Tom Foremski Interviews Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart is a computer legend, but he is also still very much alive and has plenty to say. Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher had a poignant chat with him. The upshot – have the last 20 years been a failure?

Some snippets from Tom’s excellent interview:
” ‘How do you deal with society when its paradigm of what is right is so dominant?’ Doug Engelbart, the 1960s computer visionary asked me the other evening. It’s a question he has pondered many times over the past 20 years or so, ever since his research funding was taken away.

Mr Engelbart and his teams of researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) shaped the look and feel of the PC, as John Markoff chronicles in his latest book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

Mr Markoff’s book raises the profile of Mr Engelbart, well known as the inventor of the computer mouse, and less well known for his seminal work in creating many of the concepts later found in the personal computer. Mr Markoff returns credit to where it is due.

What the book does not chronicle is how the rise of the PC killed funding for Mr Engelbart’s work.

By 1979, he had lost all funding from SRI because of unfavorable peer review.

‘The other research groups said what I was doing could be done better with microcomputers or through machine-based artificial intelligence. That was the dominant culture at the time. What people don’t realise is that there are many different cultures and not one is right.’ Mr Engelbart told SVW.

As a result of his experiences, he questions whether the past 20 or so years of his life have been a failure.

That’s how long Mr Engelbart has been trying to raise funding to continue his research into human machine interfaces and solving large, complex problems using networked software.

But the culture of our time has been unfavorable to his ideas of developing human-centric computer applications using one big powerful computer with many users. The paradigm of the PC revolution is that everyone gets to have a computer, no time-sharing needed.”

Fast Internet Movers and the Long Term

Bill Burnham’s slant on “Deal flow is dead, long live thesis driven investment” makes a number of good points for rethinking investment for Internet companies. Ben Savage of Wasserstein & Co counters “So a firm that pursues thesis driven deals in ‘unpopular’ sectors I think is partially dooming itself to be a firm that hits for average and not for power. Unlike in public markets contrarian investing doesn’t seem to work so well in ventureland.” Perhaps even more to the point, it is a reminder that our industry isn’t “one size fits all”, and the key factors for enterprise versus Internet, for example, demand different evaluatory criteria.

The success of thesis investment depends on the time-to-market of the product vended. Having co-founded startups in bottom of the food chain semiconductors (InterProphet, w/Vint Cerf on the board, doing layer-4 semiconductors for datacenter / interconnects) and top of the food chain Internet services (ExecProducer, realtime video/audio production datacenter hosted services for Internet/DVD/3GPP) I’ve found the demands on IPR and product roadmap are completely different.

InterProphet was granted it’s first patent 3 years after founding and after an intense product development cycle that is still ongoing. ExecProducer in contrast was up and running with partners (we don’t sell direct) and referenceable accounts producing movies for customers instantly (in other words, no manual intervention = no expensive engineering / design staff required) within one year with none of the concerns that a fabless semiconductor networking company faced (equipment, expensive engineering personnel, high legal/patent expenses, due diligence with customers, and so on).

It took several years of time / expense to worry out the patents for a successful ringing strategy for InterProphet, and I’m still working on one of the landmark results papers. It took about a year of part-time work on a fun project with Berkeley to get a successful paper on pioneering massive video production accepted to ACM SIGCHI ACE2004, the conference that Disney and Warner and Pixar shop their papers.

I think Bill’s idea to get ahead of the game by calling up potential investments works well for top of the food chain companies like ExecProducer. However, given the capital and intellectual demands (plus the reputational and technical challenges) of areas such as enterprise software or telcom or networking, and the years of work to establish a presence, Ben’s view is probably quite correct for that space, and unlikely to change in the near future.

ACM, Turing and the Internet

Vint Cerf and Bob Khan got a well-deserved dinner and party in San Francisco courtesy of the ACM. A collection of Internet “who’s whos”, lots of wine and speeches, and most importantly, their coveted Turing award. This award was announced several months ago. As Vint noted in an email reply to the Internet Society a month ago (try to take notes during an awards dinner – it can’t be done), “What is most satisfying about the Turing Award is that it is the first time this award has recognized contributions to computer networking. Bob and I hope that this will open the award to recognize many others who have contributed so much to the development and continued evolution and use of the Internet.”

So congratulations to Vint and Bob. I’m sure we are all very pleased that they have been honored with the Turing Award this year. They both deserve it – their work has changed our world!

Fun Friday – Daleks, Jedi, and Vultures, Oh My!

The very latest new and improved whiter than white venture capitalist trend is (drum roll) – “The Consumer Internet”! “Every other venture capitalist one encounters in Silicon Valley now seems eager to reinvent himself as an expert who can spot hot new consumer-driven Internet ventures” writes Gary Rivlin of the New York Times. “The problem is that you’ve got all these software V.C.’s, they don’t know what to do with themselves…They say, ‘These are deals that make people a lot of money, and enterprise software is largely dead.’ So now they’ve decided they’re consumer Internet venture capitalists.” (George Zachary, Partner at Charles River Ventures).

Now, I know that you’re reading this blog while shopping online, running your RSS feeds of the latest stock news, IM’ing to a friend, VOIP’ing on a conference call with a client, and secretly watching a movie you got from a p2p site. But did you know that you are a part of the consumer Internet and that there’s money to be made off of you? Are you surprised yet? Are you holding your wallet tighter?

Daleks are fearsome creatures, indistructable, flustered by stairs, and good dustbins in a pinch. Perhaps that’s why one disappeared from storage recently. “A spokesman said: ‘There may be a black market out there for Daleks – but it’s still a strange thing to steal’.” (BBC News). So if you see something with an odd British accent saying “Exterminate”, cheer up – it may be worth $500 pounds.

Finally, for the last word on the Apple-Intel alliance (a slashdot reader) :
“I felt something, a disturbance in the network, as if a million Mac zealots cried out in horror and were suddenly silenced.”

UCSC Chancellor on Academia, Women, and Technology

Dr. Denice Denton headlined a talk at Google last night on “Leadership and Strategies for Cultural Change in a High Tech Environment”. Ms. Denton, an accomplished engineering professor, was recently appointed Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz. Articulate and involved, she didn’t throw punches on the difficulty of integrating more women and minorities into an institution with very slow processes (tenure) and conservative personal networks in a fast-paced technologic world (see “Advocates Unlock the Clubhouse at Google”).

Given the recent Summers diatribe at Harvard and the propensity of jerks and bullies to get their way (see “Girls and Science – the Hard Costs of Pushback”, Dr. Denton did tackle the “why aren’t there women in the sciences?” question, and she wasn’t afraid to point out that a grave imbalance in gender didn’t imply ipso facto that those few women there would welcome more women, since the risk of becoming “just one of many” could erode the unique position such a woman might have. So while the “only woman” or “only minority” might chair a search committee, for example, with the charter of increasing “diversity”, there isn’t a lot of incentive to the lone representing person to personally risk a loss of position and also possibly antogonize her male colleagues by championing a woman. A man, in contrast, can do this without a loss of status, because he’s arguing against others in his somewhat homogeneous group the same as he might if he were debating fantasy football picks.

Yes, I know this is just common sense. To expect a lone woman to risk her career and position to help a stranger is not reasonable (although some still do). This fear of isolation and ridicule even impacts the mentoring of younger women – I’ve found very few established women willing to speak up for their younger female colleagues. In this case, it helps to be on the business side – see “Girls Can Do Calculus and Physics and Astronomy and Look Nice!”.

Often, to be honest, I find many of these women don’t have children of their own, having sacrificed motherhood for the brotherhood of university success. I do know women in academia who have sons and daughters and are motivated for their children to do the right thing. But then we run into the “can’t get tenure because of the babytrack” complaint (see “Why Women Don’t Like IT?“). Women in business run into this same problem – see “Mompreneurs and Tech”. I wish more women had the courage to do the right thing. But I understand in an area where the Dr. Summers of the world can rant about their peculiarly bigoted beliefs and still get raises, the likelihood of the few women in academia who have survived the gauntlet championing women, tenure notwithstanding, isn’t something I’d bet the farm on.

Apple, Intel and the Price of Obsolescence

Of course, the inevitable after-the-announcement hits, with Matt Marshall’s long-awaited arrival of a new Apple Powerbook a sobering event. “But we’re feeling a bit like a fool today. That’s because the laptop arrived on our doorstep about two hours after Steve Jobs announced Apple’s shift to Intel processors. Even before we cracked open the box, our shiny new Powerbook was a legacy machine”. Such is the price of processor envy.

Matt wonders if he had just waited off, if he could have gotten five years worth of work out of it, but instead “…will officially be obsolete in two, when the new Intel-powered Powerbooks land in Apple stores. Oh sure, the laptop itself will still work fine. But chances are, all the relevant software updates we need to keep the laptop current (from both Apple and independent developers) will begin to disappear, and our Apple flag will be firmly planted in the land of the old.” So true.

Of course, the wags always have the “you never owned the machine anyway, just the use of it, so what are you complaining about” (which is somewhat incorrect as you do own the tangible hardware, and by implication permanent access to low-level software like device drivers that allow replacements, upgrades and repairs, but ignorance is bliss). They also think that five years is bogus. Well, that’s not really right either, but again, most people are pretty ignorant of the difference between the hardware and the software, and even much of the software isn’t as convulsed as one might believe. Here’s Lynne’s take on this tech:

“Well, my kids have inherited a Symmetric 375 Berkeley Unix (Symmetrix) system that is turning 20 years old, and it runs great, has all the Unix utilities, and has the best version of rogue ever. Just a few bad blocks on the disk, but we mapped those out (yes, you can fix a disk drive!).

No, these machines don’t need to be obsolete so rapidly. The bit rot is intentional (as is the broken versioning and updates). Otherwise, folks wouldn’t migrate to new software. But the hardware is actually very reliable and remarkably easy to upgrade from when I started in workstations.

Can you imagine if people couldn’t fix their cars after 3 years? Wow, GM and Ford would love that, but you’d have a rebellion on your hands!

Of course, one could argue that we don’t live, we only buy the USE of life for a time. But I would hope that becoming obsolete according to a corporation’s best interests won’t mean we all end up on “Logans Run” soon after. :-)”

D-Day – Apple-IBM Axis Collapses

Well, I figured it was happening finally. The hint was there *if* you knew where to look. Looks like nobody else twigged to the firing of those Linux developers at Intel for timing – even though I had a thoughtful discussion with an analyst just last week over that very issue and asked whether that meant Jobs was going to Intel. He said “No way” but this time I wasn’t sure he was right – he went back to check things out one more time, was guaranteed it wouldn’t happen, and then “Voila”, it did. But his mistake was talking to Apple contacts. I didn’t bother. I looked at what Intel was doing. Since I’ve dealt with Intel on the silicon side over the years with SiliconTCP, it didn’t take a lot of digging to put the pieces together.

Markoff and Lohr (NYTimes) have one of the best articles on the topic today – less hand wringing and more substance than most. But they could add one more line that would tie it up, something like:
“The real story is Apple vs. Dell. High cost factor for Dell is Windows. Mac still sells at a premium above Wintel, and the OS & developer base is open source, so Jobs is out of the Mac developer debacle and cost leveraged. And he still has Microsoft Apps like Office in the stable … for now.”

Apple may be having the hissy fit, but IBM doesn’t care. IBM doesn’t even need Apple anymore to showcase their chips given all the game console manufacturers who are using them. Apple has always been high maintenance and low volume – the worse of all sins to a processor vendor – but IBM tolerated them because of their “Hollywood” artist image. But now it turns out gaming is even more “mogul” than Macs. Who wins? Intel for one, who’s been desperate to get some Hollywood patina for years, enterprise systems and desktops being so boring.

Customers and vendors will also win – in the short run. Prices will drop and applications development should broaden, especially in leveraging open source development for the X86 more effectively. But the long run remains bleak for Apple’s desktop and laptop division. It was the only decision possible for Apple if IBM wouldn’t give them the price breaks they needed for margin. But it probably wasn’t the best decision.

Fun Friday: You are a Fluke of the Universe, But Everyone Can Google It Now

The Internet as memory is a very peculiar wraith. Entire swaths of human history are virtually absent from the search pages, while recent people, places and things thrive in overabundance. Irrelevent items, like what someone wrote on a long-dead VAX system 20 years ago suddenly pop up in a name search, as if someone found some old backup tar tapes and actually offloaded the bits into the archival dustbin. Noxious potions, irrelevencies, lies and deceits abound unopposed, because this memory is so disorganized that few can find every relevent link – much less correct the errors masquerading as facts. And even small trite embarrassing episodes from the past can suddenly appear on your Google dossier – sometimes funny, and sometimes tragic.

Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times prefers to laugh – but with a purpose. Her article discussing an unflattering picture that always seems to pop up whenever her name is searched is actually illustrative of the ubiquitous and uncontrolled grasp of random bits and pieces of our lives. “If it’s damaging but it’s accurate, it’s not actionable” said John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “What if it’s extraordinarily ugly?” she asked. “Extraordinarily ugly probably doesn’t get it there – with information that’s put on the Internet, you pretty much have to assume it will be around forever” he responded. Even if you’re unhappy, you’re probably out of luck.

But what about nasty and vicious things? Rosenbloom relates the recent headache of Cecilia Barnes, who’s ex-boyfriend decided to get back at her by posting nude photos, her work phone number, and her email address on Yahoo. Apparently, Yahoo hasn’t responded to demands it be taken down. A lawsuit is pending (and Yahoo isn’t talking).

Ms. Rosenbloom talks of possible solutions, from paying listing services to gaming Google. But the fact of the matter is, the more current and open you keep your information, the better you will appear.