|Written June 25, 2008 for SearchWinDevelopment.com|
I met a traveler from an antique landI sincerely hope that Bill Gates' legacy is yet to be created, because what passes for common wisdom about his contributions to the computer industry will either fade from memory or be relegated to the arcana of business scholarship.
Readers may raise Microsoft as an objection to my argument. My trite reply is: Thomas Watson and Google. The former built a computing colossus but has faded from everyday IT awareness faster than most would have predicted. The latter is the current darling, a young star yet to experience the ravages of success and time.
People talk about the "genius" of Bill Gates. I find this an overly fawning accolade when I compare him to Einstein, Feynman, Hawking and their (rare) ilk. There is no "Gates algorithm" left for computer scientists to ponder. Yet, he was an unequivocal business success. Is there a different dimension of perception or behavior that warrants the genius label when applied to his accomplishments in the industry?
Maybe. Unlike Einstein's quest for a theory of general relativity, Gates had plenty of competitors racing to make small computers pervasive. But he came from a socio-economic background that enabled him to aggressively follow his dream. He had family connections that put him in contact with the highest levels at IBM at the time when the IBM PC was being developed. He had the great sense to say "yes" when IBM asked if his company had an operating system for their fledging PC. He was, shall we say, shrewd, in his acquisition of MS-DOS. He was equally shrewd in his proposal to IBM that allowed Microsoft to resell DOS to IBM's competitors. And he was triply shrewd when he convinced PC manufacturers to pay for DOS regardless of its residence on their PC products. The fact that the U.S. Justice Department was asleep at the switch during this period made this last move ultimately effective for Microsoft's development. If this be the definition of business genius, then Bill qualifies in spades.
IBM is hailed as a company that recovered from the brink of death, a place where many feel Microsoft, at current course and speed, could be headed. IBM's recovery only happened after a parade of less-than-capable CEOs drove its Board to bring on the highly-capable Lou Gerstner. Perhaps Microsoft has not had enough CEOs to develop a corporate sense of what defines inadequacy at the top. Therefore, I suggest another candidate for Bill's biggest failing is his long-standing and apparently continued support for Microsoft's current CEO.
Where my respect for Bill Gates is unbounded is in his decision to use almost his entire fortune for the common good. Unlike so many Silicon Valley "successes" who seem to require personal fulfillment by recreating Japanese palaces or building ever-larger sailboats, Bill's actions in the future could make a real difference in the lives of millions of people and the planet we all share. That legacy might endure.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Monday / Tuesday
I awoke to clouds. Since another call to the hotel had been made, I was eager to check on the hot water situation. There was some progress – I had hot water in my sink. I wondered if there was a Hindu god of hot water I could appeal to as I took yet another chilly shower.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
When I first heard about the aforementioned tail used to describe the impending cornucopia of digital goods promised by the Internet, I had some nagging doubts. Perhaps it was my usual reaction to hyperbole, but it might have had something to do with ignored economic realities. Wikipedia captures the problem concisely:
"Given a large enough availability of choice, a large population of customers, and negligible stocking and distribution costs, the selection and buying pattern of the population results in a power law distribution curve, or Pareto distribution."
In physical inventories, there is a cost of maintaining a stock of anything. This comprises the cost of the space to house the good and any environmental treatment to maintain it. Then add in the cost of accessing it, packaging it and delivering it (what we all complain about when we see "shipping and handling").
For digital goods, these costs may be lower, but they are not zero. There is the cost of space on a storage medium, and the cost of power to keep that medium active and the bits accessible. Movement to non-rotating storage will reduce the holding cost, but not the access costs. There may be packaging costs (licensing a particular format), and there are delivery costs (currently implicitly, and asymmetrically, shared by consumers and producers, a topic for another post). For most suppliers, these costs are hard to make explicit because consumers assume that bits are free.
As the NYT article points out, digital inventory ages, but in a different way than physical inventory. Bits generally don't become obsolete, but their media, formats and environments do. This is a much more insidious problem than rotting fruit, which can be replaced by a like copy with full confidence that human mouths have not changed. In fact, the aggregate cost of transcoding and migration to current media can make the real cost of older digital content prohibitively expensive, if the price reflects true cost. The only other option is for the vendor to eat the fixed cost and suffer reduced margins.
Even if this is possible, the bits may not be useable in the current environment. I recently threw away a few hundred CDs of "educational" software that were perfectly readable, but also perfectly useless because it was not economical to recreate the operating system environment they demanded. If I were a vendor, it would be just as silly to keep these CDs in stock, except as drink coasters. More likely I would trash them, and their ripped and rotating counterparts.
Today, if you hear someone gushing about digital content enabling "the long tail", you are probably listening to someone who has never had to manage inventory to make a profit. I would put the long tail diagram in the same category as the Laffer curve - something that looks nice on a napkin, and would be great if only it worked in the real world.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
A quick trip to the Merriam OnLine dictionary reveals:
1. an act or instance of traveling from one place to another
2. chiefly dialect : a day's travel
3. something suggesting travel or passage from one place
I suspect that the third definition is what is mostly meant by people using the word, but I have encountered situations where the "urgent internal communications journey" fit the second.
In any case, the management consulting world has convinced many people to use the word journey instead of the word mission. This must stop.
Again, from Merriam:
1. an act or instance of sending
2a. a ministry commissioned by a religious organization
to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work
b. assignment to or work in a field of missionary enterprise
c1. a mission establishment
2. a local church or parish dependent on a larger religious
organization for direction or financial support
d. plural : organized missionary work
e. a course of sermons and services given to convert the
unchurched or quicken Christian faith
3. a body of persons sent to perform a service or carry on
an activity: as
a : a group sent to a foreign country to conduct diplomatic or
b : a permanent embassy or legation
c : a team of specialists of cultural leaders sent to
a foreign country
4a. a specific task with which a person or a group is charged
b1. a definite military, naval, or aerospace task
2. a flight operation of an aircraft or spacecraft in the
performance of a misison
c. a preestablished and often self-imposed objective or purpose
5. calling, vocation
Given these definitions, journey seems to be a much friendlier word, without the nasty semantic baggage of task and the implied related concepts of goals, schedules, risks and resistance. I can only surmise that its users are either Orwellian, or subconsciously replacing mission with journey to gain popular support with the troops because they themselves can't deal with the notion of a mission.
Journeys are pleasant, mostly, and non life- or career-threatening, mostly. The endpoint is usually known, and easily accessible because some prior explorer or pioneer (likely on a mission) has found and documented the route.
Missions, on the other hand, are laden with risk. While the goal may be defined, there is no guarantee that it can be achieved. There are often obstacles (ranging from hostile natives to uncooperative department heads) between the team and the goal. The cost of failure is usually more than moaning about a non-refundable ticket.
Which of the two sounds more like the effort to promote SOA in a large enterprise?
So the next time some managers start talking about a journey, tell them to call a travel agent.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
But recently I've been spending time around non-IT folks, specifically, people involved in start-up life sciences and biotechnology ventures. Their perspectives on intellectual property issues are very different than my experience in IT. Thinking about the current state of these two different worlds has caused me to imagine what might happen to both if they proceed at their current course and speed.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. These opinions are my own and if you get harmed by taking them as gospel, then shame on you.
For software, the patent system has become so unwieldy as to be useless. Many have opined on this. It is currently almost impossible to write a new line of code that doesn't infringe on some software patent somewhere. I don't think that's what Jefferson intended.
Patents were written into the Constitution to promote the development of new ideas by providing a government-granted monopoly for a fixed period, after which the ideas would pass into the public domain. We as a country benefited from the advancement of knowledge, and inventors benefited from the fruit of their labors. Life was good.
But life then was also slow. The pace of technology development was slow enough that a 17-year patent lifetime made sense. Moreover, the target environment of a technology improvement was also slow to change. Prior to the PTO's allowance of software patents, the target environment was mostly the physical world (we are excepting design patents from this discussion). Our physical world changes slowly enough that 17 (or now 20, to sync up with the rest of the world) patent lifetimes made sense. For example, a drug providing a certain therapeutic benefit in humans is likely to provide that same benefit 20 years hence - evolution just doesn't work that fast.
Things are really different in the world of software. There is no physical world target, just a physical embodiment of an abstract computing machine. Any software technology makes assumptions about the state of development of all of the layers of abstraction all the way down to the hardware abstraction layer. Each of these layers is not subject to any natural law governing its rate of change. Depending on market conditions, each layer is constantly evolving at different, yet increasingly rapid rates.
Ultimately, hardware needs to be built to instantiate the lowest layer of abstraction. This hardware is subject to physical laws. Back in the day, the pace of electronics development was leisurely enough that 17 years was a generation. We can argue about the actual pace of electronics development today, but I don't expect anyone to claim that the pace is slower than it was when ENIAC roamed the earth.
So, with electronics and software technology driving sub-two year product cycles and 3-5 year total technology refreshes, how are new ideas promoted by granting inventors 20 years of monopoly on novel, useful and non-obvious inventions with a 3-5 year utility? It's plain that patent owners benefit, but it can be argued that the rate of innovation might actually slow as the effort and resources required to navigate the patent minefield overwhelm the effort and resources required for invention.
Intellectual property lawyers have added to the problem. Since discovering this fertile yet unplowed ground, an army of lawyers has built careers around patent law. Smart litigators have made large sums in the courts, which has attracted more litigators and has also driven corporations to get better at playing defense. But the resulting friction loss for individual companies and industries is considerable, measured in both cash and time. I built a successful, innovative software company in the 80's without filing a single software patent. This was partially out of my belief that they were wrong, but, more importantly, my corporate counsel did not think that they would increase the chances of successfully executing our corporate strategy. Today, I would be advised that a multi-million dollar IP program might not be sufficient. Is that really progress?
Many others are asking questions like the ones posed above, and I suspect that we are on a slow trajectory toward changes in patent law that sharply restrict the number and kind of software patents granted. At least I hope so.
Regardless of the patent situation, in my IT world the game was always about getting to revenue and profitability in a 3-5 year timeframe and an expense of $5M to $10M, plus or minus. Today, web startups can get farther on less, for reasons that could be the subject of another discussion.
As I am learning, the world of life sciences and biotech is way different. Although revenue and profitability are still goals, the expense of research and development is generally much higher and there is the added fun of government approvals and clinical trials. It is not unusual to spend $500M and take 10 years to get a drug to market. The good news is that successful drugs can generate billions of dollars at fat margins. If you think of the market as a casino,IT startups are the $5 blackjack table and this stuff is baccarat.
In this world, patents matter a lot more than in IT. They represent an option on success, which can have substantial value before a company delivers dollar one of revenue. It is the rare IT startup that gets bought for big bucks while its product is still in development, but it is common for drug startups to be bought before Stage III trials are complete. The selling company bases a substantial part of its value on its IP portfolio, and the buyer is willing to pay for monopoly power in a market segment for a period long enough to generate substantial returns.
When patents in the life sciences area are for things like medical devices or molecules, they fit snugly into the patent framework established hundreds of years ago. Unlike IT, medical devices or drugs have a relatively stationary target, i.e. animals or humans (there are some interesting exceptions, like HIV/AIDS and fast-mutating bacteria, but hold that thought for a paragraph). So a long patent life allowing recovery of enormous development expense seems to make more sense in this world than in IT.
But when I hear people in this world talk about things like genomics, custom sequenced DNA, designer drugs and synthetic biology, I hear "software". The ultimate instantiation might be a molecule or cell, but, to manage complexity, layers of abstraction are being developed and ideas are being captured and manipulated at these higher levels. This is analogous to a Java program ultimately executing on an iPhone. Only the hardware is different.
If patent law changes to reflect 50 years of development in IT result in shorter-lived or substantially diminished monopolies for software, and life sciences technologies start to look more and more like software, then it's going to be hard to argue that they should be treated differently, unless patent law further changes to explicitly consider development costs, which could result in different lifetimes for patents in different fields.
Given the glacial nature of changes to the patent system, it is not unreasonable to consider this may be the "golden age" of IP law for life sciences and biotech. There could be substantial turbulence ahead.
Second, the title describes my outlook fairly well. I am basically an optimist, but my Roman Catholic upbringing tempered with some Jesuit education adds a lovely frisson as guilt and cynicism duke it out for outlook-tempering rights in my daily life.
Third, I've done a lot of stuff, been a lot of places, and like to keep busy doing things rather than writing about them. However, my current situation affords me the luxury of time to respond to numerous requests in the manner of "hey, you should write a blog".
So, what the hell. Stay tuned.