Monthly Archives: March 2012

Reaching Beyond the Sky: Talking Innovation and Tablets with Suneet Tuli

As an advocate for technology users and affordable, Innovative technology for all, I was extremely excited to discover a passion for providing simple internet technology to the billions of people currently unable to afford it, in Suneet Tuli.  Suneet is President and CEO of DataWind, which launched the Aakash low-cost tablet computer in October 2011 in New Delhi.

Dubbed the world’s least expensive tablet, and designed to be provided free of charge to Indian university students, the Aaksash was developed to link India’s  many thousands of colleges and universities in an innovative e-learning program.  I spoke with Suneet just prior to their launch of UbiSlate, the commercial version of their tablet technology.

Suneet Tuli: Capital I Interview Series – Number 15

Firstly, congratulations Suneet.  I think the Aakash initiative is wonderful.

Thank you, we’re having some fun, and it’s an interesting kind of ride.  The requirements, demand and need is huge, and we think that we –  though not just us, but also others who play in the field – are going to end up changing the world for the better.

I wish you much success with that goal!  That certainly was our impetus for starting KimmiC.   I’m the first to admit that it does sound audacious, but I think that audacity is quite necessary when you take on challenges like this.

It really is.   When I talked about it six months ago and said, “this is technology to bring the next billion people on board,” I was seen as being audacious, or ‘reaching a little bit.‘   Today I’m seen a little differently.  It [Aakash] is endorsed by many others now, such as Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos [where Suneet spoke in October 2011] they had a huge billboard of our device and a discussion forum on the impact of it on the world.  I truly believe that not only is ‘internet for the billions’ coming, but it really is going to change the world.

This is a project that started in India, and now there are countries around the world that are implementing similar projects.  In India alone they have put together a Mission Statement saying that they’d like to equip all 220 million students in the country with low cost internet devices.

Apart from India, if you look at the countries that have invited us to talk, and that are looking to put together similar projects, that’s over a 100 million units.  That’s not to say that we would necessarily win all of the projects, but we think that its the dream that’s important.  That, and the fact that governments are implementing this aggressively, will have a snowball effect.

When you say ‘we’, I take it you are referencing your brother Raja and yourself, is that correct?

Yes, this is the third venture he and I have done together.   In each one Raja runs the technology, R&D and manufacturing teams and I look after the sales, marketing and operations.

Raja Singh Tuli

What was you impetus for beginning the project?

We had created a technology that reduces bandwidth consumption and consumption of the internet on standard GPRS mobile networks.  Today there are six billion mobile phone connections and 2 billion internet users – the billions of people within that gap don’t have access to any kind of broadband infrastructure, the only access they have is via standard GPRS mobile networks.

We created a technology, for which we received 18 US patents, that allows us to deliver the internet on those [GPRS] networks.   We can deliver this network with no new infrastructure and for a very low monthly cost – potentially even for free.  This technology is really applicable to our market segment, and gives us the opportunity to pursue our personal mission.

Even though we grew up in Canada, coming from India and seeing what is happening in those markets, we know the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the digital divide and the quality of education.  Our belief is that the best way to power a better quality of education is through computers and the internet.

Places like India and Africa will not, in a reasonable period of time, be able to teach enough teachers and professors, and build enough ‘brick and mortar’ universities, to impact enough of the population.  For instance, there’s 350 million people in India that cannot read or write.  Its an outrageously large number, and yet, its so easily solved – at least a dent can be made in it through technology.

Technology has changed so significantly, not just in the last five or ten years, but in the last two years.  Look at products like the iPad.  This is a product that comes without a User Manual.  You take it out of the box and are expected to know that the only button you’re going to press is the one that’s on the device.

Three and four year olds today utilise these kinds of products and play simple games.  Touch screens and graphical interfaces are so powerful, we think that they can really make an impact on delivering a better quality of education.  Based on the technology we’ve created and our personal goals, that better quality of education is something that we can help achieve.

For a number of years I’ve been involved with a charity called Room to Read which builds schools and libraries in the developing world.  The main reason I got involved with it is I truly believe that the best way to create a safer world is to educate people, and empower education and educators. 

I agree with you.  I think that education really can solve all kinds of issues.  I get people who criticise this idea, saying, “Yeah, but in India where so many don’t have access to clean drinking water, isn’t this [focus on education] a waste?”  My response is:  THIS is what is going to help bring clean drinking water.

Education is what is going to enable and empower an individual to bring clean drinking water to his or her village or community.  And, why not other world changing Innovation as well?!

Oh yeah.   Any issue that you can think of I can talk back towards education.

It seems that, along with education, your product is about empowering the user, which I believe is integral to the next jump in technology. 

And it involves the whole ecosystem; for instance, its not just the device, you’ve also got to have  anytime/anywhere internet access.  This is why mobile phone, cellular connectivity is very important.  As well, the technology has got to be affordable and its got to have an open ecosystem for content and apps.

We’ve launched scholarships and competitions in India around content and apps to help encourage students, and others, to create apps and even start their own entrepreneurial journey.  This creates localised innovation.

In every single country we’re working in, we’re pushing for domestic manufacture, because you can’t expect to solve problems if you don’t manufacture locally.  You can’t expect to understand what the problems and solutions are, and drive local innovation, if you’re just going to get cartons full of boxes from somewhere else.  Sitting in Canada and the US we see it – the manufacturing industries here have been devastated, and the skill-set is no longer here.

You mentioned apps and, in one of the pieces I read while doing my research for our chat, I understood that users were not able to load free software onto the tablet.  Was that a correct interpretation?

That’s a common misunderstanding, but one that is not correct at all.  What we’ve done is, instead of using the Google/Android marketplace we’ve used Getjar.  We chose Getjar because it forces all the apps to be free and all active operators to make money purely off of advertising.

This is essential in India since, for instance, on the the Android market, while 80% of the apps are free, 20% of the useful apps are actually paid [for].  Even though its only 99 cents, the problem for my customer is that they have no ability to make online payments.

As an open source operating system, we don’t restrict anyone from installing any apps.  However, we obviously pre-burn in certain apps, from which we generate advertising revenue.  This is important to our full service ecosystem of revenue streams to help drive the cost of hardware down. But, it doesn’t mean you can’t install apps.

So you’re not trying to control the economic and application ecosystem. 

We don’t control it, but we want to earn revenue from it – those are two different concepts.  It’s an open source platform so you can install whatever you want, but we will have five stores on the site – we will have eBook, multimedia, game, apps and educational content stores.  You can go to Getjar and independently load your apps, but we’re going to encourage certain apps and certain environments, which we think are important for our customer base, as we’re positioning the product towards education.  We understand a lot of our devices will end up there, so we need to have an educational app store that can promote educational content.

Building an ecosystem doesn’t mean that we’re restricting open access to it.  We will have a monetary and strategic interest in the apps we promote because they’re in line with how we want our product to be perceived.

I downloaded some slides from a presentation you made last year, and in them you mention your carrier class technology.  Does this tech essentially create and control distribution and interaction with the tablet?

There are two browsers on the device.  One is the standard Android browser, but the difficulty and problem with it is its data consumption.  In the Indian environment this will result in an average of 400 – 500 rupees per month ($10 dollars per month) in data costs.  That is one problem, the second is the slow experience due to how congested the networks are.

On the other side is our browser, which uses our backend proxy acceleration system.  On that system we’re able to deliver the equivalent of unlimited internet access for about $2 dollars [per month] and its significantly faster than what you’d get without it.  The user has a choice of using either one of those solutions, but we believe they’ll choose ours because of the speed and lower amounts of data consumption.

And if they choose to use yours, its your servers that do the actual ‘grunt work’ therefore saving energy – the consumption of energy is by the server rather than the device.

Right.  The result is that you consume a lot less bandwidth, the costs go down, and it’s faster.  We shift the burden away from the client device onto our servers, but again, its their choice which browser they use.

Speaking of choice, why was the name Aakash chosen for the tablet?

The name was chosen by the Indian Human Resources Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, who has education as part of his portfolio.  Aakash means Sky in Hindi, and I believe he meant it in reference to the fact that he wants kids to reach for the sky.

The product that we will launch commercially will be called the UbiSlate and the key differentiator between the two is the mobile network connectivity.  The version the government ordered was built to their tight specifications, which only has wifi connectivity.  Their thinking was that, because they [the government] were providing access on their [college] campuses, that that should be sufficient.

We believe that isn’t’ sufficient, and that you want access everywhere.  You need access beyond the campus, which you will have with the commercial UbiSlate.

So those articles written after that initial testing process of the Aakash, which had somewhat negative responses from the beta users, were judging the technology on a somewhat unfinished, or less than perfect, product.

I think that they were judging us on the specs that IIT-Rajasthan set.  We won a tender that they put out and built [the technology] to the specs that they wanted.  We’ve proposed a different spec product to the government, which now they’ve agreed to conceptually, for the Aakash 2.

The issues they ran into were a lot more than just specs. The National Mission for Education for ICT (NMEICT) has made a great deal of effort over the last few years to create a lot of great digital content – tens of thousands of eBooks, online lectures and virtual labs and things of that nature.  Unfortunately, for the purposes of the trial, that content wan’t integrated into the devices.

The trial was conducted with college and university students in India whose tuition is higher than what we pay in Canada.  So, you know, when the first five hundred [students] walked in to receive their devices, two out of three of them had iPads under their arms.  Now you’re going to give these kids sub-$50 devices without their curriculum integrated onto it… and you’re going to ask their opinions on it…

The feedback we got [from the students] wasn’t a surprise: “its not as fast as playing games on the iPad; its not as cool as the iPad; the network connectivity is spotty, at best, using the university wifi, and it doesn’t have any connectivity beyond that.”  It was a learning curve for all parties.  But, our role was to deliver the product that they [the government] required.

The focus for the government was cost and we were able to deliver to them a cost breakthrough that literally had people’s jaws drop.

It’s not, as I said, the UbiSlate that we’re about to launch.  I believe our performance can, and will, be better judged when we launch that commercially.

UbiSlate

Do you think it fair that your tablets will be judged against products, such as the iPad, which has unlimited budgets and high prices?  And, noting that people may often purchase Apple products due to the cachet of their brand, how valuable do you want your own brand to be?

I don’t want people to have to pay a premium because of a perceived brand.  I want to make our products viable for a person on a $100 per month salary.

While in the West we’ve become accustomed to product positioning where you’ll pay a premium for a brand, in our scenario we’re not looking to maximise price, we’re trying to maximise customers.  In our business model we focus away from hardware margins.  Hardware is the customer acquisition tool, and our intent is to drive hardware costs down as low as we can and, instead, try to generate revenue from network services costs and advertising.  We believe that has the potential to get those billions of people on board.

Have you plans on how are you going to differentiate your tablets from competitors, such as BSNL, who have recently come on the scene?

The big differentiator is the connectivity.   We think that the fatal flaw with a [BSNL] product of that nature is that it doesn’t have mobile connectivity.  And compare [our] 2,500 rupees vs [their] 3,200 rupees [price], not only is [theirs] 30% higher in cost, but its only wifi enabled.

If you look at the Indian environment there are 18 million broadband connections serving only those people that have wifi – and those 18 million are probably the wealthiest people in India.

And they probably have an iPad.

They have.  And, they can afford wifi and products which are at a multiple of this price.  They’re not going to purchase these [low cost] products.  The question is what connectivity does the guy who can afford only 2,500 rupees have?  The only connectivity he can afford is often a mobile network.  BSNL has launched three devices, and the only one with mobile connectivity is three times the price.

And finally, are you looking to partner/joint venture with anyone to broaden the capability of your tablets?

We are.  We have a number of deals done which we’ll be announcing them once we are ready to launch the product commercially.

[Kim and Suneet Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Toronto.]


Speaking to the Future: What Got Caught in the Safer Internet?

[I’ve recently been asked by several readers to share a piece I initially wrote, for young teen readers, to commemorate and celebrate Safer Internet Day 2012.  This piece was written with a view to instigate and enable conversations between young people and adults, parents and children, about the problems and potential solutions surrounding internet safety.  Here is that piece, which is not part of the ‘Capital I’ Innovation Interview Series:]

When I was asked to write a piece about the future of internet safety, I realized that I am not generally one to give my opinion – on paper at least.  Generally, my job is to interview people and note their opinions.  With that in mind, I decided to interview the future me, the me of 2022, ten years hence, and hear her opinions about the then, current, state of security on the net.

An interview with Kim Chandler McDonald, Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of KimmiC, futurist and hyper-technology expert: February 8, 2022 – Sydney, Australia

Kim Chandler McDonald (as she hopes to look in 2022)

What led you to become involved with Safer Internet Day?

I first became involved over ten years ago when I was asked to write a piece about my views on the future of internet safety, a subject I was, and still am very interested in.

Why the interest?  Surely now, after ten years, the internet is much safer.

Oh yes, certainly compared to 2012 the difference is quite striking – especially when it comes to personal data. When I first became involved with Safer Internet Day, the internet was a place with few ‘walls’ and almost no one was able to ‘lock the door’ to their data.

Very few people were aware that they owned their own data. Though the data wasn’t owned by social media sites, they did borrow it – often without permission – and they made money from it, either by selling the data itself, or by using it to sell us things.

That borrowing often led to random strangers being able to access information about us which they shouldn’t have been able to get to.

You make it sound a little like stealing.

I wouldn’t go that far, but… well, lets just say that I’m very glad we now have the power, the the responsibility, to guard our ‘property’ – the place we live on the net – and the stuff we have there… our data.

How did that happen?

It started with IdentityTech authentication protocols.  Once authentication of parties involved in a communication stream became necessary, and individuals were able to control this process themselves – i.e. you decided who had permission to contact you, be it individuals or companies – the common ‘phishing’ communications (or spam) of the first 10-15 years of this century soon dried up.

It’s funny, because we now look back at that time, without permission based contact and authentication, as anarchy.

Was it really that bad?

In some ways, worse than bad.  Lets look at it this way, IdentityTech gave us the power to protect ourselves and our property, so that strangers couldn’t get at it. Lets think of the internet like a house – your online house.  Can you imagine someone you don’t know wandering into your house and rummaging through your things?  Essentially, that’s what was happening on the internet.

IdentityTech gave you a lock and key to your online house.  Now strangers can’t barge into your house and start looking at your pictures and reading your diary.  Anyone who wants to do that has to have your permission. Its sounds like a small change but it actually had a very big effect, on individuals and on some very large companies and industries as well.

How did it change things for individuals?

I’m sure there are countless ways, but a few that come to mind are things like the reduction in online predators (people preying on the vulnerable or less experienced), cyber-bullying, identity theft, and the reduced proliferation of violent/hate sites.  All these things had a huge effect, not just for individuals, but for communities as well.

A safer internet seemed to spread out and be reflected in safer neighbourhoods, town, cities and countries.  I think that’s part and parcel of us deciding to take more responsibility for what we allowed in our lives via the net.

You mentioned changes to companies and industries as a a result of this IdentityTech, can you give me an example?

Well, lets take social media as an example.  Certainly there was a time when social media companies would collect and use information about people.

You make it sound like something out of a spy novel.

That’s funny.  No, that’s not what I meant.  But, it is true that these companies took your data and used it to make money for themselves – they acted like they owned it.  I guess we, the public, didn’t know better at that time… and maybe we were a bit lazy too.  But this changed as the new digital economy matured.  That was already beginning to happen by mid-2012.

One of the consequences of the new digital economy, which IdentityTech enabled, was the realization by individuals – people like you and me – that our data is just that, OUR data.  It didn’t belong to anyone else, and it certainly couldn’t be used, or sold, by anyone else without our permission.

Once people realized that they owned their data, that it had value, and that they could have control over who, when and where this information was provided to other parties, things began to change rapidly.  Data was acknowledged to be a unit of the connected economy, and though it could be available 24/7, it had to be done so in a universally secure and non-proprietorial way – hyper tech enabled that.

But social media companies are still here, and some are still flourishing.

Of course they are, but now they have to share revenue from any profits they make from using our data.

Okay, I don’t get a personal cheque from them each month, but I am pleased that they have to deposit ‘our’ money into trusts, which have been set up to put money back into the public domain and pay for things like the free broadband connectivity which everyone enjoys today.

Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 3)

In parts one and two of our chat with  software star Grady Booch, we discussed his magnum opus project  COMPUTING: The Human Experience, Innovation, the Computer History Museum and the possible changing brain structure of Millennials, among many other things.

In this, the final segment of our discussion with him, we look at software – and software architecture – in general, Grady’s relationship with it in particular, the troubles facing Google and Facebook, the web, and his views on the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA bills.

To view the full introduction to this multi-part interview with Grady: Click here

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

[This was a joint conversation between Grady, Michael and myself. I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us – though, I think it will become obvious as you read – lol!]

Grady, You are credited with the building, writing and architecting of so much technology;  of all of those things, what is it that you are most proud of?

There are three things.  The first one is very personal.  My godson – he would have been eight or nine at the time –  was given a task at his school to write about a hero, and he wrote about me.  That was pretty cool!  Everything else is details, but I’m really proud of that one.

On a technical basis, I’m pleased with the creation of the UML, not just because of the thing we created, but the whole idea and industry around it that being able to visualise and reason about software-intensive systems in this way is a good thing. So, I think we lifted the tide for a lot of folks.

UML Diagrams

I contributed to the notion of architecture and looking at it from multiple views, and how to represent it.  I feel good about the whole thing around modelling and architecture and abstraction.  I think I helped people and I feel good about that.

UML was certainly a game changer.  I remember when it came in, before you got bought up by IBM.  It was like a wave going across the globe.  It made a profound difference.

And it’s different now because it’s part of the oxygen.  Not everybody is using it, that’s okay – not everybody is using C++ or Java and that’s fine – but I think we changed the way people think.

Our estimates are that UML has a penetration of somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of the marketplace.  That’s a nice number.  We’ve changed the way people build things.

Absolutely, especially at the big end of the market.

Yeah.  I wrote an article in my architecture column, that tells the story of when I was dealing with my aneurysm.  I was laying in a CT scan machine in the Mayo Clinic, looking up and saying: “My gosh, I know the people who wrote the software for this, and they’ve used my methods.”  That’s a very humbling concept.

It’s a pretty much a pretty good Acid test, isn’t it.

Yes, it is.

And your work is continuing in architecture…

Correct. I continue on with the handbook of software architecture, and a lot of what I do, in both the research side and with customers, is to help them in the transformation of their architectures.

For IBM the last nine months or so I’ve been working with the Watson team – the Jeopardy playing game – and helping the teams that are commercialising their technology.

How do you take this two-million line code base, built by 25 men and women, drop it in another domain and give it to a set of people who know nothing about that system.  This is exactly the kind of stuff that I do for customers, and I’ve been helping IBM in that regard.

That would be very challenging.  You’d need somebody with your brain power to actually manage that, I imagine.

Well, it’s not an issue of brain power, it’s an issue of: how does one look at systems like this and reason about them in a meaningful way.  And after the UML comes in – because it allows us to visualise it and the whole notion of architecture as used from multiple dimensions – all these things come together.  That make a two million line code base understandable to the point where I can know where the load-bearing walls are and I can manipulate them.

That is pretty impressive!  You’ve found a way of managing the slicing and dicing of the codebase.

That’s a problem that every organisation faces.  I have an article that talks about the challenges Facebook is going to have.  Because they…. every software-intensive system is a legacy system.  The moment I write a line of code, it becomes part of my legacy…

Especially if you’re successful upfront and gets massive growth, like they did.

Yes, and having large piles of money in your revenue stream often masks the ills of your development process.

Absolutely.

Google’s faced that, Facebook is facing that.  They have about a million lines of [the programming language] PHP that drives the core Facebook.com system – which is really not a lot of code – still built on top of MySQL, and it’s grown and grown over time.

I think, as they split to develop across the coast – because they’re opening up a big office in New York City – that very activity changes the game.  No longer will all of the developers fit within one building, so the social dynamics change.

Inside Facebook's Madison Avenue Offices

Ultimately, what fascinates me about the whole architecture side of it is that it is a problem that lies on the cusp of technology and society.  It’s a technical problem on the one hand – so there are days I’ll show up as an uber geek – and on the other hand, it’s a problem that’s intensely social in nature, so I’ll show up as a ‘Doctor Phil’.

To follow-up on one of Kim’s questions: if you look at the backlog of IT, I think every company of moderate size is still struggling to deliver on business demands. Do you think that architecture helps or, does it actually contributes to the problem?

Architecture can help in two ways.

I’ll give you one good example.  There is a company called OOCL (Orient Overseas Container Line) that I worked with some years ago to help them devise an architecture for their system that tracks containers and all these kind of things.  Their CEO had this brilliant notion: what would happen if we were to take this system and extract all of the domain-specific bits of it and then sell that platform?

By having a focused-upon architecture, they were able to devise a platform – this is a decade before Salesforce.com and these kind of things – and they could then go into a completely new business and dominate that side of the marketplace.   Here is an example where a focused-upon architecture has a real, material, strategic business implication.

The other thing focused-upon architecture offers is, it  is allows you to capture the institutional memory of a piece of software.  The code is the truth, but the code is not the whole truth.  So, in so far as we can retain the tribal memory of why things are the way they are, it helps you preserve the investment you made in building that software in the first place.

What sort of size company are you talking about?  It sounds like the telco space… large Tier 1 and  Tier 2 companies. 

It could be anybody that wants to dominate a particular business.  Salesforce.com built a platform in that space.  Look at Autostar as another example.  Autostar was an attempt by BMW, and others, to define a common architectural platform, hardware and software, for in-car electronics.  By virtue of having that focused-upon architecture, all of a sudden you have unified the marketplace and made the marketplace bigger, because now it’s a platform against which others can plug and play.

There is a similar effort  with MARSSA, which is an attempt to develop a common architectural platform for electronics for boats and yachts.  Again, it eliminates the competition of the marketplace by having a set of standards against which, people can play well together.  In the end, you’ve made the marketplace bigger because it’s now more stable.

I agree. Also, an architectural approach separates the data from an application specific way of looking at things.

It used to be the case that we’d have fierce discussions about operating systems.  Operating systems are part of the plumbing; I don’t care about them that much anymore.  But, what I do care about is the level of plumbing above that.

My observations of what’s happening is that you see domain-specific architectures popping up that provide islands against which people can build things.  Amazon is a good example of such a platform.  Facebook could become that, if they figure out how to do it right – but they haven’t gotten there yet.  I think that’s one of the weaknesses and blind spots Facebook has.

I also think that they are, to a certain extent, a first generation.  I think the web, in terms of connectivity, is not being utilised to its fullest potential.  I don’t see any reason why, for example, any form of smart device shouldn’t be viewed as being a data source that should be able to plug in to these architectures.

Exactly!

Would that be an example of a collaborative development environment?

Well, that’s a different beast altogether.

With regards to collaborative development environments, what led me to interest in that space is emphasising the social side of architecture.  Alan Brown [IBM engineer and rational expert] and I wrote a paper on collaborative environments  almost ten years ago, so it was kind of ahead of its time.

Alan Brown

The reason my thinking was in that space was extrapolating the problem of large-scale software development, as we’re becoming more and more distributed, to just how does one attend to the social problems therein.  If I can’t fit everybody in the same room, which is ideal, then what are the kinds of things that I do that can help me build systems.

I’ve observed two things that are fundamental to crack to make this successful.  The first is the notion of trust: in so far as I can work well with someone, it’s because I trust them.  You, Kim, trust your husband Michael, and therefore there is this unspoken language between the two of you that allows you to do things that no other two people can do together.

Now, move that up to a development team, where you work and labour together in a room, where you understand one another well.  The problem comes – like with Facebook, and what we’ve done in outsourcing – when you break apart your teams (for financial reasons) across the country or across the world.  Then, all of a sudden, you’ve changed the normal mechanisms we have for building trust.   Then the question on the table is: what can one do to provide mechanisms to provide building of trust?  That’s what drives a lot of ideas in collaborative development environments.

The other thing is the importance of serendipity – the opportunity to connect with people in ways that are unanticipated, this option of ‘just trying things out’.  You need to have that ability too.  The way we split teams across the world doesn’t encourage either trust or serendipity.  So, a lot of ideas regarding collaborative environments were simply: “What can we do to inject those two very human elements into this scheme?”

As we have been talking about trust, I’m curious as to your opinion on the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA bills.

I’ve Tweeted about it, and I’m pretty clear that I think those bills are so ill-structured as to be dangerous.

I get the concept, I understand the issues of privacy and the like, and I think something needs to be done here.  But I’m disturbed by both the process that got us there and the results.  Disturbed by the process in the sense that the people who created the bills seemed to actively ignore advice from the technical community, and were more interested in hearing the voices of those whose financial interest would be protected by such a bill.

The analogy I make would be as if all of a sudden you make roads illegal because people do illegal things in their cars.  It’s stupid the way the process that led up to this bill was set, I think, because it was very, very political.  From a technical perspective, while I respect what needs to be done here, the actual details of it are so wrong – they lead you to do things to the web that are very, very destructive indeed.  That’s why I’m strongly, strongly opposed to it. And I have to say that this is my personal opinion, not that of IBM, etc.

This is the final segment of our multi-part interview with Grady Booch. Part One can be read here, and Part Two can be read here

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed. Be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where Grady’s lecture series will be posted.

[Kim, Michael and Grady Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Hawaii.]

Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 2)

In the pantheon of world-famous computer scientist’s, Grady Booch is the star who co-authored the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and co-developed object-oriented programming (OOP). He is a Fellow of  IBM, ACM, the IEEE, the author of six books, hundreds of articles and papers and the Booch Method of Software engineering. Grady serves on several boards, including that of the Computer History Museum and is the author, narrator and co-creator of what could be seen as a historical magnum opus of the technological world, COMPUTING: The Human Experience. 

To view the full introduction to this multi-part interview with Grady, and Part 1 of the series: Click here

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

[This was a joint conversation between Grady, Michael and myself. I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us – though, I think it will become obvious as you read – lol!]

Grady, lets begin with the very basics. As this is the Innovation Interview Series, let’s start with: how do you define innovation?

Ecclesiastes 1:9 has this great phrase:

What has been will be again.  What has been done before will be done again.  There is nothing new under the Sun“.

The way I take it is that innovation – really deep innovation – is about warming the Earth with the Sun of your own making. And to that end, that’s how I distinguish the ‘small i’ from the ‘Big I’.

The ‘small i’ therefore means: I may have a brilliant idea and it warms me, but the ‘Big I’ Innovation is where I can start warming others.  There are new suns possible; there are new ways of warming the Earth… And I think innovation is about doing so.

One of my heroes is the physicist Richard Feynman. If you read any of his stuff or watch his physics lectures – which are just absolutely incredible [Ed. Note: As is his series: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out] – there are some conclusions you can draw (and there is a delightful article someone wrote about the nine things they learned from Feynman.  The way I frame it is to say that I admire him and his innovation because he was intensely curious but at the same time he was bold, he was not fearful of going down a path that interested him. At the same time (too) he was also very child-like and very, very playful.  In the end what really inspires me from Feynman’s work is he was never afraid to fail, but much like Joseph Campbell observes, he followed his bliss.

Richard Feynman

I think that many innovators are often isolated because we’re the ones who are following our bliss; we really don’t care if others have that same bliss.  We are so consumed by that, that we follow it where it leads us, and we do so in a very innocent, playful way… We are not afraid to fail.

I’ve noticed that there is often a level of audacity and a lack of fear within innovators, but sometimes I wonder if that audacity and lack of fear could frighten general society.

Well, I think there’s a fine line between audacity and madness.

And that depends on what side of the fence you’re on.

Exactly. It also depends upon the cultural times. Because, what Galileo said in his time [that the earth and planets revolve around the sun] was not just audacious, it was threatening.

To the church, absolutely.

In a different time and place [the response to] Galileo would have been: “Well, yeah, that’s right. Let’s move on now”.   [Instead of being tried by the Inquisition, found suspect of heresy, forced to recant and spend the rest of his life under house arrest.]  The sad thing is you may have the most brilliant idea in the world, but you will never go anywhere.

Take a look historically at Charles Babbage.  I think he was a brilliant man who had some wonderful ideas; he was very audacious, and yet he’s a tragic figure because he never really understood how to turn his ideas into reality.  [A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and engineer; Babbage originated the idea of a programmable computer.]  That’s what ‘Capital I’ mean to me.  I think that’s why Steve Jobs was so brilliant; it’s not just that he had cool ideas, but he knew how to turn that into an industry.

We have a golden rule that it really doesn’t matter how cool your tech is if nobody’s using it. And it’s a shame because there are some incredible innovations out there, but so many innovators haven’t learned the Job’s magic of marketing.

KimmiC rule: It doesn’t matter how ‘bright the light’ if no one is using it to read.  

I think that’s especially true of our domain of computing systems, because we are ones who are most comfortable – as a gross generalisation – with controlling our machines.  Being able to connect with humans is a very different skill set. To find people who have the ability to do both is very, very challenging indeed.

Zuckerberg is a brilliant programmer, and he had the sense to surround himself with the right people so that he could make those things [Facebook] manifest.  There are probably dozens upon dozens of Zuckerbergs out there, who had similar ideas at the same time, but they didn’t know how to turn them into reality.

The same thing could be said of Tim Berners-Lee: a brilliant man, a nice man…  He was in the right time at the right place and he knew how to push the technology that he was doing.  He was developing things that were in a vast primordial soup of ideas.

Tim Berners-Lee

HyperCard was out; and why didn’t HyperCard succeed while Tim’s work did?  Part of it is technical, part of it just the will of Apple, and part was his [Tim] being in the right place at the right time.

And HyperCard influenced Tim.  Even Bill Atkinson, creator of HyperCard, said: if only he had come up with the notion of being able to link across [Hyper]card decks, then he would have invented the prototypical web.  But, he didn’t do it, he didn’t think about it.

Do you feel that you are ‘in the right time,  at the right place’?

There are times that I think I was born in the wrong century, but I know that if I had been born in the Middle Ages, at my age, I would be long dead.

So, yes, I can say from a very philosophical basis: I am quite content with the time in which I am now living, because I cannot conceive of any other time in which I could have been successful.

I read a quote on Wikipedia… a story you apparently told:

… I pounded the doors at the local IBM sales office until a salesman took pity on me. After we chatted for a while, he handed me a Fortran [manual]. I’m sure he gave it to me thinking, “I’ll never hear from this kid again.” I returned the following week saying, “This is really cool. I’ve read the whole thing and have written a small program. Where can I find a computer?” The fellow, to my delight, found me programming time on an IBM 1130 on weekends and late-evening hours. That was my first programming experience, and I must thank that anonymous IBM salesman for launching my career.”

It sounds like you were quite fortunate to have bumped into someone who was willing to take a chance with you very early on.

I think that’s fair to say.  Though, if it hadn’t been that person, I imagine the universe would have conspired to find me another person, because I was so driven.   Looking backward upon fifty-some years passed, that was the right time and place.  It may have just happened to be that was the right time and guy. But there would have been others.

Grady Presenting

[But] I haven’t told you about the missteps I had and the people who rejected me; we just talk about the successes.  Historians are the ones who write history. Because it’s the history of the winners, we don’t tend to write about the failures.  But even Edison pointed out… I forget the exact quote, but the reason he succeeded so much is he’s done so much and he’s failed; he’s failed more than others on an absolute basis, but he tried more.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ― Thomas A. Edison

What, in your view, gets in the way of the success of innovation?

I think the main thing is the fear of failure. I run across people like Babbage for example… or this gentleman I was mentoring earlier today, who are so fearful that they’re not doing something absolutely perfect, they are afraid to turn it into a reality. I think some innovators are so enamoured with perfection they are afraid to fail and therefore never do anything.

Within this milieu you seem to have had your fingers in many interesting pies.  One that I think must be especially fascinating is your work with the Computer History Museum.  How did you get involved in that?

In a way they came to me.  My interest has been in software, it always has been.  I forget the circumstances but, some years ago, I connected with John Toole, who was the original CEO of the Computer History Museum when it was in the Bay Area. He showed me around the warehouse that they had set aside at Moffett Airfield.

Not long before that they had shipped a lot of the materials from the old computer museum in Boston out to the Bay Area.  Gordon Moore [co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Intel] and others had said they wanted to make a museum, and they funded that effort.  So, I was around the edges of it in the early days. I thought it was fascinating.

I think the reason it attracted me in the first place, in general, is that I have an interest in the appreciation of history, not just the history of technology, but just the history of humanity.

As I went to the exhibits I remember making the observation to John that I thought their plans were great, but, projecting out to one or two generations, there wasn’t going to be too much that was interesting to display in the museum because, by then, all of the hardware would have shrunk to a tiny size and we’d need microscopes in the exhibits.

“And so, therefore, John”, I said, “what are you doing about preserving the history of software,” which is a very ephemeral thing.

Think about getting the original source code to the [IBM Operating System] 360, or the original source code to Facebook.  Because these are such ephemeral things, people throw them away.  In fact we, IBM, no longer have the original source code to the first version of OS/360; it’s gone.  There are later versions but not the original one.

Facebook Source Code

When Microsoft decided to stop production on the Microsoft Flight Simulator, I mean, this was a ground-breaking program, I wrote off to Ray Ozzie [Microsoft CTO and CTA from 2005 – 2010] and said: “What are you guys going to do with the software? Can we have it?”   He munched around for a while, but I think it’s lost for all time.

We’re in an interesting period of time and my passion, which has led me to the museum, is to say: Now is to time to preserve software!  We don’t know how to present it, we don’t know what to do with it once we have it, but let’s worry about that in future generations and just capture it now.

It’s very similar to what Hollywood has found with a lot of their film stock. A lot of it was just being lost or destroyed, but there is so much cultural history in those records.

Yes, exactly.  So, prior to being on the board, I set up a workshop at the museum looking at the preservation of classic software.  I wrote to 500 of my ‘closest friends’… people ranging from Marvin Minsky [cognitive scientist in the field of AI] to some other developers I knew, and everybody in between, and asked: “What software would you preserve for future generations?”

We came up with a long list.  I think that very idea inspired Len Shustek, who’s the president of the museum, to invite me on to be on the board of trustees.

What is your favourite exhibit in the museum?

I like the [IBM] 1401 reproduction.  They have a couple of 1401 machines and they’ve gotten them running again.  It’s fun to be in a place where there is something dynamic and alive and runs and you can be in the midst of it.  Just walking into the room, you smell old computers; and that’s a pretty cool kind of smell.  So, is the fact it’s running and clacking away.

The 1401

Fred Brooks [IBM software engineer] and I had an interesting discussion once, in which I lamented the fact that our computers make no noise, because – and I know I sound like an old guy, but – I remember you could hear some of the earlier computers I worked on. They were clattering in one way or another, be it their hard drives or their tapes, and you could get a feel for where the program was just by listening.

You can’t do that now with our machines; they are all very, very quiet. So, the 1401 exhibit has this wonderful visceral immersive display, in which you hear it and smell it as it processes.

I’ve actually seen people get a little misty-eyed just thinking about a dial-up tone, and you certainly seem to have some ‘misty memories’ too.  But, let’s look forward now.  What new things do you think may be exhibited in ten years time.

I think that’s the next interesting challenge.  We know how to display physical things, but there aren’t that many more things like old machines, to collect because they are disappearing.

If you go to the exhibits, you’ll see things get smaller and smaller and there is more of an interest in software.  I think the interesting problem for the museum to attempt is: how do we present software to the general public so that we open the curtain on it and show some of the magic and the mystery therein.  I think software can be very beautiful, but how do I explain that to someone who can’t see software. That’s an interesting challenge.

You’ve got to look at it it like an art form.  Source code, especially some of the well-written stuff, looks physically beautiful; forget about what it actually does.  There are many different dimensions you can look at try to get people’s interest.

[Editors Challenge to artists: here is a piece of code I’ve ‘mucked about with’ 

– why not see what code inspires you to create and send us a picture, which we’ll share with our readers, Grady Booch and the Computer History Museum!]

I think it’s very much like modern art because you can look at a bit of an impressionistic painting and you may not get it. Often the reactions are: “My kid could do that kind of thing.”

Well, not exactly; because the more you learn about it, the more you learn how much that painting – or whatever the art form is –  speaks to you and tells you stories.  It requires a little bit of education.

There is a visceral reaction at first to some art but the more you know about it, the more you can appreciate its subtlety.  I think the same is true of software.  We (the museum) have collected the original source code to Mac Paint, which turns out to be a really beautiful piece of software.

I’m using a phrase here that has meaning to me – beautiful – but requires explanation to the general public to say: why is this a beautiful piece of code, why does it look so well-formed?  I think that’s a responsibility we have as insiders to explain and teach that kind of beauty.

What are your thoughts about the emerging trends in Innovation and technology?

Well, the web has been an amazing multiplier, and yet at the same time it’s also increased the noise.  Therefore, the ability to find the real gems in the midst of all this madness is increasingly challenging.  For example, with the computing project  [COMPUTING: The Human Experience] we’ve done, we crowdsourced some initial seed funding for our work.

We could not have done this in the past without something like the web.  We put this appeal out to the world and it gave us access to people, otherwise we could not have done it.  I think the web has produced an amazing primordial soup of ideas into which we can tap; and that is so game-changing in so many ways.  That’s probably the biggest thing. [You can contribute to and volunteer for the project here.]

The web has changed everything; and those who don’t keep up are doomed to be buggy web producers.

Yes, exactly.  Or companies like Kodak.

I had the opportunity to speak to Kodak’s developers about 15 years ago.  It was a small group of people who were in the computer side of Kodak, and I remember saying to them: “Look guys, the future of Kodak is in your hands… so, what are you going to do about it?”

I Tweeted about it not too long ago with a sort of “I told you so.”  And yet, I don’t know whether or not it was inevitable.  It could be the case that some businesses simply die because they just don’t make sense any more.

And they should die sometimes.  But I think early IBM was a good example of a company that understood what business it was in.  I don’t think Kodak really understood what business it was in, towards the end, and that’s what killed it.

I agree, very much so.

Some web business models are founded on the idea that a company has a right to use and profit from an individuals data and personal information… What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that that’s a business model that’s sustainable? I believe that the general public is wising up to this very quickly and are soon going to expect some recompense from the use of their data.

I think there is a local issue and there is global issue that is even harder to tackle.  In the case of the Facebooks and the Twitters of the world, the reality is when I subscribe to those services, I do have a choice – I can chose whether or not to use them.  And, by the very fact that I’m using those services means I am giving up something in the process.

So, why should I be outraged if those companies are using my data, because I’m getting those services for free.  It seems like a reasonable exchange here, and I, as an adult, have the responsibility of choice.  Where it becomes nasty is when I no longer have choice; when that choice is taken away from me.  That’s when it becomes outrageous: when my data is being used beyond my control [in a way] that I did not expect.

I think that will sort itself over time; capitalism has a wonderful way of sorting things.  It’s also the case that we have a generation behind the three of us who are growing up, if not born, digital.  They have a very different sense of privacy, so, I’m not so concerned about it. We have lots of ‘heat and smoke’ but it will resolve itself.

What I find curious is that the ‘heat and smoke’ and discussions are hardly any different from what was initially said about telephones or, for that matter, the printing of the book.  Look at some histories of how phones were brought into the marketplace and you’ll find almost identical arguments to those that are going on today.

I trust the human spirit and the way capitalism works to find a way.  What’s more challenging is the larger issue, and that is the reality that there are connections that can be made in the presence of this data that are simply beyond anybody’s control.

I may choose to share some information on a social media source, or I may use a credit card or whatever, but the very act of participating in the modern society leaves behind a trail of digital detritus.  And I can’t stop that unless I choose to stop participating in the modern world.

I think this is a case where we’ll have politicians do some profoundly stupid things, and we’ll see lots of interesting cases around it.  But, we’ll get used to it.  I mean, people didn’t like the idea of putting their money in a bank for God’s sake, and we got used to it; I think the same thing will happen.

You brought up the Millennials – the digitised generation. What insights would you give them in being game-changers?”

Does any young adult ever want the advice of their elders?

I didn’t ask if they wanted it… 🙂

You know… I think, we laugh about it, but the reality is – and I think Jobs said it well: “Death is a wonderful invention because it allows us to get out of the way and let the next generation find their own way.”  I’m comforted by that; I find great peace in that notion.  They need to have the opportunity to fail and find their own way.  If I were born a Millennial, I’d be growing up in an environment that’s vastly different than mine.

Though, in the end, we are all born, we all die, and we all live a human experience in various ways, there are common threads there… the stories are the same for all of us.  I think those are the kinds of things that are passed on from generation to generation, but everything else is details.

I would not be surprised if the structuring of their brain is different to ours.  I’ve been talking to guys that are 10 – 15 years younger than me, and the ability to hold their train of thought over weeks or months – when you’re doing some serious development or research – they seem to find that extremely difficult.  So, I wonder if we’ll see any really big innovations coming through from those generations.

You could claim that it’s not just the web that’s done that, but it’s back to Sesame Street and the notion of bright, shiny objects that are in and out of our view in a very short time frame.  Certainly I think a case can be made that our brains are changing; we are co-evolving with computing – we truly are.

But, at the same time, throw me in the woods and I couldn’t find my way out of it easily; I can’t track myself well, I can’t tell you what things are good to eat and what things aren’t.  Those are survival skill that someone would have needed to have had a century or two ago.  So, my brain has changed in that regard, just as the Millennials’ brains are changing. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I’m not at a point to judge it, but it is a thing.

End of Part Two.  Part Three will be published next week – sign up for the blog and it will be delivered directly to your inbox!

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed. Be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where Grady’s lecture series will be posted.

[Kim, Michael and Grady Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Hawaii.]