Archive for March, 2015

The future has always been a contentious place. I should know, I’ve spent most of my career there.

We’ve come a long way from the idea that the world only needed half a dozen computers [Thomas Watson, Jr.]. We now have some many computers that we managed to exhaust the 32-bit IPv4 address space. The solution embodied in IPv6 creates other issues, but that’s a topic for another post.

The interesting part of working in the computer domain is that feeling of being one step ahead of the langoliers. It can be at once exciting and terrifying. It is not for the faint-of-heart or those who believe that the need for learning stopped after their last final exam.

Lately, I’ve been watching an oddly converging divergence of ideas. One head of this hydra follows the path of the ever bigger. Bigger data sets, bigger pipes, bigger computations and unfortunately bigger OS’s. A second head constantly works toward making the whole morass vanish. I remember when I began to see fewer watches as people realized that their phone could do that. That emergency camera that the insurance company tells you to keep in your car? Answering machines? Travel alarm clocks? MP3 player? Portable DVD player? I would really hate to be in Garmin’s consumer division. Another head wants to be everywhere. It’s no longer sufficient to be that operation you could run out of a garage. Now, we have to be able to have stuff, both artifact and intangible, available everywhere. Remember when the fastest way to see a first-run Hollywood film overseas was to be on a military base? Speaking of military bases, you may have noticed that people are recognizing that security is important. The final head is fixated on why computers are this fixed assemblage of hardware. What if I really do need 20TB of memory and a 16K node mesh?

With all this “progress” going on, it’s all that the poor, beleaguered software developers can do just to keep up on one of these. But, that’s okay right? These are all unrelated. Right?

Well, we’ll get to that. For the moment, let’s see if you and I think the same about who’s doing what.


Amazon and Google are both doing cloud, but the company I find interesting here is Microsoft. Azure takes the problem of software at scale reduces it to some fundamental building blocks (compute, storage, database and network). Operating system? We don’t need not stinking operating system! For those of you who remember what an IBM 1130 is, you’ll love Azure. It’s like driving a TR6 on the PCH at 80 mph (you could get from LA to SF in like, I don’t know five-ish hours). The world is yours until you crash. [Disclaimer: I have never driven a TR6.] Want more CPUs or storage or network, add more.


The battery in my first mobile is heavier than my current phone. Apple’s biggest coup isn’t that it creates ever smaller technologies. They represent the technological equivalent of Michelangelo, who famously remarked about the process of sculpting his David:

It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.

When Apple introduced the iPhone, developers were all torches and pitchforks. This wasn’t how things were done. Where’s the disk? How do I see this other application’s files (app was still a trending meme). Apple took away bits that we were accustomed to, but didn’t actually need. Most of the time. Sometimes they pulled an Apple Round Mouse. But mostly they drove development in a direction that only those of us who have been given the task of making a wireless keyboard that can run for six months on a pair of AA batteries understood. How to write code that wouldn’t make the device die in under four hours. To a large extent this was the evidence of Gates’ Law. We are now on the cusp of the Apple Watch which promises to hide the technology behind the technology even further. As someone who uses Apple Pay on a regular basis, I’m looking forward to see how the Watch does.


This is where the divergences converges. Azure instances can change locality temporally. As a result, your customers access servers in their vicinity. The user interfaces of software written for MacOS or iThings is multi-language and multi-locality (units) capable by default. Unlike Azure, iCloud isn’t so much a platform for developer as it is a vast warehouse of data. Apple’s recent announcement of ResearchKit has already shown how much impact an everywhere technology can have.


As one who has had the distinct displeasure of pulling his company’s internet connection on 2 November 1988, I believe that security is important. My master’s thesis was focused on computer viruses. I deal with the failure of developers to apply sound security practices to open source and commercial software on an ongoing basis.

For a really long time, no one really took securing the computer all that seriously.

Now, if you look at both Microsoft and Apple, you see security systems in a serious way. On iOS, it’s baked in. On Windows it’s half-baked. Yes, that’s a bit of snark. Security shouldn’t be an option. In iOS, if an application wants access to you contact list, it must declare that it wants to be able to access those APIs. The first time they attempt to access them, the user is prompted to allow the access. At any time, the user can simply revoke that access. Every application is sandboxed and credentials are held in a secure store. On Windows, security is governed by policy. These policies are effectively role-based. This is fine as far as it goes, but like the days-of-old, if you’re the wrong role at the wrong time running the wrong application (virus), you can deep fry any system. Hence my comment about it being half-baked.

Do we seriously believe that banks should be running on an operating system that isn’t build from the ground up around security?


This final hydra head is perhaps the most interesting to me as it holds the most promise. It represents the hardware analog to Azure. Today, you may be able to configure an Azure instance, but that configuration only goes so far. If you look back to the dim days (which for some reason or other were in black and white, even though we had color movies as far back as 1912). Back then if you wanted more oomph, you ordered it (and an additional power drop). Now you are greatly constrained. Remember that 20TB system I mentioned earlier? Why can’t I get one? Because our manufacturing model is based on scale. This has been a good thing. It’s made it possible for me to have a laptop that doesn’t weigh 16lbs with a run time 2 hours. Isn’t that great? Ask a left-handed person sometime. As the number of actual computer manufacturers dwindles, we’re seeing more white box systems cropping up. These are being used to create the application clouds. But at a time when power is real money, how much are we wasting in resources to access the interesting bits of these boxes? More and more we see the use of storage arrays. All well and good. So, where are the processor arrays? The graphics arrays? What if I need 12 x 5K monitors? The people who crack this nut will make a great number of people very happy.

The Future Won’t be Brought to Us by AT&T

Once AT&T was the go-to place for the future of the future. Not any more. The future is far bigger than anyone imagined it to be and certainly far larger than any one company is capable of providing.

The question is, how do we identify the people who are ready to not only build that future, but to build it out?

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I believe that you can learn a lot about people through the things they fill their heads with. Over time the mechanisms for this process have grown in number and availability. Once people would travel great distances seeking out teachers. Of course if you were powerful enough you could have them come to you. Once we managed to get the teaching down in permanent (well mostly) form, you didn’t actually need to bother with the whole physical presence thing. Still the needing the scribe thing made this practical only for the silly rich. By the time we get to the 20th century the super clever public library idea meant that you could recommend a book to someone without running the risk that their dog would eat the only copy for a thousand miles. The mid 20th century added audio and by the end video to the menu. With the advent of the internet, we could not only find materials to borrow from libraries with ridiculous ease, but could reserve it and get an email when it was ready for pickup. Then came the Kindle, Zinio, Netflix and the iTunes store. Now if someone is ingesting some bit of knowledge, in all likelihood, you can too (and within minutes).

So, what’s with the Burke-ian prologue?

Well, I was reading The New Yorker‘s article The Shape of Things to Come, about Jony Ive and the future of Apple. Among the bits of past, present and impact; was a fascinating bit. Ive was watching Moon Machines [iTunes Store]. Not expected that.

I’ve always been a bit of a space wonk, so I was interested just on the face of it. What I found fascinating was that a person born in 1967 England best know for early 21st century industrial design saw something of interest in a series dedicated to the United States’ Apollo program.

Having now watched the series, there are things that jump out at me. As with every time I take in something that’s been recommended (if person with the time constraints of a SVP at Apple mentions that they see value the spending time, that’s a hint one would be ill advised not to take advantage of), I strive to understand how it relates to the person, their work and goals. Ive’s comment speaks volumes.

… like the Apollo program, the creation of Apple products required “invention after invention after invention that you would never be conscious of, but that was necessary to do something that was new.”

The Apollo program was a tech start-up writ large. The goal was abstract; the time tables unyielding; the cost astronomical (literally); the toll on people and their relationships severe. In the end, the successes were ascendant and the failures devastating. The six episodes take on major aspects which had to work together in order to assure the success of the program.

The lessons of Apollo are applicable to endeavors in science, business, politics and design. Issues of control, quality, planning, communication and contingency are laid bare. As are their failures. Of particular distinction are the moments of crisis. Unlike anything before or since, we have documentation of and visibility into the people who stepped up to lead their teams and the processes through which they overcame them.

In an era of ever-increasing abstraction and the misplaced belief that you don’t actually need to understand how things work in order to produce something of quality, Moon Machines provides timely lessons. The quality of the end product begins with the confluence of domain and technology, not the application of one to the other. The speed and manner of disposing problems during a crisis depends greatly on the depth of understanding extant in the team of the two questions: What do I have? and What do I need? As well as the understanding of how to get to the latter using the former.

In the end, I have a greater admiration of those involved in Apollo thanks to a comment by Jony Ive.

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