Apr 12

Making simple connections

About six weeks ago I asked How would you like to help fix the Internet? It was an open invitation to help develop a cheap millisecond-precision time source for instrumented routers, so we can do delay tomography on the Internet and measure the bufferbloat problem.

The discussion thread on that post was lively, but eventually moved to a thumbgps project mailing list out of public view. I’m going to summarize what has gone on here because parts of it are very interesting in a “Wow…it really is the 21st century!” sort of way, and illustrate that there can be a lot of power in making simple connections.

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Apr 03

The smartphone Wars: Finally, Android breaks 50%

The newest comScore figures, for February 2012, are out. Android has finally achieved majority market share in the U.S.. This is three months later than a linear fit to most of 2010 and 20111 predicted, but whatever happened in 4Q2011 to throw everybody off their previous long-term trend curves seems to be over. Android, in particular, is back to pulling about 2% of additional market share per month – actually, its growth rate seems to have increased a bit from before the glitch.

I was right not to overinterpret Apple’s very slight loss of market share last month. The iPhone is back to very, very slowly gaining share. Apple fans should resist the temptation to overinterpret that, though, since the gain is within statistical noise level.

RIM and Microsoft continue to go down in flames, losing not just market share but total userbase as well.

What does it all mean?

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Mar 01

Calling all open-source hardware engineers

How would you like to help fix the Internet?

One of the efforts I’ve been contributing to during the last year is the Bufferbloat project, a group of experienced Internet engineers who believe that excessive buffering and poor queue-management strategies may be the real villains behind a lot of network problems commonly attributed to undercapacity.

Before we can solve the problem, we need to measure and map it by collecting a lot of packet-propagation-time statistics. Awkwardly, we suspect that one of the services being screwed up by bufferbloat-induced latency spikes is the Network Time Protocol. So…Dave Täht (aka Dave from my basement) is trying to build a device he calls the Cosmic Background Bufferbloat Detector. The CBBD would be a flock of routers scattered all over the world, watching NTP packet timings using a common timebase independent of NTP, and sending data back to a collection server for analysis and visualization.

That’s where I, as the lead of the GPSD project, come in. GPSes are an obvious candidate for a high-precision NTP-independent time service. But there’s a problem with that…

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Feb 23

An Open Letter to Chris Dodd

Mr. Dodd, I hear you’ve just given a speech in which you said “Hollywood is pro-technology and pro-Internet.” It seems you’re looking for interlocutors among the coalition that defeated SOPA and PIPA, and are looking for some politically feasible compromise that will do something against the problem of Internet piracy as you believe you understand it.

There isn’t any one person who can answer your concerns. But I can speak for one element of the coalition that blocked those two bills; the technologists. I’m not talking about Google or the technology companies, mind you – I’m talking about the actual engineers who built the Internet and keep it running, who write the software you rely on every day of your life in the 21st century.

I’m one of those engineers – you rely on my code every time you use a browser or a smartphone or a game console. I’m not exactly a leader among them as you would understand the term, because we don’t have those and don’t want them. But I am a well-known philosopher/elder of the tribe (I’ll name two others later in this letter), and also one of our few public spokespersons. In the late 1990s I helped found the open-source software movement.

I’m writing to educate you about our concerns, which are not exactly the same as those of the group of firms you think of as “Silicon Valley”. We have our own culture and our own agenda, usually coincident with but occasionally at odds with the businesspeople who run the tech industry.

The difference matters because the businesspeople rely on us to do the actual technical work – and since the rise of the Internet, if we don’t like where a firm’s strategy is going, it tends not to get there. Wise bosses have learned to accommodate us as much as possible and pick the few fights they must have with their engineering talent very, very carefully. Google, in particular, got its huge market capitalization by being better at managing this symbiosis than anyone else.

I can best introduce you to our concerns by quoting another of our philosopher/elders, John Gilmore. He said: “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

To understand that, you have to grasp that “the Internet” isn’t just a network of wires and switches, it’s also a sort of reactive social organism composed of the people who keep those wires humming and those switches clicking. John Gilmore is one of them. I’m another. And there are some things we will not stand having done to our network.

We will not have it censored. We built the Internet as a tool to make every individual human being on the planet more empowered. What the users do with the Internet is up to them – not up to Hollywood, not up to politicians, and not even up to us who built it. Whatever else we Internet geeks may disagree on among ourselves, we will not allow our gift of fire to be snuffed out by jealous gods.

Because we will not have the Internet censored, we are also implacably hostile to any attempts to impose controls on it that could be used for censorship – whether or not that is the stated intent of the controls. That is why we were absolutely unanimous against SOPA and PIPA, and a significant reason that you lost that fight.

You speak as though you believe that the technology industry stopped SOPA/PIPA, and that by negotiating with the industry you can set up the conditions for a successful second round. It won’t work that way; the movement that stopped SOPA/PIPA (and is now scuttling ACTA) was much more organic and grass-roots than that. Silicon Valley can’t give you the political firepower or cover you’d need. All you’ll get from them is a bunch of meaningless press conferences and empty platitudes from CEOs who have nothing actually to gain by helping you and really wish you’d go away so they can get back to their jobs.

Meanwhile, the engineers inside and outside those companies will take it as their duty to ensure that you lose that battle again if you try to fight it again. Because there aren’t a lot of us, but the vast mass of Internet users – who do vote in numbers large enough to swing elections – have figured out that we’re on their side and we’re their early-warning system. When we sound the tocsin – as we did, for example, by blacking out Wikipedia – they will mobilize and you will be defeated.

Accordingly, one of the cardinal rules for any politician who wants to have a long career in a 21st-century democracy has to be “don’t screw with the Internet”. Because it will screw you right back. At least two primary challenges to SOPA/PIPA sponsors are in the news right now because they wouldn’t have happened without the popular outrage against it.

Hollywood wants you to screw with the Internet, because Hollywood thinks it has problems it can solve that way. Hollywood also wants you to think we (the engineers) are foes of “intellectual property” and in willing cahoots with criminals, pirates, and thieves. Neither of these claims is true, and it’s important that you understand exactly how they’re not true.

Many of us make our living from “intellectual property”. A few of us (not including me) are genuinely opposed to it on principle. Most of us (including me) are willing to respect intellectual property rights, but there’s a place where that respect abruptly ends. It stops at exactly the point where DRM threatens to cripple our computers and our software.

Richard Stallman, one of our more radical philosophers, uses the phrase “treacherous computing” to describe what happens when a PC, or a smartphone, or any sort of electronics, is not fully under the control of its user. Treacherous computers block what you can see or hear. Treacherous computers spy on you. Treacherous computers cut you off from their full potential as communications devices and tools.

Treacherous computing is our second line in the sand. Most of us don’t actually have anything against DRM in itself; it’s because DRM becomes a vehicle for treachery that we loathe it. Not allowing you to skip the advertisements on a DVD is a small example; not allowing you to back up your books and music is a larger one. Then there was the ironically pointed case of the book “1984” being silently disappeared from the e-readers of customers who had paid for it…

Some companies propose, in order to support DRM, locking up computers so they can only only run “approved” operating systems; that might bother ordinary users less than those other treacheries, but to us would be utterly intolerable. If you imagine a sculptor told that his new chisel would only cut shapes pre-approved by a committee of shape vendors, you might begin to fathom the depths of our anger at these proposals.

We engineers do have an actual problem with Hollywood and the music industry, but it’s not the one you probably assume. To be blunt (because there isn’t any nice way to put this) we think Big Entertainment is largely run by liars and thieves who systematically rip off the artists they claim to be protecting with their DRM, then sue their own customers because they’re too stupid to devise an honest way to make money.

I’m sure you don’t agree with this judgment, but you need to understand how widespread it is among technologists in order to get why all those claims about “piracy” and lost revenues find us so unsympathetic. It’s bad enough that we feel like our Internet and our computers are under attack, but having laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA pushed at us on behalf of a special-interest group we consider no better than gangsters and dimwits makes it much worse.

Some of us think the gangsters’ behavior actually justifies piracy. Most of us don’t agree that those two wrongs add up to a right, but I can tell you this: if you make the technologists choose between the big-media gangsters and the content pirates, effectively all of us will side with the content pirates as the lesser of the two evils. Because maybe both sides are stealing on a vast scale, but only one of them doesn’t want to screw with our Internet or cripple our computers.

We’d really prefer to oppose both groups, though. Our sympathies in this mess are with the artists being ripped off by both sides.

Consider this letter our “Don’t tread on me!”. Our agenda is to protect our own liberty to create and our users’ liberty to enjoy those creations as they see fit. We have no give and no compromise on either of those, but long as Hollywood stays out of our patch (that is, no more attempts to lock down our Internet or our tools) we’ll stay out of Hollywood’s.

And if you’d like to discuss some ways of fighting piracy that don’t involve trampling on us and our users, we do have some ideas.

Feb 08

The Smartphone Wars: The market share scramble and Apple’s long con

Mobile phone carriers have a crappy record of strategic planning – the history of the industry is rife with massive overinvestment in services consumers didn’t actually want, partly redeemed by massive unanticipated revenue from accidents of technology (I’m looking at you, SMS!). I’ve explained elsewhere that inflation-adjusted carrier ROI is negative.

Even so, the latest news from the analysts is pretty mind-boggling. Remember all those carrier execs rhapsodizing about how iPhone is the awesomest invention since sex? Well, it seems Apple is sucking all the profits out of the carriers that went for it. That has interesting implications for the future. Like, what happens when the carriers decide they’re done being conned?

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Jan 24

The Smartphone Wars: CyanogenMOD Rising

CyanogenMOD, the third-party, fully-open, bloatware-free port of Android, has recently passed a million installs. And there’s talk of creating an underground Market app for CyanogenMOD to distribute apps that the cell carriers and the MPAA/RIAA don’t want you to have.

Set this against Apple’s mind-bogglingly greedy and evil new Eula for iBooks, and it couldn’t be clearer what the ultimate stakes in the smartphone wars are.

Even in the short term, CynogenMOD’s numbers, and the plan for the Underground Market, and the wideapread revulsion against the iBooks EULA are a big deal – they’re going to crank up the pressure on cell carriers and various other malefactors in interesting ways. But maybe the most important thing CyanogenMOD’s numbers tell us is that there is, in fact, a mass market for freedom.

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Jan 15

Calling all hackerspaces

This is a shout out to all hackerspaces and engineering schools within easy reach of Philadelphia. I’ve got a nice little design-and-build project that would do the world some good, but I don’t have the skills or facilities to do it myself.

The problem: build a ruggedized special-purpose test enclosure to be mounted on a roof or utility pole and host a bunch of GPS sensors. The tricky part is that it needs to be outside and not under top cover (for good skyview) and thus weatherproof, but also transparent to the GPS radio frequencies. Another part of the design problem is getting data and power cabling back to my development computer.

UPDATE: I’m now pursuing a different path – trying to figure out how to build a GPS repeater on the cheap so I can effectively pipe the RF from a roof antenna to be retransmitted in my office. This has the obvious advantage that the GPS test rack will be able to live inside, near my desk, rather than outside in an enclosure that can only be reached with a ladder. So now I’m looking for a hackerspace frequented by radio hams.

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Dec 28

The Smartphone Wars: a bit of Christmas cheer

On Google+, Andy Rubin reports: “There were 3.7M Android activations on 12/24 and 12/25.”

That’s a 170% spike over the 700K activations per-day Rubin announced on 20 Dec. I’ve previously observed that only about 1 in 10 of Android activations show up in the smartphone statistics for the U.S. so Android is probably looking at about 370K new U.S. smartphone users for Christmas, the way comScore counts them.

I’m guessing Apple won’t be releasing the corresponding number, because on previous trends it would only be about 185K Christmas users for their smartphone – and that wouldn’t look good. Well, it could be worse; they could be RIM.

UPDATE: My spike-percentage calculation was wrong. Way too low.

Dec 20

The Smartphone Wars: Andy Rubin brings the news

Over on Google+, Andy Rubin says:

There are now over 700,000 Android devices activated every day…and for those wondering, we count each device only once (ie, we don’t count re-sold devices), and “activations” means you go into a store, buy a device, put it on the network by subscribing to a wireless service.

This does clear up some points people have been wondering about, but it raises larger questions. Like, why aren’t those users showing up in the comScore statistics?

700K users per day ought to translate to about 21M a month. But Android has only been gaining 2M U.S. smartphone users and change per month. If comScore isn’t way undercounting, that implies than a bit less than 9/10ths of daily Android activations are tablets or overseas.

That percentage seems pretty high to me. But I don’t have any alternate theory.

Nov 17

The Smartphone Wars: Samsung Busts a Move?

Well, now, this is interesting. Cyanogen hints via Twitter that we may get a 4.0 Cyanogen ROM in two months.

The news coverage I’ve seen so far misses what I think is the most important bit of context – that Cyanogen’s eponymous founder and lead developer got hired by Samsung a few months back. Samsung is subsidizing this move.

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Oct 27

The Smartphone Wars: Sprint Doubles Down on Dumb

One of my regular commenters points out an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal,
Sprint Could Yet Strike Out With iPhone. “SPQR” interprets it as follows:

The article states that Sprint’s cost to run the iPhone is $15.5 billion over four years. Unclear to me what that “cost” means from the article. The iPhone won’t have a positive impact on Sprint operating income before depreciation and amortization until 2015. The article then implies that outside of that cost are the costs of upgrades to network to support iPhone data useage on its unlimited plans, resulting in a “cash shortfall of up to $5 billion” through 2013. Again, vague what that exactly consists of. Sprint says that the estimated wholesale cost of the iPhone is 40% or $200 more than other smartphones.

If Apple is running margins that essentially suck the profit out of the wireless phone telcos and into its own pockets, then there is another way that dropping market share can rapidly attack Apple’s margins – and that is by removing their leverage against the wireless phone companies

The article is oriented around a reference made by Hesse, CEO of Sprint Nextel, in a earnings call where he made a reference to “Moneyball” about how smart the iPhone is to him. But the article points out, that the Moneyball theory is low wage value players not high wage players, and claims that Hesse got his metaphor backwards.

SPQR is quite right, but to understand the degree of wishful thinking Hesse is exhibiting here you have to bear in mind the huge Damned Fact that drives the behavior of Sprint and other telcos: the real rates of return on carrier cell networks are negative! The carriers are burning capital, all day, every day.

When ROI is negative, you become desperate to drive down costs or pull up margins. Desperation makes CEOs stupid; Hesse is exhibiting that kind of stupidity by placing a bet that even if he shovels most of Sprint’s present profits down down Apple’s throat, the iPhone will push Sprint’s margins up soon enough for the deal to be a net positive in four years.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Android’s U.S. market share is probably passing 50% right about now. I wonder how long it will take for Sprint’s board to realize they’ve been had and fire Hesse’s ass?

Oct 08

On Steve Jobs’s passing

I had been planning to defer commenting on the death of Steve Jobs long enough to give its impact time to cool a little, but Against Nostalgia puts the case I would have made so well and so publicly that it has changed my mind.

I met Steve Jobs once in 1999 when I was the president of the Open Source Initiative, and got caught up in one of his manipulations in a way that caused a brief controversy but (thankfully) did the organization no lasting harm. The author of this piece, Mike Daisey, does well at capturing Jobs’s ruthless brilliance. Jobs was uncannily perceptive about the interface design and marketing of technology, but he was also a control freak who posed as an iconoclast – and after about 1980 he projected his control freakery on everything he shaped. The former trait did a great deal of good; the latter did a degree of harm that, sadly, may prove greater in the end.

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