Author's Archive

Only Messi Can Save Us Now

messi

What’s wrong with this picture? It’s 2012, cheap broadband is ubiquitous in the developed world, and TV still isn’t dead. In fact it’s thriving. Sure, for the first time ever, Nielsen says more people watch videos on the Internet than on a TV–albeit barely–but if you look at how much time is spent on the two, there’s no comparison: TV utterly dominates. Which explains why, again according to Nielsen, more money is spent on TV advertising than all other ad platforms combined.

A few doomsayers say the TV industry “may be starting to collapse” and that excessive production costs are its weak spot. Yeah, if only. Television as constituted today makes no sense at all; it’s a kludged-up legacy system that’s enormously painful and expensive to maintain. But TV’s entrenched economic interests and cultural inertia are so pathological that even HBO GO wouldn’t make sense as a standalone app–as HBO confirms–and the rumors of a brand-new Apple TV ecosystem were, alas, dead wrong. Sure, YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu are mighty powers in their own right, but if even nigh-omnipotent Apple has given up, what hope do they have?

Funny you should ask. I just happen to have an answer.

For starters, they could ask Rupert Murdoch, who singlehandedly disrupted the TV industry in the 1990s, when it was even more powerful. He’s a man not without his flaws–when Dennis Potter, the great British TV writer, was diagnosed with cancer, he named it “Rupert”–but in the mid-1990s he defeated the invincible Goliaths of television in both the USA and the UK with a mighty sling named sports.

Many, many techies are virulently anti-sports. Maybe that’s why so many of us don’t realize their importance. But where sports fans lead, the viewing public will follow. That’s what Murdoch proved with Fox in the USA and Sky in the UK. I’m (mostly) a huge sports fan, and take it from me, live Internet sports video coverage is terrible–most of the time. But two years ago I caught a glimpse of how great it could be: when I was living in Canada, the CBC streamed every single game of the World Cup live, free-to-air, in high quality. It was terrific. But until that kind of sports programming is regularly available on the Internet, cutting the cord will simply not be an option for hundreds of millions of people.

Netflix and YouTube are pouring money into original programming, but instead they should have gone hunting for the biggest elephants of all: the NFL (in America) and European Champions League (elsewhere). Alas, in December the NFL re-upped its TV deals until 2022. The deals “will ensure the NFL will stay on free television for another 11 years”–meaning the NFL will stay on television for another 11 years, and we’ll be stuck with these antediluvian legacy “networks” and “channels” for at least that long. O disintermediation, where is thy sting?

But America is not the world. Elsewhere, it’s soccer that matters, and the Champions League rights are only being sold for three years at a time. Some TV entity or another will win them this time around, but maybe, come 2015, YouTube will splash out and buy those rights, and knock the TV industry right on its ear. One can hope. I look forward to one day watching Lionel Messi‘s magic as shown by a 21st Century industry rather than a 20th Century dinosaur.

Image credit: thesportreview.com



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

June 23rd

Uncategorized

Notes From The Ebook Trenches

trenches

I keep a close and interested eye on the world of ebooks, and I’m pleased to report that it keeps getting weirder. British supermarket chain Sainsbury – who I worked for once, helping to program a new payroll system for a few months, until they scrapped the whole project – recently bought HMV’s share in ebook hub Anobii for a whopping, er, one pound. (Americans: that’s about $1.50.) Huh?

Meanwhile, HarperCollins announced its “HarperCollins 360” global publishing program, which at first I thought was them taking a page from the music industry’s post-Napster ‘360 deals‘ — but no; on sober second thought it has nothing to do with those except for name. Instead it’s an attempt to make all of their English-language books available to all English-language readers. I know, I know: they’re only doing this now? Just as ebook revenue exceeds that of hardcovers? Ah, publishing.

Meanwhiler, Startup Weekend founder and semi-vagabond Andrew Hyde Kickstartered, wrote, and self-published a travel book called “This Book Is About Travel,” and then discovered that Amazon was marking up its digital delivery fees to the tune of an estimated 129,000%. Nice margin if you can get it.

But the rest of us, well, not so much. Here are some cold hard numbers from Amazon for yours truly, for the first half of this month:

That’s after I made a few of my books free for a couple of days under Amazon’s Kindle Select program. Which requires you to publish your books exclusively on Kindle, incidentally. I was content to do, since my iBooks sales were more or less nonexistent — but it’s really unclear how this works with my having previously released all these books under a Creative Commons license. I suspect the notion of authors giving away their books in perpetuity seems so weird to Amazon that it never really occurred to them.

What Amazon thinks matters. They remain the big dog of the book industry. The Kindle has dwindled from a vast majority to a small minority of Hyde’s sales — as he puts it, “Kindle Sales Vanish When Users Know About Their Fees To Authors” — but that’s a special case. With ebooks, at least in the USA, Amazon’s Kindle is dominant and everything else is irrelevant. Which ain’t necessarily so bad; some self-published authors are making a pretty good living off the Kindle ecosystem.

Not me, obviously, but I still find the above chart cheering: close to twenty thousand downloads of my novels Invisible Armies and Night of Knives in two days, with zero publicity. But of course virtually no one went on to actually buy the books. At least I have a lucrative software job; but just so you know, a lot of people who write really good books are in such dire financial shape that they may never be able to afford to take the time to write another..

What irritates me most, though, is that I’d like to make these books available for free forever…but of course Amazon won’t allow it. And again, they’re the big dog. Twenty thousand downloads in two days; that’s more than all my books combined get in a full month on Feedbooks. And I only just cracked Amazon’s Top 40 Free Books bestseller list.

I’m convinced that in the long run we’ll move to business models where paying for a book (or song, or video) is accepted as a) strictly voluntary b) often something you do after reading/hearing/viewing it. For the record, I view this as more inevitable than desirable, but I also think that this will ultimately be good for artists–as long as we can get the reading/listening/watching masses to accept this cultural shift, and to voluntarily choose to pay for the things they enjoy, sometimes after they’ve enjoyed them.

That will not be easy. And it’s not being made any easier by the existing entrenched business models fighting voluntary payment tooth and nail. By doing so they’re inadvertently teaching a vast audience of consumers that paying for books, music, and TV is something you only do if/when you have no choice in the matter. Call me a crazed idealist, but I think that instead we need to convince consumers that they need to pay money because that’s what supports the storytelling they want; and I fear the entertainment industries of the world will eventually find that what feels like hanging on tooth and nail actually means slowly gnawing their own limbs off.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

June 16th

Uncategorized

Notes From The Ebook Trenches

trenches

I keep a close and interested eye on the world of ebooks, and I’m pleased to report that it keeps getting weirder. British supermarket chain Sainsbury – who I worked for once, helping to program a new payroll system for a few months, until they scrapped the whole project – recently bought HMV’s share in ebook hub Anobii for a whopping, er, one pound. (Americans: that’s about $1.50.) Huh?

Meanwhile, HarperCollins announced its “HarperCollins 360” global publishing program, which at first I thought was them taking a page from the music industry’s post-Napster ‘360 deals‘ — but no; on sober second thought it has nothing to do with those except for name. Instead it’s an attempt to make all of their English-language books available to all English-language readers. I know, I know: they’re only doing this now? Just as ebook revenue exceeds that of hardcovers? Ah, publishing.

Meanwhiler, Startup Weekend founder and semi-vagabond Andrew Hyde Kickstartered, wrote, and self-published a travel book called “This Book Is About Travel,” and then discovered that Amazon was marking up its digital delivery fees to the tune of an estimated 129,000%. Nice margin if you can get it.

But the rest of us, well, not so much. Here are some cold hard numbers from Amazon for yours truly, for the first half of this month:

That’s after I made a few of my books free for a couple of days under Amazon’s Kindle Select program. Which requires you to publish your books exclusively on Kindle, incidentally. I was content to do, since my iBooks sales were more or less nonexistent — but it’s really unclear how this works with my having previously released all these books under a Creative Commons license. I suspect the notion of authors giving away their books in perpetuity seems so weird to Amazon that it never really occurred to them.

What Amazon thinks matters. They remain the big dog of the book industry. The Kindle has dwindled from a vast majority to a small minority of Hyde’s sales — as he puts it, “Kindle Sales Vanish When Users Know About Their Fees To Authors” — but that’s a special case. With ebooks, at least in the USA, Amazon’s Kindle is dominant and everything else is irrelevant. Which ain’t necessarily so bad; some self-published authors are making a pretty good living off the Kindle ecosystem.

Not me, obviously, but I still find the above chart cheering: close to twenty thousand downloads of my novels Invisible Armies and Night of Knives in two days, with zero publicity. But of course virtually no one went on to actually buy the books. At least I have a lucrative software job; but just so you know, a lot of people who write really good books are in such dire financial shape that they may never be able to afford to take the time to write another..

What irritates me most, though, is that I’d like to make these books available for free forever…but of course Amazon won’t allow it. And again, they’re the big dog. Twenty thousand downloads in two days; that’s more than all my books combined get in a full month on Feedbooks. And I only just cracked Amazon’s Top 40 Free Books bestseller list.

I’m convinced that in the long run we’ll move to business models where paying for a book (or song, or video) is accepted as a) strictly voluntary b) often something you do after reading/hearing/viewing it. For the record, I view this as more inevitable than desirable, but I also think that this will ultimately be good for artists–as long as we can get the reading/listening/watching masses to accept this cultural shift, and to voluntarily choose to pay for the things they enjoy, sometimes after they’ve enjoyed them.

That will not be easy. And it’s not being made any easier by the existing entrenched business models fighting voluntary payment tooth and nail. By doing so they’re inadvertently teaching a vast audience of consumers that paying for books, music, and TV is something you only do if/when you have no choice in the matter. Call me a crazed idealist, but I think that instead we need to convince consumers that they need to pay money because that’s what supports the storytelling they want; and I fear the entertainment industries of the world will eventually find that what feels like hanging on tooth and nail actually means slowly gnawing their own limbs off.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

June 16th

Uncategorized

In Five Years, Most Africans Will Have Smartphones

ideos

Feature phones are not the future. Of course that verges on tautology; of course everyone will have a smartphone, until everyone has something smaller and better and even more integrated into the fabric of our lives, like Google Glasses or cybernetic jawbone/retinal implants or whatever Charles Stross dreams up next. But when, exactly?

I’ve spent a good chunk of my life wandering around and writing about the developing world, and as lots of folks have recently argued, that’s still feature-phone territory, and will stay so for the foreseeable future. OK. Fair enough. But when precisely does the foreseeable future end? Because when the smartphone revolution hits the developing world, that’s when things are going to get really interesting, because it will also be their computer revolution and Internet revolution, all at the same time.

I’m particularly interested in sub-Saharan Africa (and it seems I’m not the only one around here) but it’s particularly hard to make predictions about the region, in large part because you still have to take all the statistics that come out of there with a sizable grain of salt. That said, here are a few interesting nuggets. Current smartphone penetration estimates range from 3% to 17%, but I’m most convinced by Samsung’s estimate of ~7%, up from 5% last year. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But:


(source)

So if smartphone adoption in Africa follows the same path as dumb/feature-phone adoption, then right now is the rough equivalent of 2003, and smartphones will be 15% of the African mobile market in 2014, 23% in 2015, and 40% five years from now. A significant minority, but still a minority. Right?

Except that a whole cluster of factors make me think that rate of smartphone adoption in Africa will leave the rate of feature-phone adoption in the dust. The distribution channels are already mature and thriving. No-contract $100 Android phones are already competing viciously, eg Samsung’s new Galaxy Pocket vs. Huawei’s IDEOS. Smartphones are more desirable than dumb/feature phones were – again, they’re three revolutions rolled into one.

And, most importantly, sub-Saharan Africa is much wealthier than it was ten years ago. As The Economist points out, most of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies both to and since 2010 lie south of the Sahara.

So here’s my prediction: in five years’ time, most sub-Saharan Africans will have smartphones. Too optimistic? I don’t think so; after all, from 2003-2008, basic mobile-phone penetration went from 6% to 40%, and I believe the above is a fairly convincing list of reasons to believe that smartphone adoption will outpace that. Still, it’s quite an extraordinary thought.

The West still tends to think of Africa as a sea of unending poverty, violence, and despair; pretty soon, though, it may have no choice but to start thinking of it as a lucrative market. Half a billion users here, half a billion users there, pretty soon it adds up to some serious money. App developers, take note.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

June 9th

Uncategorized

Bashing Facebook For All The Wrong Reasons

ragingbull

So Facebook’s IPO was a disaster. Or maybe it wasn’t. Yes, it was an utter fiasco. No, wait: “The debacle was not the IPO but all the whining by speculators who didn’t make money.” Nope, it was “the flop of the decade“, the worst first week of any IPO in years. Au contraire: “What we have here is an investment banker acting ethically. And the whole financial press is atwitter about it.” Nuh-uh: “The IPO discount is the cost of going public.” Yadda, yadda, yadda, ad nauseum.

Why, what with all these furious alarums and excursions and outraged complains, Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley was moved to compare Facebook to another company that immediately dropped below its high-profile IPO issue price and stayed there for weeks and weeks; that well-known loser called … er … Amazon.com. You may have heard of it.

Why is anyone paying attention to the this ultimately meaningless pageant? Probably because suckers people used to think tech IPOs were a guaranteed way for those lucky enough to buy at the issue price to make money. Now everyone is shocked — shocked! — that Facebook’s investors may have been treated unequally, and grousing “I’m just extremely skeptical about the ability of a retail purchaser to be able to play on a level field in the market.” Gee, you think? Come on, folks: it’s not like you weren’t warned.

The weird thing is that people actually seem to think that the sinking stock price means Facebook’s prospects are grimmer than they were a few months ago. Now, I can’t stand Facebook — indeed, I’m on record as a regular and frequent Facebook basher myself — but this is nothing but a colossal failure of imagination. Take Henry Blodget’s deconstruction of Facebook’s “natural” value: it’s sharp, it’s incisive, it’s insightful, and it completely misses the point.

Facebook is indeed, as Blodget says, extremely expensive relative to its expected earnings over the next year or two. But, unlike most businesses, Facebook’s long-term upside has nothing to do with its expected earnings over the next year or two. It’s believed by many to be extraordinarily valuable not because of its advertising income but because it has a real chance of becoming a company unlike any that has ever existed before, with the possible exception of pre-breakup AT&T.

Look into the medium and long term, something that the stock market is notoriously bad at. In 10-20 years’ time, everyone on the planet has a smartphone, and/or some even smaller and more ubiquitous form of wireless access. We spend more and more time online. Indeed, the whole notion of “online” disappears, as the Internet is woven into literally every facet of our waking life. As this happens, what company defines our identity, and becomes the gateway to every activity and every service?

Yep. Facebook. Sure, Google+ is arguably better, but that doesn’t matter. Bing search is roughly as good as Google’s, but Google won that land grab; similarly, Facebook has won the identity wars. So their advertising income is (relatively speaking) peanuts. Who cares? They don’t need to invent a new form of monetization. They have one already: Facebook Credits. Right now their income from it is a rounding error. But as years go by, and people slowly get accustomed to buying and using and transferring them, and as Facebook grows more and more intertwined with every online action we take–which is to say, nearly every action we take–it could well become the first global virtual currency … and then ultimately lose that “virtual” disclaimer.

Now, to be clear, I don’t actually think this will happen — and I don’t want it to happen, because I think Facebook is a colossal testament to the triumph of lowest-common-denominator homogenizing mediocrity devoid of any real innovation — but I do believe that they’ve got a legitimate shot at it. (Not least because they’re so paranoid that they decided a twelve-person company with no revenue was an existential threat and spent a billion dollars to buy them out. As Andy Grove always says, “only the paranoid survive.”) That longshot long-term possibility, not potential growth in advertising revenue, is what’s baked into Facebook’s more extreme valuations; and that possibility hasn’t diminished because of the IPO. In fact, with billions upon billions of cold hard cash now sitting in Facebook’s war chest, it has if anything grown.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

June 2nd

Uncategorized

Selling Software That Kills

sauron

The government of Syria uses made-in-California technology from BlueCoat Systems to censor the Internet and spy on its pro-democracy activists (who are regularly arrested and tortured, not to mention slaughtered wholesale.) Amesys of France and FinFisher of the UK aided brutal dictators in Egypt and Libya. Sweden’s Teliasonera allegedly took up the same cudgel in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan. McAfee and Nokia Siemens have done the same in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Meanwhile, back in the USSA, Bain Capital recently bought a Chinese video-surveillance company reportedly “used to intimidate and monitor political and religious dissidents,” and Cisco “has marketed its routers to China specifically as a tool of repression.” You can’t help but be impressed by how globalized the oppression-technology industry has become.

So what privacy/surveillance story caused an eruption of outrage this week? Yes, you guessed it: SceneTap, a startup that uses facial-recognition software to (anonymously) track demographics at bars and clubs in major American cities in real time. Forget the dissidents risking their lives for democracy: what matters is that the hipsters are creeped out!

Needless to say, the companies in question tend to dodge responsibility with bland buck-passing PR patter that knowingly turns a blind eye to oppression and brutality: “Obviously what an individual customer would do with a product once they acquire it is beyond our control.” (Apparently it never crossed their minds that it’s eminently possible to build technical controls into their product, to filter the filters.) “It’s a legal business [...] Ultimately people who use this technology to infringe human rights are responsible for their actions.”

This is of course complete bullshit. Whether you’re a company or a person, there’s really no excuse for helping repressive regimes to track and hunt down their dissidents, and “What? Me? Responsible? All I did was give the AK-47 to the psychotic serial killer, how was I supposed to know how he was going to use it?” is almost worse than no defense at all.

The EFF has proposed a “know your customer” process similar to that used for the Foreign Corrupt Practices act and export regulations. It has largely been ignored. Not a good sign. The oppression industry is bad enough now … but if nothing happens, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

There’s a desperate information war going on in Syria right now, between pro-democracy dissidents and their international allies on one side, and a shadowy and remarkably sophisticated group of pro-government hackers on the other. Right now that war’s being fought mostly on the desktop. But wait until Android phones become ubiquitous in oppressed nations. (Not iPhones; too expensive.) Unlike desktops, unless they’re rooted, Androids typically are — or at least can be — essentially controlled from birth by their manufacturers and their national carriers … who will naturally be incredibly susceptible to government pressures to install hidden spyware and malware.

Imagine an authoritarian nation where everyone has a phone running a government-customized version of Android — indeed, is required to have one, because every phone is an eye and ear of the national surveillance network. (Meanwhile, SceneTap-like software ensures that dissident groups can’t meet in person.) It’s an Evgeny Morozov dystopia, and a disconcertingly plausible one. Right now, carrier bloatware and device control is just an irritation, but look just a little ways into the future, and it’s worryingly easy to envision it actually becoming a serious human rights problem … especially if Western companies keep on selling their oppression technology to all comers.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

May 26th

Uncategorized

In Which The Maker Faire Restores Your Humble Correspondent’s Faith In Humanity

dragon

A life-size fire-breathing dragon. A fully robotic calliope band. A full-scale flight simulator built by teenagers. An entire herd of homemade R2-D2s. Electric cars, steampunk fashion, a robot petting zoo, a piano made of bananas, and a cardboard Trojan Horse. Plus a zillion different interactive attractions, classes, and events for kids of all ages. Yes, the Maker Faire is back in town, and only just in time.

It was exactly the tonic I needed after my inability to get excited about the Facebook IPO and my ongoing sense that most of the Valley is focused on building meaningless mobile/social/local/scrapbooking sugar water. This was a place full of people building real, tangible things for the sake of sheer awesomeness. Oh–and while they’re at it, almost as a side effect, hidden behind their Burning Man-esque decor is a community and technology ready to turn the whole planet on its ear.

The maker movement has hit an interesting flux point; its amateurs and enthusiasts, much like the computer geeks of the 1970s and 1980s, now stand on the verge of watching their hobby erupt into big business that will reshape the way people everywhere live. Do I sound hyperbolic? Don’t just take my word for it; listen to the mighty Economist, which in its British understated fashion recently called digital manufacturing no less than “The third industrial revolution.”

“What happens when you give the tools of the industrial revolution to the creative class, for the cost of a bad coffee addiction?” asked Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, a company that offers its members access to workspaces armed with industrial-strength toolsets. Then he reeled off some impressive examples: James McKelvey built the first three prototypes of the Square card reader — in two weeks — at TechShop in Menlo Park. That’s also where Phil Hughes and Bob Lipp built their initial fanless liquid-cooling system for server farms, which went on to soundly defeat IBM in a “chill-off.”


TechShop’s Mark Hatch.

But I’m most interested in the economic effects once the maker movement hits the developing world, where the demand for custom parts, recycled materials, and mechanical repairs is immense and inexhaustible. Or consider another of Hatch’s examples: the Embrace low-cost infant warmer which is reportedly on track to save the lives of 100,000 premature babies over the next five years.

And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. When maker technology and spaces like TechShop begin to metastasize all over the planet, so that anyone and everyone can plausibly build their own solutions to their problems rather than waiting for some industrial-scale corporation to do so, that’s when a lot of lives will really begin to change. And TechShop is indeed expanding, although, alas, only in the USA for now: there’ll be “more than one open on the East Coast by the end of the year,” according to Hatch.

In the interim, drop by a Maker Faire if you can, to catch a glimpse of this nascent future in its larval stage, while it’s still messy and exuberant and fueled by amateurish enthusiasm. (Bay Areans: it’s open until 6PM today.) And the next times your eyes glaze over at the sight of yet another SoLoMo app, consider looking into what’s happening in the world of hand-made hardware instead. If nothing else, it’s awfully colorful:


The Ragtime Castaway Band, a fully robotic giant calliope band.


Laying down a beat with a piano made of bananas and a drum kit built from limes.


That dragon again.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

May 20th

Uncategorized

No Shortcuts, No Mercy: The Bloodsport Of Recruitment

bloodsport

One year ago I wrote an article called “Why The New Guy Can’t Code,” about how the industry-standard process for hiring software engineers is broken, shortsighted, and counterproductive. It remains my most-read TC post. Of course, I was far from the first to say so, and even farther from the last; every few weeks a similar rant bubbles onto the home page of Hacker News.

And yet recruiting remains broken. When I wrote that post I imagined that in the subsequent year some sharp startup would come along and turn the game on its ear — but no. A few have tried: Gitalytics, which tries to use Github data to identify good engineers; Gild, which acquired Coderloop last year and is still going strong; and especially StackOverflow Careers, which leverages the software world’s most indispensable site to match employers and employees. But I think it’s fair to say that all the contenders so far serve as adjuncts to the traditional recruiting process, rather than replacing it with something disruptively new.

All of which adds up to today’s very weird situation: there’s a desperate talent shortage across the industry, but at the same time, employers are so terrified by the prospect of ever hiring a subpar engineer that the recruiting process has become increasingly gruelling and time-consuming, even though there’s little evidence that the standard interview gauntlet identifies good engineers.

Of late I’m getting more involved with recruiting myself. (My day job is at the software development shop HappyFunCorp; we’re hiring.) And, pending the arrival of that hypothetical revolutionary recruiting startup, I have a modest proposal: stop worrying so much about hiring, and start putting your HR energies into firing.

There’s lots of good advice out there about how to hire people. Chris Dixon’s is particularly excellent, and I liked Brad Feld’s followup, and Mike Lee’s take too. Pithiest of all is Pat Maddox’s:

  1. Filter out candidates who don’t have a github / blog / portfolio
  2. Pair with remaining candidates

This is indeed an excellent reason to pair program. But even that only teaches you so much. My preferred solution to most of the angst of hiring is actually quite simple; once you’ve identified a candidate with potential, find some relatively bite-size, self-contained subproject–some nice-to-have feature, some technical debt that needs paying back–and hire them on a moderately-paid contract basis for the few weeks required to complete that task.

Then keep a close eye on their code and progress in that time. Now you have a good sense of how they work, and how well they work: and if you’re not happy with what you’ve seen, just swing the axe and (effectively) fire them, by not offering them a longer-term position. Good candidates won’t mind this extra step, because they know they’ll cruise through it…and because they’d rather do actual work than spend days being interviewed.

When you change the mindset from “be paranoid about who you hire” to “try out anyone with potential, and dump them like a hot potato if they don’t pan out,” the recruitment process becomes vastly simpler and less stressful for all parties. Just remember to check their references. And while you’re at it, verify the rest of their resume, too.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

May 12th

Uncategorized

Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Xobot

monodroid

Poor old Android is having a bad year. (Especially compared to last year.) Apple’s iPhone is soaring in China, and apparently overtaking Android in the crucial American market. Oracle’s lawsuit against Google has led to several rather awkward claims, eg that the word ‘license’ in the phrase “we need to negotiate a license for Java under the terms we need” referred to “not a license from anybody”, a kind of license with which I was previously entirely unfamiliar. CEO Larry Page’s own testimony was labelled as evasive: “His denial of knowledge and recollection contrasts with evidence,” wrote Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents.

What a headache. Way back in 2005, Android head honcho Andy Rubin wrote in a prescient email:

“If Sun doesn’t want to work with us, we have two options: 1) Abandon our work and adopt MSFT CLR VM and C# language – or – 2) Do Java anyway and defend our decision, perhaps making enemies along the way.”

Just imagine if they’d taken the first road. It’s not widely understood in the industry that Microsoft’s .NET infrastructure is more open than Java in many ways; it and its flagship language C# are ISO and ECMA standards, available to anyone and everyone, legally bulletproofed by the Microsoft Community Promise. Imagine if the Android OS ran on an entirely different technical architecture.

Wait, no. Don’t imagine it: examine it. Like a vision from a parallel universe, it now exists.

Way back in 2001, Miguel de Icaza realized that if he ported .NET to Linux, he would open Linux up to a huge new developer community — and vice versa. The Mono Project was born. it wound up in Novell’s hands, where it continued to mature. Last year much of the Mono team founded a company called Xamarin, whose MonoTouch software lets developers write native Android/iOS apps using .NET technologies.

Android apps run on Google’s Dalvik virtual machine. “Dalvik’s fairly immature, and Mono vastly outperforms it,” says Xamarin’s CEO Nat Friedman. “So we started thinking: hey, what if we translated the entire Android OS to C#? It would run faster, and it wouldn’t have any legal problems.”

First it was just a thought experiment. Then it became more of a science project. And then the Xamarin team actually did it, by adopting and improving a tool named Sharpen that translates Java to C#, and using it to translate the entire Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) codebase. They did get a few side benefits — that improved tool, and better graphics handling — but mostly they did it for fun, aka the love of making something better. Oh, and they’ve now open-sourced the whole thing, under the name of XobotOS.

What does this mean? Good question. Maybe it’s an impressive technical achievement that’s ultimately inconsequential except as a bright feather in Xamarin’s cap. (If the idea was to get developers’ attention, they’ve certainly succeeded.) Maybe it’s Plan B for Google, in case there is some (unlikely) legal catastrophe.

And maybe the next company that thinks about forking Android for their own use — as Amazon did with the Kindle Fire, and as RIM had to have at least considered last year — will decide to go the Xobot route, for better performance, for legal cover, as a major differentiator, and to appeal to the huge and thriving .NET developer community. On the other hand, existing apps would either have to run on the IKVM virtual machine atop Mono (after tweaking it to handle Dalvik .dex files) which would mean a performance hit, or be Sharpened to C# and recompiled.

Still, at the very least, it’s a technically impressive and interesting feat. And who knows? Watch this space. It just might turn out to be a genuinely disruptive one as well.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

May 5th

Uncategorized

Interview: John Robb

panama-birds

John Robb is an astronautical engineer turned US Air Force Special Operations pilot turned Forrester lead analyst turned startup CTO/COO turned military theorist and author, to oversimplify. His writing has heavily influenced my own (eg you’ll find his phrase “open source insurgency” several times in my novel Swarm.) He blogs at Global Guerrillas and edits Resilient Communities.

Q: Your writing has focused on three themes: global guerrillas, resilient communities, and, more recently, drone disruption. Could you give the quick nutshell summaries of each of those?

Sure. The general theme of my work is to be at the center of the information flow in the place the world is changing the fastest. I did that four times (tier 1 spec ops, the Internet, Internet Finance, blogging) in the past. I think these topics are where the change is happening fastest now:

Global guerrillas (the blog and the book, Brave New War) is about open source warfare and systems disruption. Open source warfare is a new form of guerrilla warfare that works exceedingly well in the modern, connected environment. It’s loose and highly effective. It worked in Iraq during the insurgency and in Tunisia/Egypt to topple dictators. Systems disruption is about taking sabotage to a new level. Systems disruption is how individuals and small groups can topple critical networks with very small attacks. These attacks are so successful–I have plenty of examples–they can generate returns on investment over one million to one! This area of my work has lots of fans in US special operations, the CIA, the NSA, guerrilla groups around the world.

Resilient communities is a topic where I spend most of my time. Why? There are two globally systemic threats we can’t solve. Finance and the environment. Both systems are deeply broken and they are going to do considerable damage to all of us over the next decades. The only way to get ready for that is to build networked resilient communities. Resilient Communities efficiently produce most (not all) of the food, energy, water, and products we use daily. These communities reduce our vulnerabilities to the future’s inevitable disruptions (that will damage/impoverish those that don’t transition), reduce complexity to a human scale, and improve the quality of our lives. Since these communities network with the global system, they don’t lose any of the complexity/value we enjoy in the current intellectual environment. My bet, and it is the reason I started the resilient community newsletter, is that the most successful, happiest people on the planet in twenty years will be living in resilient communities.

Drones. Robots are transforming the US military and warfare. I’m a former military pilot. I have seen first hand what drones are doing to the Air Force. Already more than half of all of the people going through pilot training end up flying drones. There are more military drones flying right now than manned planes. We’ve also seen the development of the last manned fighter (the F-35) and I doubt anybody anywhere will produce a new one. Around the world, drones are being deployed permanently (eliminating the need for soldiers) and they are being used frequently (they kill thousands). Unfortunately, this makes sense. Drones are nearly costless. They don’t generate any public push back (no US casualties) and they are much less expensive than people (no retirement/health/etc.). They can also be controlled from Washington. What makes them really scary is how fast they are becoming autonomous, smaller, and less expensive. It’s easy to envision a 10 million drone swarm pacifying a 30 m person city in 20 years time (completely controlled by just a few people at the top).

Q: A common assumption among all three, it seems, is that increasing economic and technical connectivity will lead to increasing military/political instability, which in turn will reveal the fragility of our existing infrastructure. What would you say to those who argue that this is excessively apocalyptic, and that the West’s existing society and infrastructure are already plenty robust?

There’s a simple answer to that: the financial crisis of 2008 and the EU meltdown. Another is climate change, which is another runaway train of a disaster. Why aren’t these fixable? Finance and the environment are truly global systems and there isn’t anybody at the lever.

Q: Technology and creativity are becoming increasingly crowdsourced: not just open-source software, but also Kickstarter, Thingiverse, Ushahidi, etc. Do you view these as steps in the direction of resilient communities, or do you think something qualitatively different needs to be done to get there?

Yes. I think crowd funding is the wrong term. People don’t put money into just anything. They put money and time into things they care about. As such, this is more community financing than crowd financing.

So, does community financing (via the JOBS act and other methods) make it easier to build resilient communities? Yes. Building out food, water, and energy infrastructure at the local level will require that type of financing. I think people are going to find that investing locally in these efforts is a much better way to fund a retirement than investing in broken financial products that have no intrinsic value.

Q: Your writing deals extensively with “open-source insurgencies.” Can you give a couple of concrete example of those insurgencies, how they work, and how they’re enabled by modern technology?

We had a hot open source insurgency in Iraq. Lots of different groups: Baathists that supported Saddam, Baathists that didn’t, nationalists, different flavors of Jihadi, criminals, tribal groups. All of them came together to develop an open source project: to fight the US occupation and keep the Iraqi government in a state of disarray. It worked for years, despite incredible odds. One of the reasons it worked so well is that the rate of innovation in open source insurgencies is extremely fast. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) designs improved extremely quickly. They were able to defeat US counter-measures weeks after they were deployed.

Another example is Egypt (and the other insurgencies/protests of the Arab Spring). The reason the protest worked was that it used an open source framework. It didn’t have a fixed leadership cadre and its goals were extremely simple. The only people that were able to gain credibility as leaders were those people that moved the protest forward. If they tried to insert their own agenda, they were quickly discarded.

Q: You believe drones, and in particular autonomous swarms of drones, will soon revolutionize warfare and military thought everywhere. How do you see this happening over the next ten years, and what milestones do you think will be reached along the way?

It’s already underway. Drones already are killing thousands. They are so easy to use, they are the first option in any plan.

Much of the rest of the military that isn’t directly employed in the service of deploying and managing drones, is an expensive legacy that will take years to scale down and mothball.

Q: What steps do you think nation-states will take to ensure that drone military power will remain their exclusive preserve? (I’m thinking of Cory Doctorow’s The Coming War On General-Purpose Computing.) Do you think they’ll ultimately succeed, or will that technology metastasize to insurgents (open-source or other) and other non-state groups? If so, what will the geopolitical effects be?

I personally believe that nation-states are in the process of becoming hollow shells of what they once were. Global systems are hollowing them out, reducing their ability to control events or their finances. Most states are going to end up being mere conduits for extracting wealth to send to the global financial system (think Greece, Ireland, and soon Spain). They won’t deliver any meaningful services and their focus will be on control of the countryside (probably through drones/robotics that makes it possible for people in Washington to non-lethally put down riots in LA with a flip of a switch). Also, will we see robotic pirates and terrorists? Yes, probably.

So, given that this is a likely future, I’d rather have the genie out of the box and working on our side.

Image: DronesHawks swarming over Panama City, by yours truly.



Comments Off

Photo

Jon Evans

April 28th

Uncategorized
line
July 2014
M T W T F S S
« Jun    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031