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Apple, Your Argument Has Suddenly Become Lame February 25, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Like many, I tend to lean toward the side of Apple in its current travails with the Federal constabulary in cracking a singular iPhone with an eye toward getting information on terrorist networks, in the US and beyond. But your latest legal move has changed my mind.  Let me tell you why.

On the surface, this seems to be a relatively innocuous request to help find out who a terrorist was in contact with. That is a reasonable goal.  But I appreciate Apple’s argument.  Once you let the camel poke his nose into the tent, the rest of the camel will inevitably follow.  That is not meant as disparagement against anyone; rather, it means that once you open a door to a relatively minor exception, that makes larger exceptions inevitable.  And that is true.

And I strongly believe that our law enforcement authorities have become lazy. Sure, there in fact may be information available on many cell phone calls.  Why should I do real police work when I can issue warrants to tech companies?  But instead they are using this as an excuse to not do real police work, the kind of legwork and research for which our constabulary should be justifiably proud in the past.  As a principle, what our constabulary is doing is wrong.

But in legal filings, Apple is now arguing that they are being required to write code to comply with this court order. With that argument, I call bullshit.  Yes, Apple does have to write some code in order to deliver on the search warrant.  Is it a hardship?  Heck (hell) no.  Is it wrong?  I’m sorry, witnesses and even jury members make some significant sacrifices to support what is (mostly) a fair and honest legal system.  Why can’t Apple?  No, why won’t Apple?

A confession. I don’t necessarily have information on all of the technical nuances.  But with the filing that I cite, I don’t think that matters.

I fully realize that this is a legal argument that is relatively divorced from the larger issues within our Constitution. But I’m sorry, if Tim Cook stands in principle for anything at all, he should never have let this argument be advanced in court filings.  You either stand on principle, or you weasel-worm.  Tim Cook and Apple are now weasel-worming.  I don’t like it, and I don’t think they have to.

At this point, I have to strongly disapprove of Apple. And it brought it on itself.

 

Update:  On the other hand . . .

But Comey insists that there are no broad implications of the FBI’s request. It is simply trying to get into this one particular iPhone. But he said the FBI believes that hypothetical scenario to be an unreasonable argument against Apple’s cooperation.

“What if Apple engineers get kidnapped?” Comey asked rhetorically.

I had to certify that I didn’t use illegal drugs before joining the Air Force. I would have thought that the same requirement applied to the head of the FBI.

No AI Cannot Solve the World’s Biggest Problems February 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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‘AI can solve world’s biggest problems’ – Google Brain engineer.

The headline screamed for a response. The type of work being done with Google Brain is impressive.  It relies on neural networks.  Neural networks are cool things.  I was recently reminded by a new LinkedIn connection of the work and writing that I did on neural networks in the 1990s.

Neural networks are exceptionally good algorithms. They use multiple levels of nonlinear equations, running in parallel and serially, that can approximate a given response to a set of data inputs, then adjust the variables so that each successive pass can result in a slightly better approximation (or it may not; that’s just the way nonlinear algorithms work sometimes).

That may sound like just so much gobbledygook, but it’s not. In the 1990s, I used neural networks to design a set of algorithms to power an electronic wind sensor.  In my aborted doctoral research, I was using neural networks to help dynamically determine the most efficient routings through large scale networks (such as the nascent Internet at the time).

Let’s be clear. What I did had nothing to do with the world’s biggest problems.  The world’s biggest problems don’t already have mountains of data that point to the correct answer.  In fact, they rarely, if ever, have correct answers.  What they have is a combination of analysis, guesswork, and the many compromises made by dozens of competing interests.  And they will never result in even close to a best answer.  But sometimes they produce a workable one.

From my own experiences, I came to believe that having an instinctive feel for the nature and behavior of your data gave you a leg up in defining your neural network. And they tended to work best when you could carefully bound the problem domain.  That is hardly the stuff of something that can solve the world’s most difficult problems.

Neural networks can seemingly work magic, but only when you have plenty of data, and already know the right answers to different combinations of that data. And even though, you are unlikely to get the best possible solution.

I’m Talking About You, Uber September 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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The question is what am I talking about. You are so not about a “sharing economy”. Virtually all of your drivers aren’t sharing their daily cars, on their normal day to day business, to accommodate the occasional rider. Instead, they are buying extra cars to turn themselves into the modern equivalent of the taxi driver, without the taxi provided by the company. Calling this the sharing economy is a dangerous misnomer. This is a service, just like a taxi is a service.

But that’s okay, even if you’re not honest about it. At the same time, that’s the drivers’ decisions to make. I don’t think anyone is forcing them into what is essentially a part time business. And most taxi drivers are so-called independent contractors anyway, and are charged by the taxi company for the use of the car.  I am not clear on the economics, but it must work for many.

And certainly the occasional local ride concept was due for some significant disruption. Taxi service is fundamentally stuck in operations that are at least half a century old. It doesn’t work for the consumer any more. Uber works better for the rider (mostly), and can have some advantages for the driver. As well as some disadvantages, depending on decisions made by individual drivers.

The technology makes a difference. You no longer have to call a taxi company; instead, you signal from the app, tell them where you are and where you want to go, and they are generally pretty responsive.

But the technology only enables the work shift you are attempting. My short term guess: you will continue to be pretty successful, because almost everyone who uses taxis also uses smartphones. My long term guess: this is a transitional technology that will be put out of business decisively by the driverless car. I’m sure you’ve thought of that, and are looking to eliminate the middleman; i.e., the driver. This ultimately isn’t a new model for employment, or the so-called sharing economy. You will be first in line for the mass-produced Google car.

I’m not criticizing that, but I am criticizing your fundamental dishonesty in long term goals. You are not about the worker or the so-called sharing economy. You are about the disruption. You continue to lie, but that’s what you’ve done since your inception.

Microsoft Has Lost Its Marketing Mojo August 1, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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I am old enough to remember people standing in line outside of Best Buy at midnight before Windows 95 went on sale. We knew the RTM (release to manufacturing, another anachronism) date by heart, and our favorite PC manufacturers would give us hourly updates on GA (yes, general availability) for their products.

Today, we don’t even know that Windows 10 has been released (Microsoft has said that it may take several weeks to deliver on upgrades and new systems), yet we know the exact date that a new version of iOS hits our devices. I’m searching for a new laptop, and can’t even tell what edition of Windows 10 I might be able to obtain.

This is purely Microsoft’s fault, and it’s sad. It’s sad because the company actually has some very nice products, better than ever I think, yet is at a loss as to how to communicate that to its markets. Windows 10 has gotten some great reviews, and I am loving my Microsoft Band and the Microsoft Health app more each day. But millions of people who have bought the Apple SmartWatch don’t even know that the Band exists.

This failure falls squarely on Microsoft. I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft has failed so miserably, but unless it recognizes this failure and corrects it, there is no long term hope. I can only think that Microsoft believes it is so firmly entrenched in the enterprise that it doesn’t have to worry about any other markets.

I will date myself again, remembering all of the Unix variations and how they believed they were the only solution for enterprise computing. Today, no one is making money off of Unix (although Linux is alive and well, albeit nowhere near as profitable). Unix fundamentally died because of the sheer arrogance of DEC, HP, Sun, and other vendors who believed that the technology was unassailable. It was not, and if you believe otherwise you don’t know the history of your markets, which is yet another failure.

And it also means Microsoft has totally given up on the consumer. I fully expect that there will be no enhancements to the Band, and that it will end-of-life sometime in the foreseeable future. And that too is sad, because consumer tech is driving the industry today. Microsoft was always a participant there, but has given it up as a lost cause.

It’s not a failure of technology. Microsoft never had great technology (although I do believe today it is better than ever). It’s a failure of marketing, something that Microsoft has forgotten how to do.

The Microsoft Band Delivers – Mostly July 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I got a Microsoft Band. I was looking for my next step up in activity wearables, and liked what I read about it on the website. At $200, it is much more than an activity tracker. It includes a GPS, like more expensive sports watches, and integration with your phone provides for the ability to receive notification of calls, text messages, and other phone activity.

When I got it, my first (and pretty much only) disappointment was that it didn’t sync with my phone’s version of Android (4.1.3), supporting only 4.3 and above. My phone wouldn’t allow an upgrade to a supported version. Coincidentally (really), I bought a new phone later in the week, an LG G4, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop).

But the fact of the matter is that the system requirements weren’t clear or obvious, which is a drastic change from older PC-based software. I suppose that it is difficult to deliver or test all phones and OS versions, but this isn’t what I expect from software, even in the era of the smartphone.

But within a couple of days, I came to really like the Band. First, my first night, I received an Amber alert in my area. My phone buzzed, but the Band let me know about it, even including the text message. You can configure it to show incoming calls, texts, and even emails. It’s ease of configurability is really good, much better than most watches or other wearables.  I now depend on it as my first notification of calls if my phone isn’t physically on my person.

And the GPS-based activity tracker is remarkably easy to use and obtain data from. I didn’t read any documentation, yet was able to use it with my running routine within seconds. The results are displayed on the Microsoft Health app, and are exceptionally easy to understand and interpret.

One other minor annoyance – the touch panel simply doesn’t work with a sweaty finger. After a particularly humid run, I attempted to stop my run session, and it simply wouldn’t do so until I dried off my fingers. This limitation may be driven by pure physical reasons, but it makes me think that Microsoft’s user experience (UX) testing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I find it disappointing that Microsoft can deliver a reasonably compelling product, yet not effectively market or promote it. Apple is rumored to have sold around five million iWatches in its first quarter, with very mixed reviews, yet the downloads for Microsoft Health (required to use the Band) in about a full year are under a hundred thousand, at least on Android. I’m not a Microsoft fanboy by any means, but I do acknowledge when it produces good products.

The Microsoft Band is a good product for people who are seeking the next level up from the Fitbit and other low-end devices, and would be useful to many more people than currently use it. I don’t know just when Microsoft ceased being a marketing monster, but it clearly fails with the Band. Make no mistake – the technology and products remain very good, even outside of the PC space, but Microsoft lost its marketing mojo at some point, and doesn’t seem interested in getting it back.

Microsoft, Phone Home July 12, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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I found this article on Computerworld about Microsoft’s retrenchment from Nokia’s phone business a worthwhile read, because of the company’s clear acknowledgment that it should never have spent billions of dollars to be in the handset business. Or, at best, perhaps it should have been, but it didn’t have the will to make a declining acquired business into a successful one.

I was nonplussed at the vitriol spewed in the comments section, personally attacking Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols in more ways than I cared to see. In particular, I was expecting to find an intelligent debate on the merits of his article; instead, it was pretty much of a trashing of his take on the topic.

To be fair, I think I may have hired SJVN for his first freelance assignment, circa 1990. And while the effort over the years was entirely his own, I am proud of the way that he has developed himself into a good and technical journalist in an era where neither quality is respected. Yes, he is a lifelong Linux guy, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy.

And I have to pretty much agree with him. That’s not an anti-Microsoft bias. That’s simply an acknowledgement that, despite spending tens of billions of dollars over a period of well over ten years, Microsoft still seems to lack the ability to commercialize its mobile software technology.

I confess that at one level I don’t understand its problem. Microsoft is technically very good, and in particular I love Cortina. Microsoft does really cool stuff, but outside of the enterprise realm, seems to have lost the will to effectively market.

I will say that a part of the company’s problem is on its obsession with the same look and feel across all devices. Windows on the desktop should never have translated to Windows on the phone. I had the opportunity to use a Microsoft Surface for several months, and while I admire the hardware design, the look and feel is far too crowded for the screen real estate. You may argue that it was intended to use with an external monitor, but it’s mobile, and the UI just doesn’t work for its screen form factor.

But there’s more than that, and I think it is a corporate culture thing, rather than a technology thing. Microsoft as a 100,000+ employee company simply has desktop too embedded into its DNA to pivot to anything else. Perhaps Nadella can change that, over time.

Some of the commenters lump Embedded and CE and Pocket PC and Surface in the same category in an attempt to say that Microsoft has been enormously successful in mobile devices, but that’s at best disingenuous, and at worst delusional.

I’m getting ready to buy about my fifteenth Windows PC (mostly laptops) in the last 20 years. I have mixed opinions of Microsoft’s technology during that time, but it is a necessity for many users (mostly including me). I fully accept Microsoft and its role in computing, but I’m neither a cheerleader nor a detractor.

So, while SJVN’s biases are evident, it is still a worthwhile article. And while the commenters’ biases are even more evident, they do not in any way add to the debate.

A Road Less Taken January 26, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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Among the best jobs that I had in my long and interesting career is the roles of technical evangelist. I’ve had that formal title three times, and have had related roles on other occasions.

As you might expect, a technical evangelist evangelizes, or enthusiastically promotes, a particular technology, product or solution to a wide range of people. They could be C-level executives, or industry thought leaders, managers, tech leads, or individual contributors.

This is done through a number of ways – through articles in industry publications (these days mostly websites), white papers, blog posts, webcasts, podcasts, and screencasts, as well as speaking at user groups and industry conferences.

What good is evangelism? Well, it can play a number of different but interrelated roles. In the places I was an evangelist, it was mostly about brand awareness, with some customer contact for demonstrations and consultation. In other roles, it could serve as a specialized technical resource to help customers solve difficult problems. In still others, it is primarily a technical sales function. The important thing to do is to understand what is expected of the role, and to deliver on those expectations. It sounds simple, but in reality it rarely is.

A little bit about me. I don’t consider myself to be especially outgoing, but I was a university professor for a number of years, and through interest and repetition became a very good public speaker. I learned the art of storytelling through trial and error, and found it to be an effective teaching technique.

I was fortunate enough to receive training in academic instruction through the Air Force, and found that I had a knack for relating to my audiences. I found that I loved the travel and interaction with experts, peers, and students of the field. I would like to think that I built brand awareness very well.

The downside of being an evangelist is that many technology companies are ambivalent about the role. I worked for a company that had twenty evangelists, then systematically dismantled the team in order to look attractive for an exit strategy. In doing so, they may have sacrificed long term growth for a short term balance sheet.

Yet it is an exciting and fulfilling role. I hope to be able to get back into it at some point.

Of Apps and Men December 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Software tools.
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Fair warning – I am eventually going to say more about Uber. The apps business is an interesting one, and some historical context is necessary to understand just why. In the PC era, we typically paid hundreds of dollars for individual applications. As a result, we would buy only a few of them. And we would use those applications only when we were seated in front of our computers. The software business was the application, and selling it made the business.

In the smartphone/tablet era, however, apps are essentially free, or at worst cost only a few bucks. People are using more apps, and using them for longer periods of time than we ever did on the PC.

But that still doesn’t quite make the bottom line sing. I mention Uber above because of its recent valuation of $41 billion, at a time when the entire annual taxi revenue of the US is $11 billion. The standard line by the VCs is that it will transform all of surface transportation as more and more people use Uber, even rather than their own cars.

I don’t buy that argument, but that is a tale for another day. But the message, I think, is fundamentally correct. The message is that you don’t build a business on an app. You will never make money, at least not sustainable money, from the app. Rather, the app is the connection to your business. You use the app simply as another connection to your products or services, or as a connection to an entirely new type of business.

But today, you are not going to use and app to build a business that was the standard fare of the software industry only a few years ago.

The corollary, of course, is that almost every business will need its own app, sooner or later.  That represents a boon for developers.

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