Software and Brakes — Part II

by Jean-Louis Gassée

This week, no iPad disquisition, no large companies engaged in contorted Kama Sutra embraces, no Google-Apple-Microsoft love triangle. We’ll revisit these topics in due course but, for the time being, let’s go back to a geeky topic unadulterated by geopolitics or markitecture: software and brakes. Last month, we looked at the software invasion of automotive braking systems. More specifically, we looked at the interplay between braking and kinetic energy recovery in the Toyota Prius.

Today, we’re going back to “soft brakes” for another set of applications: differentials and stability control.

Differentials. Fifty years ago, they wore out, they made noises, they had to get careful periodic checks and special lubrication. Now, with progress in metal allows, high-precision machining and modern lubricants, they’re rarely seen or heard of. Yet, they perform and important role and their basic design suffers from one no less critical flaw.

(Here, we’ll assume a rear-wheel drive car. The concept applies to all drive configurations.)

The important role goes like this: when the car turns, the two wheels on the same axle draw circles of different radii, smaller radius for the inner wheel, larger for the outer. As a result, the outer wheel must turn faster that the inner one. This is no problem for the front axle whose wheels are “free”, not driven. But, for the rear axle, we’re in trouble: the drive shaft attached to the gear box connects to the axle through a 90 degrees angle gear. This causes each wheel to be driven at the same speed. This is fine in a straight line but causes wheel slippage when we turn as the wheels must rotate at different speeds.

This was the arrangement when the very early automobiles mimicked horse carts. On carts, wheels on the same solid axle did slip in a turn, but said wheels didn’t have to provide any traction, the horse did. In a car, the axle provides traction and wheel slippage works against stability and comfort, to say nothing of tyre wear.

So, the differential was invented. It’s a little counterintuitive at first but it works beautifully.

See this touchingly kitsch Chevrolet video. Or this learned Wikipedia article. Relatively simple, once you get the hang of the planet gear’s role. And universal.

But trouble starts right away.


Honey, I shrunk the Tax Code!

It’s really about another kind of code, but read on a bit…

This is an old dream: making the tax code shorter, simpler. From time to time, a politician of the populist persuasion comes out and promises to get things right. The ultimate expression for this drive towards simplicity is the Flat Tax movement: a single fixed (as opposed to today’s progressive, accelerating) tax rate for everyone. Google ‘‘flat tax” and you get more than 40 million hits. A popular fantasy. And not one just held by kooks, conspirationists and other End of Times prophets. Stanford University hosts the very serious right-wing Hoover Institution, a think tank that publishes scholarly papers such as this one. Or we have Steve Forbes, as in Forbes Magazine, proudly posing, postcard in hand, on the cover of his book: Flat Tax Revolution: Using a Postcard to Abolish the IRS.

Fun stuff, or sad, you pick your perspective. (Speaking of fun, this note’s title is a reference to a cult movie: Honey, I shrunk the kids!)
The basis for the agitation is a feeling of hopelessness. Year after year, we add articles to the tax code, to adapt to new circumstances, to new projects, to plug loopholes. As a result, the code grows and buggier.

This latter phrase, “the code grows fatter and buggier”, also applies to our high-tech spaghetti code: operating systems. Every new rev served with fresh bugs!

Software is… soft, malleable. Next to hardware, adding/changing features is comparatively easy, tempting. With features added upon features, bug fix patches over earlier generations of patches, the whole edifice soon starts to look like the accumulated layers of a Babylonian archeological dig.

Over time, the mess resulting from this “organic” growth gets worse and worse because OS developers are caught between the past and the future.
Looking forward, happily fueled by relentless technical progress, our industry constantly comes up with new hardware features and more modern software techniques. These improvements result in new ways application programs “talk” to the system. We use the acronym API (Application Programming Interfaces) for the way application software accesses OS resources.
Looking back, companies and individuals have huge investments of money and people in application software. OS improvements can’t come at the expense of backward — an ominous adjective — compatibility.

When making improvements, the system must add new APIs and keep the old ones around. Add but never subtract: he result is bloatware. More

Soft Brakes on the Prius

Once upon a time, I took my Wehrmacht staff car to the Palo Alto service shop. As I mentioned a barely perceptible change in the feel of velvety autobox when it shifted gears, Ernesto, the all-knowing, all-seeing tech nodded: ‘Yes, we need to load a new revision of the software in your automatic transmission…’

When I mentioned this to my Monday Note boss, he jumped: ‘Why don’t you write a piece on cars becoming soft, that is an exposé of the total invasion of software in today’s cars?’
We’re both geeks, you see. And, yes, I could sing the praise of Toyota’s PSD (Power Split Device), the clever Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) used by the Prius. (That type of transmission was invented in the 60s by TRW, Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, a Texas company. The patent has expired.)

But there is more urgent than software-driven transmissions in the news. Toyota is hit (or has hit itself) by one problem after another. After recalling something like 8 million cars because of a combination of pesky floor mats and sticky gas pedals, we now hear Toyota’s crown jewel, the lated model Prius has buggy brakes.
How come?
Software, of course. And the need to score high numbers in the mileage tests.

Here is how the problem builds.

First, brakes.

Once upon a time, brakes were simple: you pushed on the pedal, the pressure was hydraulically transmitted to the brake itself. Assuming a disc brake, the pressure caused calipers to squeeze the disc between two sets of pads, thus slowing the car. For convenience and safety, your foot’s pressure is multiplied by a brake booster.
So far, no microprocessor.

Then we invented anti-locking brakes, ABS. As you know, when wheels lock, the car skids, braking is impaired, stopping distance increases. ABS uses sensors to monitor wheel motion. If the wheel abruptly stops moving, it’s locking. A software program then directs the brakes to lower the pressure on the disc pads, the wheel starts moving again, until it locks again and the unlocking cycle restarts. You can sometimes sense a vibration when the ABS quickly repeats the sequence, trying to keep the car just at the edge of maximum braking without locking the wheels. Nice. Modern implementations have faster actuators, the device that temporarily reduces hydraulic pressure, and smarter software, to better deal with road surfaces with gravel or snow where some amount of wheel lock is the better strategy. There is even newer code that detects a panic stop and forces the kind of maximum pressure normal drivers are reluctant or unable to apply. More

The Apple Licensing Myth

Legends die hard. In the pre-Web days, they got printed and reprinted, told and retold and so became official, like spinach being good for you because it held the iron your red cells needed. After decades of the disgusting veggie inflicted upon young kids – I remember, a scientist went back to the bench and found out there was no digestible iron whatsoever in spinach. You don’t get calcium by ingesting chalk, you need a calcium compound that’ll get through the sophisticated filters in the digestive system. Eating spinach gives you as much  digestible iron as sucking nails.

The spread of legends gets worse with the Web. Stories, I’m avoiding the word “information”, travel fast, I’ll sidestep “light-speed”. Yarns bounce around a world-wide echo chamber. If I hear it from five sources, it must be true. Never mind the so-called sources heard it from one another in sequence. Worse indeed, as the Web never forgets, everything gets cached, archived and will be unearthed by search engines.
This creates a need and entrepreneurs pop out of the quantum vacuum ready to fill it: a Google search reveals at least three companies,, and who promise to clean up your besmirched Web image. Actually, these three look like the same company and, at the risk of unfairly tarnishing their own rep, they look like one of these only too frequent scams purporting to protect you from scams. Ah well…

So it goes for a tenacious legend, the one that Apple “lost” the market because it failed to license the Mac operating system to “everyone” and thus get to own the market instead of losing it to the “obviously inferior” Microsoft product.
A few days ago, no less than über-blogger Henry Blodget, the Internet Bubble repentito now head of Business Insider blog hub fell for it. This industry observer who admitted he never set foot in an Apple Store, not a sin if your territory is the quick oil-change industry, chides Apple for “making the same mistake again”. In Dear Henry’s view, just like in the 80’s, Apple insists “on selling fully integrated hardware and software devices, instead of focusing on low-cost, widely distributed software”. As a result, Apple will lose to the Open Source Android, just like Apple lost to Microsoft.

I know we shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good story, but let’s take a closer look at today’s as well as yesterday’s data. More

The 2010 Tech Watch List

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. More

I’m Chrome, You’re Rust

As you know, Google proceeded with the second announcement of its Chrome OS this past week, the first one took place on July 7th, 2009, and the ship date being a year away, we can be sure to have more launch events: one of the first beta, a couple more for applications and partnerships agreements before the Big One, in time for the 2010 Holidays shopping season. So goes our industry and its posturing ways.

Did we learn something new?

On the product itself, not really. On Google’s intentions, official or real, a little bit more or, as you’ll see, perhaps a tad less.

In two past Monday Notes, “Chrome-Plated Linux or Microsoft 2.0” and “Trojan Horse: Web Apps”, we discussed the product itself, Google’s Chrome browser sitting on a Linux-derived OS kernel and, more important, Google’s goal: killing the Microsoft earnings engine with a new generation of mixed-mode productivity applications displacing Office.

As we know, most of Microsoft’s earnings and cash generation (“only” $5B in additional cash for the past year) come from the Windows + Office + Exchange triad.
We know Google’s Web apps such as Documents, Presentation and Spreadsheets. There, for Microsoft, the most dangerous part is something called Google Gears or Offline mode on our PCs and Macs. For example, Gmail can work off-line, with a local copy of your mail; when the connection is restored, everything syncs back with the Cloud. The idea isn’t new, Microsoft’s Outlook has been providing such a dual on-line/off-line arrangement for years, it’s called the Cache mode.
This, meaning dual-mode Google Apps, is the Microsoft Office killer and, as a result, the end of the Microsoft money machine.

In theory. The rest, as we like to joke, is a “mere matter of implementation”.

On that subject, that is how Chrome OS and its applications will do in the marketplace, last week’s disclosures left some of us puzzled.

The OS kernel itself looks well thought out. It is said to boot fast and to be very secure, same thing for the browser, one we’ve seen already on PCs, spartan, a good restart from the feature accumulation we’ve seen on Explorer or even Firefox. More

Microsoft ambivalence

Lots of earnings reports this week, mostly good ones. Apple did better than expected, even by the most enthusiastic earnings seers, so did Amazon whose shares went up 26.8% today, adding more than $10B to its market cap in one day. I’m happy to see a quality company, one that treats its customer better than the vast majority of short-term oriented businesses, reap rewards for a combination of long-term vision and everyday attention to detail. We’ll get back to Amazon in a future Monday Note, when we discuss the flurry of e-book readers.

You might have heard Microsoft just launched Windows 7 this past Thursday, to good reviews and newish Apple ads, more installments of the ‘I’m a PC, I’m a Mac’ age-old campaign. The gent who plays the PC, John Hodgman, is much more than the character he’s become known for. See the speech he wrote and delivered at the June 2009 White House Correspondents dinner: he roasts the newly elected Barack Obama, calling him the first nerd president. This YouTube video won’t bore you, I’m not sure I can say the same for the latest, somewhat repetitious Apple ads.

As for Windows 7 itself, I haven’t updated any of the four candidate computers I mentioned last week. In part because I want to hear from early upgraders before I take the plunge, I still have the expensive and painful memories of being a Vista early adopter in 2007. I was the first one in line at Fry’s, in Palo Alto, at 8:00 am on January 30th — and proud of it. When the door opened, I turned around and saw I was also the only one in line. Instead of taking the hint, I forged ahead, bought a big HP laptop and the full Office 2007 Professional DVD. I had grown reasonably adept at running Windows Xp machines and couldn’t imagine how painful the Vista experience would turn out to be. I’m more careful, this time.
There is also the money. Upgrading the four machines, including a first install on a Linux netbook will cost me about $800, plus some application software, plus my time. Upgrading five Macs in my family cost me $49 and not too much time as the process was, for me at least, uneventful.
(This said, I plan to write a few short subjects on strange bugs, UI caprice or ergonomics non-sense in Apple’s products. Being a polite optimist, I’ll marvel: if the products sell so well in spite of these kinks, imagine what would happen if these problems disappeared!) More

One Bit

This is going to be a busy week. Monday we have Apple’s earnings and, later in the week, Windows 7’s release. The deafening noise will make it hard to understand the real, lasting consequences of these events. Fortunately, deep into the bowels of a server, a smaller happening, a bit flipping from 0 to 1 portends more fun, more intelligible things to come.

The Apple Q4 (fourth quarter) 2009 numbers matter less than the volume of comments will make it appear. If the numbers are good, fans will sing ‘I told you so’ and naysayers will object the good times won’t last. If the revenue and profit indicators are less than stellar, the ‘I told you so’ and ‘it won’t last’ will switch sides.

A similar pattern applies to Windows 7’s launch: this is the greatest thing since Vista, just kidding; this is disappointing; this works; this doesn’t; this threatens Apple; this is very good for Apple. (Apparently, Apple is intent on channeling the Windows 7 noise to its own uses with an aggressive campaign, likely targeting the pain Xp users who, supposedly, will endure a particularly arduous upgrading experience. We’ll keep this for later: I’ll upgrade a few computers from Xp, Linux, Vista Ultimate and Vista Home Premium and report back.)

Sages have already offered their obligatory contributions to each part of the libretto. And, things on the Web being immortal, wags have dug up equally authoritative 2 1/2 years-old claims from the same business and tech gurus when Vista was launched. Said wags invented a term, “claim chowder”, for such an amusing or embarrassing confrontation between past and present pronouncements. If you google the phrase, you won’t get much because the ever-obliging search engine thinks you mean New England’s “clam chowder”. Fortunately, Google Reader, the blog-reading engine, is more forthcoming and offers a bevy of examples such as this one, or this one.

The confusion and contradictions are understandable: I believe the computer industry is in a transition that makes divining the future by reading today’s tea leaves more difficult than usual. For example, how and how much will Cloud Computing really change the landscape? Or, what about netbooks, a fad or a lasting trend encouraged by a bad economy pushing consumers and business towards the bottom of the price range? Will smartphones continue to eat into PC “face-time”, into out use of desktop and laptop computers and, if so, how quickly? More

The Trojan Horse: Web Apps

Web Apps are the future: modern, light, run and updated in the Cloud, they will progressively replace the antiquated, bloated, expensive to buy and manage desktop “client” applications.
So says Google. And walking the talk, they put their Google Apps against the reigning champion of desktop applications: Microsoft Office.
Microsoft never gives up and, as expected, announced a Web-based, a Cloud version of their upcoming Office 2010 along with the classical desktop suite, more feature-rich than ever.

Google Apps are free? Office 2010 on the Web is free. With the advantage of a familiar UI, User Interface, their brand, the desktop version as a fall-back, it would seem Microsoft is staying on top. Google Apps might be free (in most cases) and somewhat fashionable, if only for being “not-Microsoft”, but with the combined desktop and Web versions, Microsoft covers all needs.

Case closed? Not quite. More

Google OS: Chrome-Plated Linux or Microsoft 2.0?

Here’s what I think its taking place:

Microsoft executives and Board members are no dummies: they know Cloud Computing threatens the Windows + Office + Exchange gold mine, the biggest in our industry’s history. They know the future is Office + Exchange running in dual-mode. From the Cloud when a Net connection is available; locally when the Cloud is out of reach. Everything synched back when the connection is restored.
 Imagine Outlook in Cache Mode, just with a browser, without a local client, generalized to all Office applications.
 Their delicate mission, should they choose to accept it, is to move Office and Exchange into the Cloud, into dual-mode applications. The challenge is to get there before Google Apps gain acceptance but without prematurely cannibalizing the existing Office + Exchange profit stream.

On its side, Google wants to protect the search-based advertising gold mine. To do so, they need to hurt Microsoft’s ability to finance a broad-front attack against Google’s core business. That’s why Google wants to offer an alternative to “Office in the Cloud”: with Microsoft no longer able to dictate prices, the Office profit stream would dry up and so would Microsoft’s ability to finance an attack against Google’s core business.

This, I surmise, is the context for last week’s Google Chrome OS announcement — and for a rumored Microsoft event this coming week.

With this in mind, let’s look at Google’s pronunciamento. More