Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Musings: Ten things holding back tech

So this little ditty has made the rounds, but really, there doesn't seem to be much there. It's a lot of personal philosophy mixed with big picture problems and insufficient or inadequate solutions.

Ten things holding back tech - ZDNet UK

I guess the easiest way to start is to work our way from the top.

1. Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop
Windows unified the personal-computer market, and led it into the enterprise. A good thing, surely? Yes — if unity is more important than innovation, flexibility and a free market.

This is dutifully followed by multiple European Commission references and the whole "monopolies are bad" thing. This is both an over-simplification and a philosophical imposition. Of course he segues this right into #2

2. Operator lock-in
But I want to stop it right there.

Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop has enabled the very advances in technology that we're seeing. Having one platform has made the software process less costly and therefore more open. So in many ways this drives innovation, flexibility and the free market.

If I can make software for one or two platforms and only have to test/maintain it on those one or two platforms, then the cost to produce my software and make it competitive is significantly lower. With MS dominating the desktop market, it's easy to make new software that reaches 90%+ of the audience by just making for Windows.

If we started the whole thing again and made a world where 5 different OS vendors each had 20% of the desktop market, we'd eventually end up with 2 OS vendors again and they would either have a split market (Coke, Pepsi) or one leader and one little guy (MS, Apple) with a smattering of small budget competitors. This isn't "right or wrong", it's just the way things are, especially in the realm of "platforms" (OSes, web browsers, etc.)

Supporting multiple platforms is very expensive, it always has been: scroll back to the 80s, look at wars between Unix variants, it hasn't changed. So I fail to see why "unseating" Microsoft as the crown jewel is going to "fix" problems. If MS lost 30% of the desktop share to Apple and Linux variants, the world wouldn't magically become a "better place", if anything, small tech companies would be griping at the difficulty of making new software and reaching a big enough market to support any growth.

And I'm not saying that MS is the "good guy" here, they're not. They've cleared played very dirty for many years (but hey, that's what publicly held companies are basically required by law to do). What I am saying is that MS is not holding back the innovation front. Do a quick run of the MS research site and you'll see that they're not sitting on their laurels. If anything, they have too much going on and nobody can really keep up.

He quotes the required Vista failure lines: As Vista so readily proves, rehashing the same idea again and again does not make for progress. And unless you're a Dev, Vista was really a bust. As a dev though, I can tell you that changes are afoot for Windows desktop apps in the coming years and whether Singularity becomes the new OS of choice or everyone just skips to Windows 7, there's a lot going on under the hood that we won't see for a few years to come. But if you haven't played with WPF, then you won't know any of this, so give it some time.

3. Input methods
We haven't come far. Qwerty is 130 years old, and windows, icons, mice and pointers are 35. Both come from before the age of portable computing. So why are we reliant on these tired old methods for all our new form factors?

Hey buddy, the same Windows Vista that you're mocking in the previous point has voice recognition built in to the OS level. One of the popular Dot Net bloggers Scott Hanselman has a post about it here. He uses a microphone for much of his work. MS has also had a Tablet PC edition available for years, and again the features are built-in with all versions of Vista.

If you want a new input method, go out and buy yourself a tablet, you can get them under a $100 dollars and having used a few, they're definitely a new way of inputting. If that's not enough for you, check out Microsoft's Surface.

Point being, we're not reliant on the Keyboard and Mouse for all inputs, they're just the cheapest implementable methods available. Yes, there are tons of other things that we could be doing, but I think that it's pretty obvious that we're working on them. Supporting a "touch-based" or a "voice-driven" user interface is not an easy problem. It's a really hard problem and we're not "being held back", we're "evolving better solutions".

4. Battery Life
Yeah, you got me here, if we could triple the amount of energy stored in a Li-Ion battery, we would definitely have a different computing environment. But for anyone who knows the basic chemistry here, this is not an easy problem.

Short of a completely new battery technology, we're don't really have any more doubling room left. However, we do have the ability to get more mileage from our batteries: OLED screens promise better usage than TFT LCD we typically use and portable music players have been shown to be able to drastically extend battery life when using certain compression algorithms. And of course, we've made huge leaps in the last few years with making more efficient computer processors to help extend battery life.

5. The mania for speed
Faster processors are great. However, there is more to computing than processor speed — a point which can be easily proven by comparing a two-year-old PC running Linux with a new PC buckling under the weight of Vista. Shrinking the manufacturing process to enable greater speed has proven essential, but it's running out of magic.

...smarter, not faster, will lead to both smarter and faster.

Yes we're well aware of the size limitations on the processor, but if you haven't noticed, the "mania for speed" stopped a few years ago when Intel abandoned the P4 architecture and moved towards the Core and the Core 2. At that point they joined AMD in making multi-core, more power efficient processors in an attempt to address points #4 & 5.

The cheap shots comparing Linux and Vista are just that: cheap shots. Linux and Vista are not competitive desktop OSes, Vista and Mac OS X are competitive desktop OSes, I guess he's counting on the Slashdot crowd to back him up on the Apples-to-Oranges comparison.

Point is, between various SSE and the move to 64-bit and the move to multi-core and the creation of things like physics processors, we're clearly making a lot of movement in the "not faster" category.

Ok let's skip ahead:
9. National interests
10. The current lack of global wars and/or disasters
Yeah, again, you got me... technology is being impeded by political interests. This isn't new or novel, this has gone on for as long as we've known. Galileo's pretty famous for his sacrifice, but these are pretty disingeneous arguments to make when we live in an era of relatively high freedom and access to information.

And now for more of the opinions:
8. Web 2.0
I think that I can let most of this just speak for itself:
Speaking of daft innovations that do little to better the lives of humanity, Web 2.0 has a lot to answer for...But the extremes of enthusiasm shown by financiers and business people are verging on counterproductive...It's nice to see the vanguard cashing in. But they're not really worth their valuations or the mountains of cash they have received from venture capitalists, whose money could probably find better use in other areas of technological innovation.

Yes, b/c making the web into the new target platform isn't really that significant? Oh no, you're just saying that it's a waste of money. I thought that you wanted innovation, flexibility and a free market, but I thought that it took money and competition to make these things happen. Are lots of companies going to fail, are lots of investors going to lose lots of money? Sure, but that's just par for the course, being angry at "Web 2.0" is like being angry at every major technological boom: radio, the railway, cars, they all had their big booms and their big losers.

This will be no different, of course, I can assure you that people throwing billions of dollars at technology is not "holding back tech" as the title of the article would seem to imply.

7. Skills inequalities
Applications and technology might become more intuitive and creative if more women were involved in the industry. Diversity breeds innovation...
The more IT listens to and gives power to those it has traditionally excluded, the better it will be suited to solve real problems for us all.

Yeah, yeah, if more men were involved in the nursing industry the world would be a better place, right? Just more cheap shots and more of the same "classic" problems. Take that last sentence and replace IT with any major industry: healthcare, education, engineering, public services. It's basically a straw man sentence with no supporting arguments.

The author cannot even be bothered to find a single link in this section that supports his statements, espeically the whole "if more women were involved" sentence. I just can't argue with "logic" like that.

And lastly, we'll end on a good note:
6. Intellectual property law
Here he's correct.

Laws regarding IP are not currently capable of correctly handling modern technology. This is not just for technology, this is for all of the arts. Consider that the laws regarding copyright and patents were developed before the advent of the microchip, before scanners and photocopiers and digital cameras and even affordable home cameras.

If you, faithful reader, were writing Intellectual Property laws in the 1850s, how would you have accounted for all of these things?.... yeah, I wouldn't have been able to either... so it's probably time to re-write most of this stuff, but many of the politicians responsible for making these changes are just not technically capable enough to institute the changes... kind of a shitty deal.

Of course, we'll need this intervention sooner rather than later, b/c not only was IP law not written for the current tech, it was written before the advent of computer code. So that means that all of the computer code powering all of the highly capable computers is all hovering in a giant legal gray area b/c no one's really legislated a good answer for the whole thing (again, not like the people drafting the laws have the required technical know-how).

So there we go... the "Gates on Stuff" Top 3 List of Things Holding Back Technology:
1. Battery life
2. Politics
3. IP law (read politics...)

OK, new list:
1. Battery life
2. Politics
3. Really shitty tech writers

Of course, YMMV.

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