most popular platform, more readers will move to that platform.  There will always likely be a place for an alternative, but the best and most interesting work will appear on Kindle, and readers will follow them.

Does Blackberry Stand a Chance? January 30, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
add a comment

I don’t spend a lot of time and money with smartphone technologies.  It’s simply too easy to go down a black hole in expense and time with gadgets like that.  When I finally upgraded to a smartphone, in 2009, I got a Blackberry, mostly because I already had one in my job at the time.

The Blackberry of that time wasn’t all positive.  When the network went down, for hours or in a couple of cases days, I felt for the loss of instant email.  Web browsing was possible, and I did it occasionally, but using the Blackberry button as a pointing device was painful.

When I needed a phone upgrade, about two years ago, my requirement was for a world phone due to my occasional travel in Europe, and my carrier offered two choices – a Blackberry or an HTC Android device.  After pondering the question, I decided to go with the Android.

Now we have the Blackberry Z10 (not available in the US until March, and probably longer than that for my second-tier carrier).  It sounds very good at a high level, and most analysts and reviews are giving it good marks.

What Blackberry really had in the past was an app problem.  I went to one of their developer conferences, circa 2009, and talked to some developers.  There were one or more groups within RIM that encouraged developers to build apps for the still-robust platform, and provided tools and interfaces to do so.  And when those apps were completed, they were systematically shot down by RIM’s legal department.  Talk about a bait and switch!

Nevertheless, Blackberry still has a lot going for it today.  It has loyal enterprise users and IT departments (my small employer still runs a Blackberry Enterprise Server).  The independent network, despite occasional well-publicized outages, is a huge advantage, far better than anything available from anyone else.  And it has QNX, the OS vendor RIM acquired to build the Blackberry 10 operating system.  QNX is a POSIX-compliant multi-tasking OS that is small, fast, and, well, inherently multi-tasking.  You can actually run multiple apps on your phone simultaneously, and do so easily and transparently.

The battle for third (and likely last) place in the smartphone platform wars is between Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Phone.  It’s difficult to predict these things, because it comes down to so much more than technology.  Preston Gralla says the Windows Phone will win entirely because Microsoft has the bigger ecosystem.  But Microsoft has had a phone OS years longer than Apple or Google, and look at what that ecosystem has bought it.  Nothing.

But in a partially technical but primarily emotional response, I hope Blackberry wins.

And yes, I am currently interviewing for employment at Microsoft.  Go figure.

Testing and the Black Swan January 6, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
Tags: , ,

I noted in a post a few days ago that complex systems are subject to what are known as Black Swan events. We think of Black Swan events as very rare, requiring a complex set of circumstances to occur in order for a disaster to happen.

That’s fallacious reasoning. A Black Swan event happens not because of an unusual sequence of events, but because the corresponding system is complex, and has multiple unknown points of failure. It’s not out of our control, just out of our conception. And the events are “fat tail” ones; not a traditional Gaussian normal curve, but a flattened one, with a lot of probability in tail events.

I was speaking to my friend Jim Farley on this topic last night. He asked (no, demanded) that I distinguish between a complex system, where you can with sufficient foresight conceive of and control outcomes, and a chaotic one, which is highly dependent upon initial conditions and largely unpredictable if those conditions aren’t known.

His intent was to separate natural disasters from the definition. I’m not sure that the distinction is a worthwhile one to make, as the results seem more a matter of degree than a hard difference.

Can complex interrelated systems be tested? Not completely, of course; we don’t even completely test software that is very well defined. But what we need to do is to get away from the idea that catastrophic failures occur due to a complex sequence of highly unlikely events, and instead acknowledge that a complex system simply has a lot of points of failure.

This type of testing is similar to testing safety-critical software, where your goal is to map out the failure points and determine how best to make it fail. That’s a very different way that how testers tend to work with software, which is usually quite methodical and planned. The problem is that most failures are catastrophic and unplanned (how can you plan a failure?).

James Bach talks about the Buccaneer Tester in his blog (actually, buccaneer scholar, but I’m being selective). While his point is much broader, I’d like to focus on the part of the buccaneer that takes measured risks for a high reward. We would like someone who thoroughly abuses our software, and risks ridicule and even censure as a result. But that person is more likely to understand the boundaries under which our software operates.

And in general it helps to think out of the box. You want someone to do what any user may try, without fear that it isn’t covered in the spec or even conceived of as an error. Most testers are very much in the box. When looking at what can go wrong with a complex system, it’s important to both understand all of the individual components of that system, as well as what might happen outside of the system but within its ecosystem.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 377 other followers