Innovation: Bell Labs vs Google/Facebook
February 26th, 2012 by ravi

The New York Times has a profile of Bell Labs (full disclosure: my home!) by Jon Gertner that I highly recommend (despite the glaring absence of Unix in Gertner’s list of Bell Labs’s greatest) . The conclusion of the piece (emphasis added):

But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.

There’s no single best way to innovate. Silicon Valley’s methods have benefited our country well over the course of several decades. And it would be absurd to return to an era of big monopolies. Today’s telecom industries are thriving, and customers likewise have access to a dazzling range of affordable devices and services, which most likely would not have been true had the old phone company remained intact. Though it had custody of the world’s most innovative labs, AT&T introduced new products and services slowly, and rarely cheaply. As Time magazine once put it, “Few companies are more conservative; none are more creative.”

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

The original article: Innovation and the Bell Labs Miracle –

Which High Horse? Piracy, Entitlements and Morality
February 25th, 2012 by ravi

Andy Ihnatko (a tech columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times) doesn’t like free[down]loaders. Marco Arment (one of the founders of Tumblr, proprietor of the very useful Instapaper service) and John Gruber agree. Ihnatko carves his argument against the pirates hooked to the torrent tubes using the device of a hypothetical conversation with one of them. It’s a fine bit of Socratic entrapment, this hypothetical conversation, wherein Ihnatko corrals the conversation through the various emotions of the offender to justify his own emotional (or should I say aesthetic?) response:

The single least-attractive attribute of many of the people who download content illegally is their smug sense of entitlement.

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How Wired gets it wrong on the problem of code forking
February 21st, 2012 by ravi

GitHub is for very good reasons immensely popular these days. So it is understandable that Wired decides to shine a light on the service, but lamentable that they chose to do so under the link bait headline “How GitHub Tamed Free Software“, because it is arguable that Free Software is in need of taming and  even more tendentious that Git or GitHub is the solution for this imaginary problem (interestingly, Wired’s thesis is the converse of that of Adam Martin — to wit, GitHub is killing Open Source! — discussed earlier on this blog). Let us dig in.

First, the problem as laid out by Wired using as example of the large number of Linux patches received by Linus Torvalds that withered away in his Inbox:

This was the dirty little secret of open-source software. With the average free software project, large amounts of code — maybe even most code — never actually got used. It was often just too hard for casual users to show developers the changes they’d made and then easily merge those changes back into the open-source code base.

True. The core contributors, often a very small group, have little time to wade through all proposed patches. They have neither the time nor often the inclination. Poring through other people’s code is annoying, especially, I am guessing, when you are an ace coder yourself and could be solving more interesting problems. Visit Mozilla’s Bugzilla bug database for a sampling of the number of bugs with posted patches that those with approval powers have flat out ignored.

How to solve this?

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The Saddest Booth Babe Violet Blues
February 10th, 2012 by ravi

The Executive Summary

It’s the end of yet another week in the blogosphere, and it went thus:

  1. Tech blogger posts photo of woman at MacWorld titling it “Saddest Booth Babe In The World”
  2. For extra credit, said tech blogger draws attention to the breasts of the “booth babe”
  3. The commentariat and twitterati respond with suitable rage

The Details

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