Sad to see Modista die

Monday 11th January, 2010

I should state at this point that these are personal opinions, not those of my employer.

While the first reaction when a potential competitor folds is to celebrate, that reaction is both immature and short-sighted. Not only is it a sad state of affairs that one company can destroy another using just the costs of the patent infringement process (regardless of whether the patent is valid or the infringment is demonstrable), but since competition is the fire that drives progress and innovation; seeing competition fold for any reason other than poor products is always disappointing.

Daniel Tunkelang has a eulogy of Modista over on the Noisy Channel.

Respect to AJ Shankar, Arlo Faria, and any others on the team; you guys did some impressive work.

Tenuous link between economics and technology, via sociology

Monday 18th May, 2009

flatironThis morning I read yet another article about why people failed to predict the recent economic turbulence. What baffles me most about it is that I, and many others, knew exactly what was going to happen long before it did. I think the real reason most people failed to predict the crash was that they were blinded by the false security of the herd.

All the classic signs of a bubble were in place:

  • Rapidly increasing asset values
  • Commercial purchases based on future asset gains rather than realistic inc0me (i.e. rent was not increasing along with house prices)
  • The inability of intelligent people to comprehend prices going down (it sounds nuts now, but I heard this opinion so many times my skepticism gland was bled dry and red raw)

The last point is particularly pertinent I think. When participants in a market cannot accept that market prices go both up and down then you know that you’re looking at hysteria at work. All of this is described quite clearly in many books on the subject including Bubbles and How to Survive Them, by John Calverley (Chief Economist & Strategist at American Express) which described the problem long before it happened.

The tenuous tech link

Sometimes it’s hard to go against the grain, like the fund managers fired from their jobs during the Dot Com boom because they sensibly realised that tech stocks were overvalued and pulled their clients out (it’s ironic that “Cassandra” is used to put down those that predict disasters, since Cassandra’s predictions were spot-on).

In the same vein I think it’s sometimes hard to speak out against current trends in terms of development processes, or common wisdom. There are some development teams where criticism of Agile or Scrum would earn you a slow death, bound with CAT45 cable and locked in a server cage. I’ve been at the receiving end of group-think like this myself; I was once reprimanded and sidelined for being generally a bit too quick to suggest open source tools to Microsoft-centric developers. The spread of knowledge is sometimes uncomfortable.

It’s an uphill struggle but for technologists, just as for economists, we have to try and push back against our instinct for the herd-mentality.

In Defence of Technical Debt

Saturday 28th February, 2009

I love metaphors, and this one is great.

Technical Debt is the idea that as you develop software, any corners that you cut can be thought of as borrowing time, which incurs interest (maintenance cost) and must sooner or later be paid back (by refactoring). So, creating crufty code because it’s quicker often results in having to go back and re-do it.

Fine, but why does the metaphor stop there? Everyone loves beautiful code and elegant algorithms, sure. As a profession we don’t like mess, and we respect clever ideas than can do complex things without that mess. Makes sense.

However, debt has a positive side too. If you have a business idea but don’t have the start-up capital, you borrow it from someone who does. It saves you time, and possibly enables you during a window that might be closed 6 months later. Without that debt you would have missed your chance. If you want to buy a home, you either borrow and live in your own home for most of your life, or save up the long way and are only able to afford your home by the time you retire.

The same concepts exist in software.

If you’re developing software you have a window of opportunity which will not last forever. If you tried to sell a competitor to Windows 3.1 in 2009 you’d be laughed out of the industry. If you tried to start a new Javascript framework now that JQuery, Dojo, and the like are mature you’ll have a very hard time. You have to be able to move quickly.

Similarly if you’ve got a project to get out, without being able to predict the future you’ll have a hard time designing some components, as you don’t always know how their use will change over time. By borrowing a small amount of time early on, you can often save yourself from wasting time trying to cover every eventuality and getting lost in a maze of total abstraction. By the time you actually get to the later stages of the project you’ll often find that you were completely mistaken about the likely outcome… and that time you’d spent refactoring early was wasted.

By borrowing time you often gain. Think of it less like ‘technical debt’ and more like ‘technical leverage’. Don’t waste it by paying it off before you’ve had a chance to benefit.

Blu ray dead, alive, dead, alive, dead again

Saturday 6th December, 2008

I’m with Robin Harris on this one. Despite some final death throes and some confusion over exactly what constitutes death there doesn’t seem any hope for Blu Ray as a mainstream video medium.

  • DVD is much cheaper (roughly half the price in the UK)
  • A year after Blu Ray beat HD-DVD there’s still a painfully limited choice of content
  • DVD to HD step in user experience is not as significant as the step from VHS to DVD
  • Hardware is getting cheaper, but we’re now in a recession so uptake will be hindered

So my money is on Blu Ray being consigned ‘video format valhalla’ and seated down the unfashionable end of the feast hall, nestled between Betamax and Laserdisc.

As for what replaces it… I’m guessing a segmented market comprising of

  • Incompatible DRM-laden download services provided by the big distributors
  • A few rental by-mail services for people who can’t be bothered relying on fluctuating bandwidth and technical glitches (these guys might have some Blu Ray uptake if it’s not priced too high)
  • A black market of illegal downloads for people who won’t accept distributors restrictions or don’t want to pay

I’m hoping I’m wrong and we get a more elegant solution.

Trust in the Software Market

Sunday 9th November, 2008

So it seems that Spore’s creators are on the receiving end of a couple of law suits for secretly installing unremovable software on customers computers.

While I don’t know exactly what chance these suits have, I wish them the best of luck. Why? Because markets depend on trust, a point that the people who decided to quietly install SecuRom with Spore seem to have missed.

Trust is required between vendors and customers; trust that the price will be fair, trust that the goods will be as described, trust that the payment will be valid, and trust that privacy will be respected. Electronic Arts’ decision to ship this DRM payload breaks that trust because they try to hide it, and because they take the liberty of making dangerous and irreversible modifications to your property.

As George Akerlof highlighted in his seminal 1970 paper ‘The Market for Lemons‘, markets without trust (he describes a car vendor’s hidden knowledge of a vehicle’s state as “information asymmetry“) can be difficult and dysfunctional, with the whole market affected by a few bad eggs.

If trust deteriorates between software vendors and software consumers, the software market will become a worse place for everybody.