Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Standards and rent seeking behavior

Rent-seeking behavior is defined by economists as behavior intending to gain competitive advantage by manipulating the environment to your benefit, rather than through profiting from production of goods and services. An example of this would be if a company X managed to get a law passed specifying that all goods purchased by the government must comply with ISO standard 3.052345.32431, where company X happens to hold a critical patent on the technology in that ISO standard. In this case company X is profiting not because they produced goods and services, but, rather, because they manipulated the environment (got a law passed) which says that everybody wanting to do business with the government must pay rent (patent fees) to company X.

William Vambenepe complains that cloud standards are being created in a secretive manner. He complains that this means that those of us actually implementing cloud computing software are being locked out of the process. And this is true. Yet this is not unusual. Why? Well, because there are certain large corporations who, for some reason, still believe that rent-seeking behavior is useful when it comes to the standards process -- i.e., that, as with creating a law dictating that everybody pay rent to them, that they can set a standard that dictates that everybody pays rent to them.

Let me explain: The more complex the standard (and the more BigCorp-patented technologies included in it of course!), the more resources it will take to fully implement it. The goal is to make the resources and patent licenses needed to fully implement the standard so onerously huge that only large organizations will have the resources to do so, meaning they are the only ones who are “standards-compliant” and they can slam any potential upstart competitors as not being “standards-compliant”. Not going to name names here, but I’ll just point out that simpler standards tend to drive out the more complex standards, thereby leaving the big companies high and dry with a product that nobody wants to buy. Has anybody here used the complex X.25 protocol lately? What, you’re using the simpler TCP/IP protocol instead? Exactly.

Which points out why rent-seeking behavior is invariably self-defeating when it comes to standards. Unlike compliance with the law, compliance with standards is generally voluntary. If a standard is too complex or too expensive to implement, people simply won't use it, and a “standard” that nobody uses — or that only customers of a few large corporations use — is hardly a real standard. And keeping the standards discussions secretive is hardly in the best interests of anybody also, it means that real problems with “standards” will be overlooked until the “standard” is actually published, at which point all the effort used to produce the “standard” is useless because nobody will create products that implement the “standard” (thus rendering it *not* a standard). Yet we still see this sort of rent-seeking behavior on the part of certain large corporations that seem convinced that it actually works. Inexplicable…


Friday, February 19, 2010

Is there such a thing as "open source management"?

The Open Source advocates have been talking about how we could apply "open source management" to things other than open source projects. But the question is, does such a thing exist?And my answer is... no. Open Source projects which do not have strong leadership fail. Commercial projects which do not have strong leadership fail. There is no "open source management" in the end, because people are people and software is software. I've been in both situations -- Open Source and commercial -- and software development is software development, in the end.

Any successful software development project of any scale other than a one-off one-person utility has some sort of leadership hierarchy where various people are in charge of various parts of the project and where there's a mechanism to insure that only high-quality code that complies with the general architectural vision of the project makes it into the project. Projects which do not develop this sort of leadership hierarchy fail -- they devolve into squabbles, or their architecture degenerates into such a mess that the project can't be successfully completed without a total re-write from scratch and a reboot. And if the quality of the people who make it into positions of being in charge is low, the project fails too, because the code base turns into a mess of buffer overflows, memory leaks, and unreadable/unfixable spaghetti code and the Object Hierarchy From Heck (the one that has 20 different levels of inheritance to do the simplest tasks, each of which reaches into the internals of its parent class to tweak something or another that it shouldn't be tweaking).

Whether you call these people "managers", "gatekeepers", "leaders", whatever, software development is software development and leadership is leadership. If you have good leadership, your project succeeds. If you don't, it fails, or is so late to market and such a low-performing mess that you might as well don't bother. That's how it's always been, whether Open Source or commercial is irrelevant. The only real difference is that Open Source contributors won't put up with pure BS as is typical in huge corporations. But that sort of BS is not typical in the small startup environment either, which shares a lot in common with Open Source.


And now for a photo of the Linux Penguin Command and Control Center...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Where have all the legends gone?

Back in the early days of the Linux industry, it was pretty easy to know everybody who was everybody. I remember going to the Linux Expo in North Carolina in May 1998, the last year it was run by Red Hat. It was in a small upstairs part of the Student Union of one of the local universities, if I recall correctly, and there were a small handful of vendors selling software and science fiction books. Ted Tso and Linus and Alan Cox and a few others were sitting on a hassock in the lobby outside the conference rooms talking about the ext3 filesystem and how to improve the block cache for the Linux 2.2 kernel, which was scheduled for release shortly, and Richard Stallman... ah, Richard Stallman. He was... RMS. Complete with his saint outfit -- sandals, robe, and halo. Everybody avoided him as if he had fleas in his beard or something. For all I know, he may very well have. Then there was the final keynote, in an auditorium-style classroom (or is that a classroom-style auditorium?), where Linus walks out onto the stage and announced, "I am Linus Torvalds, and I am your god." The audience applauded wildly. Because we were all geeks there, and we got the joke. Today... today, I suspect Linus would get boos from humorless boobs if he tried something like that. Things change, and sometimes not for the better.

Of the vendors who were there -- The Linux Mall (I have one of the very first plush penguins!), Linux Hardware Solutions, Enhanced Software Technologies, VA Linux, DEC, etc. -- very few are still around. That fall Linux was discovered by the big guys -- IBM, Oracle, and so forth -- and everything changed forever. The Atlanta Linux Showcase in October 1998 was a zoo. Comdex in November 1998 was even more of a zoo. The big guys were moving in, and the small cottage industry that was the Linux industry was about to change forever. A few of the little guys survived, but most didn't -- they didn't have the mentality to do what it took to go big, and going big -- going for venture capital, going for IPO, going for a big business model that would have competed with the big guys -- was the only way they could survive without running into a cashflow crunch or into a hard ceiling on what they could do. It simply was not in the skill set of the small cottage industry guys, that wasn't what they did, they ran a conservatively managed business out of a small office-warehouse somewhere, they didn't try to build a huge empire. Unfortunately, cottage industry could not compete. By the end of 2001, most of them were gone, memories the only thing left.

I know what happened to a lot of the people, they have largely moved into other industries or are serving as consultants, marketing managers, or similar for other businesses -- but of the technical people, it's interesting that most of us are still around somewhere hacking on Linux. As for me, I talked to the owner of Linux Hardware Solutions there at Linux Expo and decided to move to North Carolina to work for them. It was a gamble, but it was a gamble that produced enough connections that when LHS folded I could move on elsewhere in the Linux industry into a software engineering role that eventually resulted in my first team leadership role. I spent some time as a nomadic Linux penguin. Now I'm not so nomadic -- I've lived in the same apartment for close to six years, for cryin' out loud -- but sometimes I think back to those early days of the Linux industry, and wonder if we haven't lost something since then, some excitement, some energy, some sheer exuberance that made it a joy to get it up in the morning to create something new and unheard of that had never before existed in the world. Today we're all stuffy professionals, spending our time writing design documents and doing design reviews and managing engineering teams. Then... then we were changing the world. And we did.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

iPad insanity

I suppose that, like every other geek on the planet, I have to talk about the iPad. Okay. I'm underwhelmed. Good enough?

The iPad has two problems: 1) It's too big, I can't fit it into the side pouch of my laptop case or of my carry-on bag. 2) The 10" LCD uses too much power. My little Sony PRS-300 uses e-Ink, which uses power only when you're flipping from one page to the next and allows a 2-week nominal battery life (1 week in actual heavy use). The iPad nominally has a 10 hour battery life, but my experience with my Macbook Pro, which nominally has a 7 hour battery life, says that the iPad will actually have a 7 hour battery life in real-life use -- the nominal battery life is if you have the backlighting turned down to pretty much unreadable levels, and I'm not as young as I was 14 years ago when I was releasing my first Linux product, I can't read things that are so dim anymore.

So the iPad, to me, is like the Apple TV -- a so-so product that might at some point in the future become useful, but right now is a "so what?". I normally carry my Macbook Pro and my iPhone with me when I travel, and maybe the Sony Reader tucked in the side pocket of my laptop case if it's going to be a long trip just so that I don't run out of books to read (hauling that many paper books can get problematic). I just can't see the point of the iPad, at least for me. Maybe if it were an iTampon, a smaller handier more convenient device similar in size to the Kindle, I could "get it", but for now? Too big, too power hungry, too inconvenient.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Convicted monopolist wants RealID for Internet

Yes indeed, Craig Mundie, head of Microsoft Research, wants a "driver's license" for the Internet.

This is the craziest thing I ever heard of. It's estimated that 20% of drivers here in the state of California don't have a driver's license. Despite that, they still drive, even though if they're caught it means their car would be impounded and they'd face possible jail time. But people who are here illegally, have had driving rights removed for legal reasons such as DWI, or whatever, a lot of them choose to drive anyhow despite those risks.

There are no traffic cops on the Internet to stop you and seize your computer if you don't have the proper Internet driver's license, so how the heck would any such thing be enforced? I mean, it's as if Craig Mundie never heard of the fact that Social Security cards, birth certificates, and driver's licenses are regularly forged.

There are a lot of things that can be done to improve Internet security, such as cutting off any ISP that refuses to deal with spam or DOS attacks emanating from its IP addresses. But this? This is a non-starter. Apparently Mr. Mundie still hasn't figured out that not everybody is a law-abiding Microsoftie like he is, and that people will violate the law if they feel that it is in their best interests to do so. I mean, all he has to do is look at his own employer, for cryin' out loud! Where there is a will, there is a way -- even if it requires forgery. If Mr. Mundie's proposal were adopted, the only people who would comply would be law-abiding people, which sort of renders the whole thing useless, don't you think?