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Jean-Louis Gassée

Intel’s bold bet against ARM: visionary or myopic?

Uncategorized By June 27, 2010 35 Comments

Today, Intel’s x86 architecture reigns supreme on PCs (and millions of servers, such as Google’s, that use the PC organ bank). Anywhere else, the ARM processors have won; they’re in billions of devices, regular cell phones, smartphones, entertainment devices, navigation systems and legions of other embedded applications.

Understandably, perhaps, Intel didn’t want to play in the low end of the processor market. But we now see the emergence of RPCs, Really Personal Computers, more commonly called smartphones. Nokia, RIM, Apple and the fast-rising army of Android licensees all use high-end ARM derivatives.

Intel’s answer is a family of low-end x86 devices, Atom processors. So far, Atom processors haven’t been used in smartphones, only in netbooks.

‘Wait’, says Intel, ‘over time, our proven semiconductor design and manufacturing capabilities will allow us to reduce the power consumption and cost of x86 processors. That’s how we’ll win this emerging market, just as we won the PC.’

Easier said than done. The older and more complicated x86 architecture is inherently disadvantaged against the more modern ARM architecture. And, as we’ll see, there is more to this fight than semiconductor design and manufacturing prowess.

For context, let’s go to Mary Meeker’s latest (June 7th, 2010) Internet Trends presentation.

By 2012, she predicts, smartphones shipments will exceed PC unit volumes. Approximately 480 million smartphones versus 430 million PCs, going to 650 million next generation devices by 2013:

Just as important, by next year, smartphones unit volumes will overtake “feature phones”:

Smartphones, feature phones? Without losing ourselves in taxonomy games, let’s turn to the popular Blackberry devices: they are good examples of the smartphone category. Anything less is a feature phone, sometimes called a regular phone, or a “dumb phone”.


Thus spake Steve Jobs: The PC isn’t dead yet

hardware By June 13, 2010 Tags: 31 Comments

Daniel Lyons, the Newsweek tech writer notorious for his Fake Steve Jobs blog, penned an epistolary piece last week (R.I.P., Macintosh) in which he asks and answers the question: “Is Apple ignoring its signature line of computers and laptops? Yup.”

The columnist claims that with the iPhone and the iPad as the Dear Leader’s new pets, Steve Jobs has kicked the Mac to the curb (or kerb for our British readers). Lyons backs his claim with the following evidence: Apple’s 2010 WWDC was focused on the iPhone OS only; there were no Best Applications awards for the Mac, only for iPhone/iPad apps; and, drum roll, the iPhone OS was renamed iOS (the name is licensed from Cisco, just as the iPhone moniker was).

Lyons may be onto something, but in his desperate quest for page views at Newsweek (itself kicked to the curb by its soon former owner, the Washington Post Company) our columnist has yielded to the crass motives and hyperbole he loves to lampoon.

Yes, Steve Jobs said the PC (including the Mac) isn’t “the future”, but he didn’t go on to euthanize it.

Let’s go back to the evening of June 1st, 2010. We’re at the D8 conference discussed here last week. Steve Jobs is interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher; you can find the entire 95-minute video here.
(Sorry, iPad users, it’s Flash…but, wait…nevermind. Although the interview shows up as Flash on my antique personal computer, when I watch it on my iPad, behold!, the site detects the iPad client and spews an H.264 video stream. We can take this as a sign that the WSJ doesn’t want to miss the advertising revenue of 100 million iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad devices out there, and as a preview of what other sites will do, as well. And perhaps it’s a problem with my old desktop machine or older eyes, but the video look better on the iPad than it does on my PC.)

I’m watching the video as I write this. It completes and, in places, corrects my recollection of the event. Whatever one thinks of Steve Jobs—and the video won’t change many minds—the conversation contains a number of gems, such as Steve’s pithy view of the enterprise market (between 28:30 and 29:15), his take on the Adobe controversy, his pronouncement of carriers as “orifices” (that was a few years ago, recalled by Walt for laughs), the importance of editorial functions (Jobs doesn’t want us to “descend into a nation of bloggers”), how he looks at his job (around 59:00), and more. I know an hour and a half is a lot, but pay attention to what’s said and not said and, just as important, the face and body language.
The bit about the future of the PC comes between minutes 45 and 51. There, Apple’s CEO lays out his vision of the post-PC era in a string of very carefully weighed statements, interspersed with personal insights into the changes in user interaction brought about by the new very personal devices.

As Apple unties the software platform from the iPhone, one can imagine a number of iOS-powered devices in its future. Apple won’t necessarily follow HP’s example, but the latter has made it clear that they’ll use the newly-acquired Palm WebOS in devices such as printers. This is a high volume business, one where the traditional embedded software is user-hostile. Just imagine a Palm Pre screen grafted onto a printer.


Ballmer just opened the Second Envelope

Uncategorized By May 30, 2010 127 Comments

You know the business lore joke. The departing CEO meets his successor and hands him three envelopes to be opened in the prescribed order when trouble strikes. First crisis, the message in envelope #1 says: Blame your predecessor. Easy enough. Another storm, the the CEO opens the second envelope: Reorganize. Good idea. And when calamity strikes yet again, he reaches for the third: Get three envelopes…

This past Tuesday, Steve Ballmer reorganized Microsoft’s Entertainment & Devices division, let go of its execs, Robbie Bach and J Allard, and moved a few more pieces around. All wrapped in the most mellifluous, Orwellian language we’ve seen from Microsoft in awhile. The full memo is here. We’re treated to encomiums to great work, friendship, spending more time with one’s family, leaving on a high note…under the guise of decency, this is indecent.
Ballmer’s view of executive leadership doesn’t admit standing up and taking responsibility. He can’t say ‘I screwed up’ and then explain what he’ll do to rectify the situation. No. Instead, two gents are fingered while they pretend they aren’t being blamed. In a surreal, a cappella farewell memo, J Allard writes to his soon former troops:
No one can touch our talent, our impact or our ambition. We’re the only high-tech company with the track record and self-confidence to reinvent ourselves as we have. If you want to change the world with technology, this is still the best tribe out there.

Robbie Bach dutifully plays his part in the down-is-actually-up corporate farce. He gives a long exit interview to the Microsoft-friendly blog TechFlash where he claims the dual departures are coincidental, that everything is fine. What does he have to say about tablets? Nothing much:
Well, tablet is an area that will evolve going forward. Certainly it’s a focus for what we’re doing in the Windows space, and how they’re thinking that space. We’re going to have a bunch of netbooks and tablet stuff that’s in the works there. We’ll just see how that evolves. I don’t think there’s anything earth-shattering about that. It’s just another set of devices, and we’ll figure out how we make sure we bring a good offering to consumers.’
And, regarding the now defunct Courier tablet:
Courier, first of all, wasn’t a device. The project and the incubation and the exploration we did on Courier I view as super important. The “device” people saw in the video isn’t going to ship, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn a bunch and innovate a bunch in the process. And I’m sure a bunch of that innovation will show up in Microsoft products, absolutely confident of it.
Serves us right for not reading the small print on the screen during the demo. These guys obviously think we’re idiots. That’s their privilege, but they ought to be a little more discrete about their low regard for us.

Not everyone buys this BS. One blogger, Horace Dediu, offers what many believe is the right explanation: Robbie Bach was fired because he lost the HP account. As the largest PC maker, HP is a hugely important Microsoft customer. A few weeks ago, HP acquired Palm for its WebOS smartphone software platform. The slap in Microsoft’s face still resonates; it’s a verdict on the failed Windows Mobile offering and a negative prognosis on its upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series operating system for smartphones. Days after the acquisition, Mark Hurd, HP’s CEO, let it be known that WebOS will be used in connected printers. As a final blow, HP’s (future) Slate Tablet, once held high as a Windows 7 device, will also use Palm’s WebOS.

Steve Ballmer has always been Microsoft’s most powerful salesman. That he lost the HP mobile devices account—and it was Ballmer who lost it, not Robbie Bach—is yet one more reason why Microsoft shareholders are troubled. Their unhappiness can be charted by comparing two stock price graphs, spanning the January 2000 – May 2010 period. Microsoft’s stock dropped from $56 to $25.80…

…while Apple shares rose from $25 to $256.88:

The morning after Steve Ballmer opened the proverbial Second Envelope, Apple’s market cap, the total value of its shares, surpassed Microsoft’s. In Wall Street terms, Apple is now the largest high-tech company, worth about $230B, a few percentage points ahead of Microsoft. Across all industries, Steve Jobs’ company is now second only to an oil company, Exxon, at $285B. When questioned about Apple overtaking Microsoft, Ballmer had this to say:
It is a long game. We have good competitors but we too are very good competitors,’ he said. ‘I will make more profit and certainly there is no technology company on the planet that is as profitable as we are.


Under the hood: Google Apps and Apple

mobile internet, software By May 24, 2010 16 Comments

With its Cloud Apps, Google tells a nice, simple story: All you need is a browser. Life is simple, we take care of everything, no more fighting with fat, expensive desktop bloatware.
You can access your data and our apps Anywhere, Anytime…if you have an Internet connection. If you don’t, as we’ll see in a moment, things become more complicated. More like yesterday.

Let’s start with a simple Web app. How does it work?

Somewhere, a computer runs a Web server. In turn, the Web server runs an application whose job is to pull the strings of the browser marionette hiding inside my computer at the other end of a Net connection. The app tells my browser to display ‘Monday Note’ at these coordinates inside such-and-such a window, using this font, that size, and this color. Or the Web app sends a file and tells the browser where and how to play it, and so on.
But what happens if I lose the Net connection? The server no longer pulls the string, the marionette collapses, my Web application is dead.

To achieve its strategic goal of displacing Microsoft Office, Google knew it had to provide an off-line version of Google Apps. Off-line capability is implemented by dropping a replica of the Cloud—a Web server, the application code running on that server, and a local cache of my data—into my computer. My work will be uploaded to the Cloud when the Net connection is restored. With today’s software technology, with abundant storage and computing power on desktops and laptops, Google’s goal isn’t unreachable.

But…the Cloud can be replicated inside my laptop?

It’s not as fantastic as it sounds. While the Cloud evokes images of Google server farms and Big Iron, even the flimsiest of netbooks now provide ample RAM space (at least 1Gbyte, often 2), plenty of disk space (160 Gb or more), and an Intel processor running at 1 GHz or faster. Recreating the server, storage, and applications is well within their power.

Furthermore, your PC/laptop/netbook already contains a Web server. Every Mac carries a copy of the Apache Web server (“the most popular HTTP server software in use” says the Wikipedia article), as so do most Linux “distros” on netbooks and DVDs. Windows provides a Web server called IIS, Internet Information Services, the “second most popular web server in terms of overall websites…” (Wikipedia). If you want Apache on Windows, it’s free and easy, go here. The Windows Installer package (née MSI) weighs in at 6Mbytes, that’s all.


The Nexus One Puzzle

mobile internet By January 10, 2010 Tags: , 15 Comments

Let me state it at the outset: I understand the buzz generated by the Google Phone a.k.a Nexus One. But, the more I look into details and their ramifications, the more I’m puzzled. What exactly is Google trying to do? Make Android, their smartphone OS platform the “Windows” of the new era of really personal computers? Or become a dominant handset player to effectively compete with RIM’s Blackberries or Apple’s iPhones? Or, third possibility, dominate the new world of mobile advertising as it does the “old” universe of Web ads for PCs?

Let’s start with the product.

It’s not really a Google Phone. Its real name is Nexus One and it’s made by HTC, the well-regarded Taiwanese handset maker that produced the first G1 and G2 Android phones — as well as their Sidekick ancestor from Danger. Microsoft bought that company but the CEO, Andy Rubin joined Google as head of the Android team.
But, you’ll object, most cell phones and smartphones are made by one company, a manufacturing subcontractor and branded and sold by another. Apple doesn’t make its iPhones, nor does RIM make any of its Blackberries, to use but two well-known examples. Indeed, the Nexus One is sold by Google at If you already have a Google Checkout account, the purchase process can’t be simpler.


The 2010 Tech Watch List

hardware, mobile internet, software By January 3, 2010 Tags: 2 Comments

Looking back at last year’s “Things to watch in 2009”, I’ll narrow the field a little bit: no more discussion of the auto industry, electric car markitecture notwithstanding, nor disquisitions of congress shenanigans, too much raw sewage material. Let’s stay with safer and generally cleaner/happier computer industry topics.

Microsoft 2.0 a.k.a. Google.

What is known: In its heyday, Microsoft strived to be all things to all people, from Office applications to Consumer Electronics (Windows CE), to Enterprise Computing (Exchange, Windows Server, SQL and Jet Servers and more), to mobile phones (WIndows Mobile just re-christened Windows Phone), to games (MSX and now the Xbox), to the Internet Explorer, .Net and now various Windows Live offerings and the Bing search product. And even more, such as various attempts at image processing for pros and consumers.
Now, we have Google with a similarly all-embracing land grab on the Web, from books to smartphones, from CAD software (yes, Sketchup) to music, video, “office” applications, collaboration, digital photography, application hosting, a payment system and more.

What is worth watching: When will Google’s “organic” growth start showing its limits? No tree ever reaches the sky. Google’s current strategy is eerily similar to Microsoft’s old “jump on anything that moves”. And, yes, it is smart to make Google a universal destination by using advertising revenue to finance free offerings that, in turn, channel more viewers to Google advertising.
But, eventually, the organism starts drowning in its toxic waste, meaning Google will face management tasks beyond its reach, or advertising revenue wont be able to subsidize everything else for ever, or it will slip and miss an important emerging trend such as social networks, see Facebook below.

Or, Google will become too powerful for the public good, destroying competition only too well and politicians will have their way with the Mountain View company. Unless Google learns, gets the better lobbyists and has its way with us like Wall Street, Big Pharma and Telecom companies, to name the best, do.


Launchpad Chicken: MobileMe and Sync Trouble

Uncategorized By August 11, 2008 Tags: , , , 27 Comments
by Jean-Louis Gassée

Simple is hard. Easy is harder. Invisible is hardest. So goes one of the many proverbs of our computer lore. As Apple found out last month with the MobileMe launch misfires, the lofty promise of “Exchange for the rest of us” translated into a user experience that was neither simple nor easy — in a highly visible way. Four weeks later, the service appears stable but doubts linger: Is Apple able to run a worldwide wireless data synchronization service for tens of millions of users.

What happened and what does it mean for MobileMe’s future?

Let’s start by decoding the “Launchpad Chicken” phrase. The game of Chicken is one by which two young males test their virility in the following way: from opposite directions, two cars speed towards each other on the same lane of a country road. The one who steers away first obviously lacks cojones and is derisively called chicken. You might ask about brains versus testes but here we are, the chicken is the one who “blinks first”. Now, let’s turn to the launchpad. Picture the NASA control room before the launch of an expedition to the Moon. Hundreds of (mostly) men in white short-sleeves shirts, pocket protectors and eyeglasses, hunched before screens, keyboards and telephones. Each one monitors a subsystem: left liquid hydrogen tank, backup gyroscopes, main engine telemetry… In the huge air-conditioned control room, five of these men are sweating, something’s not quite right with their baby. The temperature keeps rising, the pressure is falling, the telemetry link is weakening. Almost but not quite in the red zone. If the parameters keep drifting like this, they’ll have to pick up the red phone. But who wants to be the one who aborts the launch? So, they sweat some more and hope someone else blinks first. There you have it: Launchpad Chicken.

Now, move the imagery to projects with complicated subsystems. You see how the NASA metaphor made its way to Silicon Valley. There is always hope some other engineer will raise a hand and spare me the embarrassment of admitting my part of the project could crash the launch. This is what happened for MobileMe, with a twist on the cojones, so to speak. No one had enough brains and guts to risk humiliation, to raise a hand and say: Chief, we’re not ready here, let’s stop everything. As a result, MobileMe badly crashed on launch. A couple of weeks later, we have a leak: an “internal” memo from Steve Jobs. The email states the retroactively obvious, the project should have been delayed or at least launched in stages. No less obviously, a new leader is appointed, Eddy Cue, he’ll continue to run the iTunes systems as well. Charitably, the deposed MobileMe boss is granted anonymity, he might have been misinformed by his charges, or he might not have asked the right questions at the right times, it doesn’t matter anymore.

But, you’ll ask, that doesn’t tell us what went wrong, which liquid hydrogen tank sprung a leak. This now gets us into two more topics: sync and size. Sync here means keeping information identical, consistent over two or more devices. Less abstractly, for a simple example, I have a phone and a computer, I want their address books to identical or, at least, consistent. On simple cell phones, I use a cable (or a Bluetooth wireless connection) plus software to copy (parts of) my computer address book to the phone. But, wait a minute, I entered numbers on the phone that are not on my computer; I don’t want the copy from the computer to wipe out those new numbers. Trouble starts, as if connecting the cell phone to the computer and running the program wasn’t buggy enough. Tou want the software to compare the two address books, the phone’s and the laptop’s and decide what to keep and what to change, on both devices. But what about homonyms, or different numbers for the same person’s home? The program, hopefully, raises those “exceptions” and lets a human arbitrate.

We’re just warming up. Now picture a more real-life situation. One traveling consultant with one laptop, one smartphone, both carrying mail, address books and calendars and one assistant in the office with a desktop computer. In Microsoft Exchange’s lingo, the assistant is a “delegate”, has access, including modifications and new entries, to the traveling consultant’s data. Everything must be kept identical, consistent, in sync. How is this done?

Using the Exchange server as an example, it keeps the “true” data. And the “clients”, meaning the smartphone, the laptop, the assistant’s PC submit changes, new mail, an updated appointment, a new contact home phone to the Exchange server. In turn, the server propagates changes to the clients. We say the updates are “pushed” to the smartphone or the laptop, just as they “push” new mail or a new calendar item to the server. You can easily imagine conflict situations: the same appointment changed by the consultant and the assistant, address updates and the like. By now, at least on Exchange, these “exceptions” are well understood and generally well-handled. But it took years of practice. Just as it has taken years for RIM (founded in 1984), the Blackberry (launched in 1999) creators to polish what is the best-selling synchronized smartphone. Details, details and more subtle mistakes and special cases found and fixed. The Blackberry got its stardom from truly delivering the Simple, Easy, Invisible proposition referred to in the beginning of this essay.

MobileMe aspires to deliver a similarly invisible level of synchronization for people who don’t have an Exchange server, hence the “Exchange for the rest if us” slogan. But seeing the launch glitches, I wonder how many people at Apple stooped to using a Blackberry with an Exchange account. Doing this would have sobered them a little in advance of the launch, or delayed the whole thing, or tempered the boasts. Shortly after MobileMe’s first missteps, Apple publicly and smartly retracted its use of “Push” to describe MobileMe’s synchronization and the “Exchange for the rest of us” motto is no longer seen on the company’s Web site.

Moving to size: quantity begets nature. At some (often mysterious) point, more of the same becomes something different. One server, ten servers, more of the same. One thousand servers or, in Google’s case, running one million servers is of a different nature. Meaning different people with different knowledge and appetites than the ones needed to run a company’s email server. If every other iPhone customer wants to sync a PC or Mac with the newly (or old, with the 2.0 software update) purchased iPhone, MobileMe will soon serve millions and, in a not too distant future, tens of millions of iPhones. Besides knowing or not knowing the Buddha of sync, did the MobileMe team have the experience, the knowledge, the appreciation of the “size” problem before them? Very few people in our industry do. Ask Google’s rivals why they were trounced by someone coming late to the game but with a better handle on the “size” or “scale” problem. (See this paper from UC Berkeley, where ultra-large scale computing is actively researched, with private industry subsidies.)
In passing, 10 million MobileMe subscriptions at $100/year is a nice piece of change, one billion dollars, worth the trouble.

Let’s step back a little. Apple “pushes” somewhere between 100 and 200 megabytes of updates per month to each Mac user. Last week, the iPhone 2.0.1 update was announced, I connected two iPhones within minutes, the 200Mb files were downloaded and installed without a hitch and I haven’t heard any blogosphere complaints on the matter. iTunes has sold billions of songs, serves tens of millions of customers everyday and everything works with very few exceptions. In other words, some very large scale Apple systems do work. As discussed above, the iTunes boss (some say slave driver, a meliorative term in context) in now also in charge of MobileMe.

And, last week, parts of the Gmail service were down for 15 hours or so. Last month, Amazon’s respected Web Services went down. And, last year, RIM’s servers went down for about half a day in the Western Hemisphere, freaking out Wall Street investment bankers and management consultants. Even the best players must endure their share of false notes.

Back to MobileMe today:if you ask subscribers who’ve never experienced a Blackberry’s smooth delivery of sync, they love MobileMe. It works, it’s easy to set up and in the simple (most frequent) case of a PC/Mac with an iPhone, it does the wireless (OTA, Off The Air) sync job as now advertised. We’ll see how this scales once iPhones are sold in 21 more countries, 43 total starting August 22nd.



iPhone 3G — One Week Later

Uncategorized By July 21, 2008 Tags: , , No Comments

Contrary to what I expected, the dust hasn’t settled yet. A week later, people still queue, 2h30 Friday morning before being admitted to the sanctum sanctorum in San Francisco. Besides the long lines, there were glitches: activation problems, trouble with the new MobileMe service, with getting access to software updates for the “old” iPhones. Apple claims 1 million phones sold worldwide for the first weekend, probably 400,000 in the US alone. The latter number could explain the activation servers overload: in more normal times, AT&T must activate “only” 25,000 phones a day. Apple apologized for MobileMe problems and even conceded they should suspend some of the verbiage used to promote the service. Calling “Push” the way email and other information is coordinated between computers and the iPhone was found a little “anticipatory”, meaning promises made couldn’t yet be fulfilled. [“Push” means your phone or your computer will receive information without asking for it, without “Pulling”. The Blackberry is still the king of “Push”.]

But this is mostly folklore, fun but transitory. Something more important is taking place: the advent of the App Store. On iTunes, the App Store is a section where you find new applications for the iPhone. On the iPhone, the App Store is an icon that enables the one-click purchase and wireless download of new applications, just like a song and often costing the same, 99 cents, or less. In about the same time it took Apple to sell 1 million phones, users (this includes the updated first generation iPhones) downloaded 10 million applications. Half of these were free. For the paid for ones, about half were games, the rest range from software for general aviation pilots, medical students, bloggers, to light sabers, yes, you read it right, translation with voicing of phrases, nice when you go to China, subway maps, newsreaders, CRM, social networking, instant messaging and music streaming. Apple signed in with a nice, free, flourish: a program transforms your iPhone into a remote control for iTunes or AppleTV, works anywhere in the house through your WiFi network. And on and on… I was going to forget the Chanel Haute Couture Show. Free. Highest Karl Lagerfeld quality. How did this get in? Let me guess, friends in a common advertising agency? Is this one the new business models discussed below?

When the App Store opened a week ago, the catalog featured 27 pages, we’re now at 42. It’s fair to say some applications are silly, useless or unstable. The user review system in the App Store is merciless and deals harshly with stupidity, bad code or dysfunctional UI (User Interface). Also, there is an automatic update mechanism and applications such as Facebook have already been improved. The bad ones will die quickly.

The BFD, as in Big Fundable (or other F words) Deal here is the Great American Instant Gratification. The mental transaction cost of getting an application is very low: lots of choices, small price, one-click transaction. This is the magic of using the existing iTunes infrastructure and exisiting customer behavior. I can’t help but wonder whem Apple (or its competitors) will also use the model for desktop applications, Cloud Computing notwithstanding. I buy iTunes music for my personal computer, why not buy applications for my Mac or my PC from the same store?

Wait, as we say in America, there is more: business models. We’re beginning to see ads on the iPhone, with photos, music or the New York Times. We, VC, will be watching carefully as we wonder if advertising on such small screens will work, will generate real money. Another form of advertising looks more promising: free music channels on the Pandora application. You first set “channels” on from your PC, say Mozart, Bach, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. On your iPhone, you click Miles Davis and you either get Miles Davis works or music deemed to belong to the same genre, with a nice note explaining why the piece was put on this channel. And…, if you like it, one click buys it form iTunes. Clever and clever a second time because not convoluted.

Lastly, content presented as, wrapped in applications. For 99 cents you buy and load an application called The Art of War. You’ve recognized Sun Tzu’s book. But, instead of having a separate book reader and content purchased for it, with the risk of “unwanted duplication”, content and reader are now budled as one application for each book. When I pitch my next book to the publisher, I’ll make sur to mention the 45 million iPhones to be sold next year. This number is an admittedly wildly optimistic (and widely criticized) forecast by Gene Munster from Piper Jaffray. Unless RIM (Blackberry), Nokia and Google fight back, which is very likely, they don’t like Steve Jobs wiping his Birkenstocks on their back. —JLG


The Next Googlitzer Prizes

Uncategorized By July 14, 2008 No Comments

Let me build on my boss Frédéric Filloux’s point about bloggers. And, to do this, let me start with a quick linguistics lemma about California-speak.

In France, when two engineers review a project, the first one energetically “offers” (that’s an example of California-speak), hammers his views thusly: The only way to solve the problem is… And he expresses an opinion couched in Truth terms. The other techie retorts: You’re an idiot, this is brain-dead, the only way to solve the problem is… And another opinion follows, no less forceful. They’re just bantering, nothing personal and, soon, they get into the collaboration part of the review, give and take, get to a resolution and leave the meeting happy with themselves, the other person and the to-do list.

I tried this in Cupertino, when given charge of Apple’s engineers in 1985. They smiled politely: Thank you for sharing. But I sensed a transparent steel curtain descending between us and no actual communication took place after what I thought was just a manly opening. I knew that hypocrisy is the lubricant of social intercourse, I just forgot that it applied to conversations with techies. I had to learn to speak Californian: a set of euphemisms, mannerisms designed to equivocate and, as a result, to avoid giving offence. This is great, fantastic, I like what you do… All mean nothing, just filler speech designed to move the conversation forward without taking risk. Thank you for sharing means “I hate what you just said, asshole!” This is, as you well know, the land of neologism. Add the politics of large organizations and you get “grinfu–ing”, screwing someone with a big smile. Don’t say But, say And…

Back to the opening salvo above, in California-speak, Let me build on that point is what the French engineer must say to his California colleague in order to be heard. Actually, a gentler view of the deflection is that it encourages collaboration, let me use what you just said as a foundation, rather than excite confrontation.

With this in mind, allow me to register mild disagreement with Frédéric’s view of bloggers. I won’t fall for the easy characterization: the professional journalist versus the interlopers. I don’t write a blog, for reasons I don’t fully understand, but I read lots of them. Naively, I bought several newsreader applications and found out that the free Google Reader did the job very nicely. I can subscribe and unsubscribe to hundreds of blogs, ranging from the sublime to the sordid. (Try “Quantum Physics” and “Zoophilia” in the Reader’s search engine for blogs.) You can even “share”, that word again, items, stories with friends or even export your entire set of subscriptions and give it to a friend or family member as a way to let them see the blogosphere through your eyes.

I agree with FF, the bad news abound. There is a lot of garbage, nonsense, paid-for people and content parading as impartial views, bloggers echoing each other to the point where ten blogs spreading the same story could trip one to think: This must be true, there are ten sources for that story. No, it’s one unsubstanciated rumor repeated ten times over. We’re told there are 17 million blogs and growing, this is a gigantic garbage heap even Wall-E can’t mine for the gems. [I just saw the movie and can’t comprehend the quasi-universal praise.]

All true but, sorry, and yet enough cream manages to ascend to the surface to make blogs and bloggers an alternative to the conventional newspaper. Experts and perverts of every stripe, yes, and when I’m burned a couple of times, the subscription dies. Speaking of subscriptions dying, I wonder how long I’ll keep longing for the noise of newspaper landing on my door steps in the wee hours. Between blogs and newspaper Web sites, when I open the paper in the morning, I often feel I’ve seen the news item the night before. If I want a knowledgeable discussion of the Microhoo saga, there are two or three bloggers, starting with the almost eponymous Blodget, Peter Kafka, I’m not making this up, and Michael Arrington who’ll give me better/faster food for thought than the Wall Street Journal or the Grey Lady’s Joe Nocera.

As we mention existing newspapers, for all their wrapping themselves in the mantel of professionalism, how often are they guilty of the sins of cronyism, re-writing stories seen elsewhere, when it’s not making them up altogether? Numerous New York Times accidents come to mind: Judith Miller’s “coverage” of the Iraq War build-up, Jason Blair’s fabrications, the scurrilous John McCain sex story and too many more.

Back to the excess(es) argument, there is no good culture without bad taste, without people “going too far”. How do we innovate without breaking things, making mistakes, giving people legitimate reasons to be upset? Yes, legitimate reasons to be upset, but missing the larger point. There are plenty of good reasons to take a dim view of technology, it does facilitate the expression of our lowest instincts. And the Internet is a true revolution for freedom of expression. New genres are emerging and will continue to do so as bandwidth increases change the gamut (and location, think mobility) of available media. As the eternal optimist, I welcome the excesses of bloggers, they’re stimulating, helpful, irritating and fun. And, some day not far in the future, we’ll crown a few of them with something like a Googler Prize. Who knows, a few of today’s journalists might be among them.