Oh Microsoft, Google is Calling – They Want the OS Space

With the announcement of Android, the Google open source mobile platform, there has been breathless talk of Google taking out the “locked” cellphone market with a Linux OS version. But we all know there are many open source Linux OS mobile versions already out there, so grabbing one and putting some stuff into it isn’t really that hard. In fact, one wag I know had this little joke:

How many Google Ph.D’s does it take to create a mobile operating system? Answer – 1000. One to download the OS, and 999 to add “Copyright Google”.

Hmm, ever since the bright kids at Google were accused of appropriating code to build their social networking site Orkut (see Google Stole Code? Is Social Networking that Hard?), many techies have expressed a somewhat low opinion of Google’s technical expertise, especially when doing the actual work with all those incredible resources in people and money is probably a lot easier than “borrowing” somebody else’s “crufty” code and figuring it out. Sometimes, by the way, “crufty” means “I can’t figure out your code because I’m too stupid so I’m going to run it down”. I got that a lot with 386BSD. But given the incredible brainpower Google has gathered, I would think they could not only eventually figure it out, but maybe do a better job from the beginning…

So if Google is so full of smart people, why I am asked did they just take a Linux distro and hack it? Why didn’t they give us a “from the ground up” genius OS?

Google is full of smart people, and Linux (and BSD and Windows BTW) are not optimal OS’s for mobile computing and they know that. They also do have the resources to completely change the paradigm of open source and mobile computing but choose not to. That’s a fact.

But choosing a Linux distro and entering the mobile space is the perfect feint if a very large and very rich company has decided to take on Microsoft in the OS market, but is worried given their rival’s monopoly that they already would look like a loser if they competed directly. By cudgeling one of the Unix lookalikes and stuffing it into a small device, they can appear like they are a real contender in a big space and work their way into the heart of Microsoft’s defenses.

So it is a smart strategy. Too bad people only think tactically nowadays – they’re missing the real battle.

Safari Goes Corporate – Jobs Announces Windows Version

Steve Jobs today announced that Safari, the annoyingly broken browser for the Mac, would soon be appearing on Windows systems as another annoyingly broken Windows application. Aside from the obvious joy at the thought that browser compatibility testers would no longer require a Mac to do their job, is there any other import to this announcement? Well, there are a few possibilities…

One possibility is this is part of the strategy of going ever closer into direct competition with Microsoft, although Safari isn’t in the same class as IE (or even Firefox). Safari was built on the KDE Project’s KHTML layout, BTW. For a number of years there was frequent sniping between the groups – the KDE volunteers felt Apple didn’t comply with the spirit of open source (they’d take their time in submitting changes, for example) while Apple complained they weren’t quick enough fixing their bugs. I always found the latter complaint hilarious because Apple was notorious for never fixing their bugs even when they could. The source trees have diverged greatly since this initial schism (schism in open source? perish the thought), and there are dreams of somehow “mending the rift” through “unity” initiatives. But this is a lot of work for a questionable gain.

Open sourcerers are good at fractionating markets, but lousy at aggregating them. It’s just too easy for someone to run off and roll his own when he gets miffed for a potential quick gain (while wacking the older group). Fractionation totes up in the big book of life as a long-term cost hit on the entire open source market segment, and is something Microsoft loves to see.

As Apple has migrated off the PowerPC, the distance between them and a Wintel platform (Mactel?) has diminished mightily. The “next step” (yes, a pun) is moving their software onto Windows to develop an audience, so the distance between Windows and Mac becomes a matter of taste. Apple knows that eventually they have to face the harsh economics of the Wintel world. They also know Microsoft has to move the Windows franchise intact to a very broad market, while they only have to appeal to a subset of that market.

Is it better to be a remora or a whale? If they can profit from the current Microsoft open-source obsession (you know, “Get Linux”), they can do very well taking bites out of Microsoft’s market, since Microsoft prefers to fixate on one enemy at a time. If Apple gets too troublesome, Microsoft can always buy it. Of course, maybe something in that Microsoft-Apple agreement signed years ago makes this a lot easier than one might think (although nothing is ever easy around Steve Jobs).

GPLv3 – Yes, You Can Run DRM (If You’re Very Very Sneaky)

GPLv3 and DRM. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. The license says you can’t use it (essentially, if you use it, you have to show the code, which means people can remove it). The advocates from the Linux Foundation and their mouthpieces say you can. It reminds me of the policeman shrieking “Do not panic, all is well” at the rioting crowd in Animal House right before he’s trampled. Meanwhile, open source followers seem to be trapped in the alleyway…

So, does it ban DRM or doesn’t it? It does, but there is a big loophole, and Microsoft (and a few of us old hands at open source – after all, we helped invent it) know it.

Models, Simulations and Bugs, Oh My!

A recent discussion on e2e focussed on the efficacy of mobile / wireless simulations. You see, in the world of computer academia, simulations are de rigor to getting a paper through the peer review process, because it can provide you with lots of neat numbers, charts and diagrams that look nice but may mean absolutely nothing in practice. But “in practice” means applied (or horrors, development) work, and that’s usually met with disdain in the academic world (see Academics versus Developers – Is there a middle ground?). In other words, blue sky it but never never build it if you want to get a paper approved.

Simulations and models are an important tool in understanding the behavior of complex systems, and they’re used in most every scientific discipline today. But there’s a delicate distinction between a model of an environment and using the model as the environment — one that is often lost in the artificial world of networks and operating systems.

Academics versus Developers – Is there a middle ground?

Jim Gettys of One Laptop per Child is engaged in a furious discussion on the networking / protocol list as to whether academics should take responsibility for reaching out to the Linux community and maintaining their own work within the Linux code base. His concern is that networking academics, when they do bother to test their pet theories, use such old versions of Linux that it becomes infeasible to integrate and maintain this work in current and later versions. The flippant academic response is usually of the form of “we write papers, not code” variety (which isn’t precisely true and actually then brings into question the relevence of said papers and the claimed work that stands behind them).

As Jim says himself, “If you are doing research into systems, an academic exercise using a marginal system can only be justified if you are trying a fundamental change to that system, and must start from scratch. Most systems research does not fall into that category. Doing such work outside the context of a current system invalidates the results as you cannot inter compare the results you get with any sort of ‘control’. This is the basis of doing experimental science.”

This is an old dispute, and one that has its roots in the creation and demise of Berkeley Unix (BSD) distributions. So perhaps a little perspective is in order.

Running the Microsoft Personnel Gauntlet

Ed Frauenheim of cnet discussed the difficulty of running the Microsoft personnel gauntlet, er, “puzzle”. Why are they so arrogant? Obvious answer – they’re a big fish. And some managers think that if their company is big, so are they and act accordingly. However, once they leave the “hive” they usually sink back into the ooze they emerged from in the first place.

When one of the Microsoft recruiters came for me back in the mid-1990’s, I ended up hiring him to staff one of my funded startups – . I recommend that startups in competitive times recruit a Microsoft recruiter – they’re very good.

On the serious side, the simple reason that Microsoft has difficulty in hiring is their antipathy to anyone who has worked with open source. This “us versus them” mindset has caused them to lose out on very talented people and on new directions in research and development in operating systems.

IBM Steps into Gluecode

Open source services company Gluecode got slurped up by IBM this week. It provides custom services to companies who use Geronimo, an open source competitor to IBM’s WebSphere. JBoss is another competitor in this market.

Why would IBM want to buy a company that appears to compete with one of its products? Actually, IBM can’t do much about Geronimo – it’s open source – no easy money there and no way to take it off the market. And they don’t want to go low-end with Websphere – the descent may be endless. So why not buy up the services side? Costly customization is the IBM way.

Fun Friday – Now, What is it About Unix or Yourself You’d like to Change?

Well, it probably comes as no surprise that I read Physics Today. But it sure came as a surprise to me to see GRE and research proposal disguised as recruitment ad…

Some of the questions are very interesting. Like question 5, “What’s broken with Unix? How would you fix it?” or question 4, right out of Adventure Unix days, or 12 “In your opinion, what is the most beautiful math equation ever derived? (perhaps Hamilton’s, as any physicist knows, but I’m sure they don’t). Even 14 – What will be the next great improvement in search technology?

It’s a GRE-styled booklet test. Not an ad. A booklet. If it had been blue instead of green, it would have been a classic “blue book” from Berkeley for exams. It was made for scientists – not just compsci people. Remember the most beautiful equation question – that’s speaking to a physicist’s heart and also a mathematician, but I don’t know if they bother with hearts at Google or any other Silicon Valley company these days.

It’s called the GLAT (Google Labs Aptitude Test). Would you know how to solve in a 2-d rectangular infinite lattice of 1-ohm resisters the resistance beteen two nodes a knights move away? (I’ll give you a hint – we use an infinite lattice to avoid edge effects so the equations are simple). 🙂

Interesting? Especially the Unix question…this shouldn’t be here in a “work for Google” ad. Nor the Adventure one. Or should it?

Digerati Watch the Guy with the Glasses, Women Entrepreneurs Listen to the Voice of Experience

Well, last Friday was the “invite-only” conversation with Bill Gates of Microsoft and John Hennessy, President of Stanford University, at the Computer History Museum. I must admit, even if it was invitation-only it sure seemed everyone was invited – even me!

Matt Marshall in the San Jose Mercury News notes today that even Frank Quattrone joined the crowd to hear Gates speak. I didn’t notice him myself – there were just too many people with multiply colored labels and press tags everywhere. But since I got the invite to that event myself, does that mean I’m a “friend of Frank” too?

I’m sure many others will cover the discussion, so I’ll mention the other stuff. Did anyone there notice how “non-networking” the crowd was? I spoke briefly to a few people, but really – no one was talking to anyone else. Instead of a “happening” event, it was more like going to a funeral. Not really fun or upbeat. And I had my cool purple jacket on and everything.

Second, we weren’t allowed to wander about the museum before the talk. Now, wandering about among the old computers is actually my favorite part of visiting the Computer History Museum, especially when people are not very sociable, because the computers give everyone something to talk about. But alas, no wandering. Guess I’ll have to wait until the Vintage Computer Faire.

On the other hand, I had a lot more fun hearing Margaret Heffernan talk up her new book The Naked Truth last Weds night at Golden Gate University’s San Jose campus. Margaret is a very enjoyable many-time CEO and Fast Company columnist who has a lot of very interesting things to say about the experiences of women in business. But don’t just take my word for it – watch her for yourself as she discusses women, networking, and business.

I know everyone will be talking around the water cooler today about the guy with the glasses, and that’s OK. But it’s just too bad only the guys get the mainstream press coverage, while an experienced businesswoman and columnist gets all but ignored – but I guess that’s what Margaret’s talking about.

Video on Demand over TCP and Jitter

A recent question to me from a “born back bencher” eavesdropping on the end-to-end groups musings asked “…how they can even believe they can accomplish a good result with TCP for VOD [Video On Demand]? Yeah they gave me good on SACK and NACK and no matter how many RFCs and drafts they quote, which I have never read, the logic still seems obtuse if the window is end to end”. Actually, this isn’t a silly question – it’s a good one in that we need to examine our environment and definitions carefully and has a lot of richness. Just what a physicist loves!

VOD isn’t just TCP, although end-to-end quality is very much based on how the customer perceives the stream (if you’re truly streaming). If you’re transiting through wireless, all bets are off – no one does good work in this area (yet) as I discuss in Buffer, Buffer, Where is the Buffer? on Byte.

But to get to the gestalt, in a video quality study I conducted several years ago we found you had to deal with VOD at several levels, from production of video for the Internet to TCP streaming optimization – in this case we used SiliconTCP here at the datacenter as well as client end (see SiliconTCP, EtherSAN, and Scalability). It’s really the big pipe / little pipe problem at the customer end that’s the bigger issue here – but we’re now in Internet infrastructure land, and that’s a hard-fought area. But in all cases, jitter is the key!