Aug 31

The Smartphone Wars: Alarums and Mergers

Running a cellphone network is a brutally capital-intensive business with thin profit margins, and subject to heavy regulation. Any economist will tell you that all three of these factors favor size – capital concentration confers a stronger advantage, thin margins can only yield a decent profit at high volume, and larger organizations can better afford the costs of capturing their regulators.

The Washington Post has an interesting graphic on the results in the U.S. wireless-carrier market:

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Aug 27

Night sounds, trains and timepieces

My house is located less than a hundred feet from the Main Line, the principal passenger-rail artery out of Philadelphia to the west – Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and ultimately Chicago and points west. Two dozen times a day passenger trains come bucketing by, but they’re barely a murmur through the dense secondary-growth woods between my back fence and the railroad right-of-way.

The loud ones are the night trains, the big heavy freights they route through when all the passenger cars are put to bed. They come through here rumbling like muted thunder in the still dark, long blasts of airhorns falling away like the mournful cries of vast creatures in a rusty ocean. Some people would find the noise intrusive, but I don’t; it comforts me.

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Aug 25

The Smartphone Wars: Exit Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple yesterday, handing the reins to designated successor Tim Cook. It could hardly happen at a more difficult juncture – for though Apple’s cash reserves and quarterly profits are eye-popping, the company faces serious challenges in the near future. Its strategic position rests on premises that are now in serious doubt, and it is on the wrong end of a serious example of what Clayton Christensen has called “disruption from below”.

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Aug 22

Vanished Planet, Innovation, and the luck-swamping problem

From the gaming front, I report one nice surprise and a couple of disappointments.

My interest in that old standby Puerto Rico was rekindled by the World Boardgaming Championships tournament a few weeks ago, in which I made quarter-finals only to wash out in a game with a mere 4-point spread. Friday night at our gaming group I scored 56 points with a factory/fast-build strategy finishing with Residence and Guildhall, 6 points ahead of a tie for second. Nothing remarkable about the play, but I’m becoming convinced that if you’re running that strategy it’s vital to never skip a build opportunity even if it means you have to settle for a smaller edifice than you really want – otherwise you lose control of the game tempo and shippers get time to blow past you.

I won the Power Grid game after that, too, starting with Wien on the Central Europe board and successfully scoring the 30 fairly early (3 Garbage -> 6 cities). The Wien discount was very helpful after that. I believe that low-balling to buy the 3 in the initial auction in order to place first and grab Wien + Bratislava is the strongest opening on that board – besides locking in the garbage discount and enabling you to build nukes, it’s also a central placement that makes it difficult for other players to box you in.

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Aug 21

How Google+ just changed my life

It is with some bemusement that I report that Google+ – not yet out of beta – has already changed my life. Bear with me because I’m going to talk about diet for a bit, but where I’m actually going is to a discussion of how our means of acquiring information is changing.

So, I saw Sugar: The Bitter Truth scroll up on G+, watched it, and…ay yi yi. Fructose, a hepatotoxic poison?

OK, I did some followup research, I’m aware that there’s a countercase and that Dr. Lustig can be accused of oversimplifying some things and there’s dispute about others. But I know a fair bit about biochemistry, physiology, and related fields, enough to make his indictment of fructose as a chronic hepatotoxin far more convincing and frightening than if I were ignorant and all those enzyme-pathway charts meant nothing to me.

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Aug 19

GPSD 3.0 finally ships. It’s been a long epic.

Protocol transitions are hard.

Yeah, I know the experienced software developers reading that are thinking “Well, duh!“. Shut up already, I’m venting here. I’ve just spent the better part of two years – actually, if you include design time and false starts it could be closer to five years – designing a new application protocol for my gpsd service daemon, implementing it, getting it deployed, dealing with problems and course-correcting.

For those of you in the cheap seats, an “application protocol” is a kind of language that a program uses to communicate with other programs. Normally humans never see these, but there’s one big example that non-geeks have often seen bits of. HTML, the Web’s markup language, is an application protocol. Designing these is not easy. There are difficult issues and tradeoffs around flexibility, economy, expressiveness, and extensibility for uses we haven’t imagined yet.

When you have a whole bunch of programs written by different people communicating with a particular application protocol, changing that entire ecology to use a different one is not easy. A good analogy in the physical world is the difficulty of changing an entire country’s railroad gauge. The long-term benefits may be huge, but the short-term cost in capital and service disruption is daunting.

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Aug 18

The Smartphone Wars: WebOS, we hardly knew ye

The business press is abuzz today with the news that HP is pulling the plug on its WebOS smartphone and tablet lines. This won’t be any huge surprise to people who’ve been following the discussions on Armed & Dangerous; WebOS has looked terminal to us for a long time.

Still…WebOS didn’t suck, technically speaking. It was certainly better constructed than the turd-with-frosting that is WP7. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the circumstances of its demise, and what its difficult history tells us about the future.

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Aug 17

A flash at the heart of the West

I have just seen something lovely and hope-inducing.

It’s a video of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra – manifesting as a flash mob at a train station. Go see it now; I’ll wait.

What is truly wonderful about this is not the music itself. Oh, the Bolero is pleasant enough, and this performance is competent. What was marvelous was to see classical music crack its way out of the dessicated, ritual-bound environment of the concert hall and reclaim a place in ordinary life. Musicians in jeans and sweaters and running shoes (and one kettledrummer with a silly fishing hat), smiling at children while they played. No boundary from the audience – there were train sounds and crowd noise in the background and that was good, dammit!

And the audience – respectful, but not because the setting told them they were supposed to be. Delight spreading outwards in waves as the onlookers gradually comprehended the hack in progress. Parents pointing things out to their kids. Hassled businesspeople pausing, coffees in hand, to relax into something that wasn’t on the schedule. It was alive in a way that no performance from a lofty stage could ever be.

But there was an even more beautiful level of meaning than that.

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Aug 15

The Smartphone Wars: Google Buys Motorola

This morning came the news that Google has agreed to buy Motorola Mobile for $12 billion. I was half-asleep when A&D regular Jay Maynard phoned me with a heads-up, but not surprised for a second; as I told him, I’ve been expecting this for weeks.

We’ll see a lot of silly talk about Google getting direct into the handset business while the dust settles, but make no mistake: this purchase is all about Motorola’s patent portfolio. This is Google telling Apple and Microsoft and Oracle “You want to play silly-buggers with junk patents? Bring it on; we’ll countersue you into oblivion.”

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Aug 12

The importance of being “ESR” – a sidelight on the G+ nym wars

This is not actually going to be a post about the G+ nym wars. Rather, it’s about something curious that I discovered while thinking about them.

I would like G+ to support persistent pseudonyms, so G+ users could say “+ESR” and have it point to my G+ profile. But here’s what’s interesting; I don’t actually want that capability because I want people to address me as “ESR” rather than my real name. I will cheerfully answer to either.

The reason I want a persistent alias as +ESR is more subtle. I want other people to be able to convey information about how they want to engage me by which label they choose. One might think of this as “aspect naming”, and it’s a slightly different phenomenon from pseudonymy or nicknaming, in a way I will explore in this essay.

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Aug 07

The Smartphone Wars: 48% and rising

There’s been a lot of talk in the trade press over the last month by people who believe – or want to believe, or want us to think they believe – that Android’s momentum is slowing, and in particular that the multicarrier release of the Apple iPhone was a game-changer that will eventually pull Apple back into the dominant position in smartphones. Most of these talkers have been obvious Apple fanboys; a few have been contrarians, or tired of reporting the same old Android-wins-again stories, or merely linkbaiting.

The last week has not been kind to these people. First, Canalys reported that in a survey of usage in 56 countries, Android has reached 48% market share worldwide. Then the comScore figures on US installed base up to June 2011 came out, and report only 40% share here.

I think comparing these sources is instructive, particularly with the longer-term trends as context. It’s also worth noting a couple of other recent developments that cast doubt on the Apple-comeback scenario.

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Aug 05

Android development pulls hot chicks. Who knew?

There I was, within earshot of the smoker’s bench outside the front entrance of the hotel hosting the World Boardgaming Championships, when I overheard the word “Android” from the three college students sitting on and around it, who I mentally tagged the Guy, the Gamer-Girl, and the Hottie. I moved a bit closer, to polite conversational distance for a stranger, and when they noticed me asked if they were talking about smartphones.

One of them (I think Gamer-Girl) said “Yes” and within about ten seconds I learned that they all had Androids and were huge fans, and had been discussing apps and fun things to do with the device. I smiled and told them I’d written some of the code in their phones.

The Hottie, a slender but pleasantly curved redhead in a tight black dress and fishnets, sat up a bit straighter and asked me what parts I’d written. I settled as usual for explaining that I wrote significant pieces of the code Android uses to throw image bits on its display. The hottie did a silent “Oooh!” and gave me dilated pupils and a flash of rather nice cleavage.

So yes, geeky guys, Android development can pull hot chicks. Well, it was either that or my rugged masculine charm; you get to choose your theory.

I had to run off to lunch, but I did learn one other interesting thing during this interlude. When I said that I was pleased that Android is attracting such loyalty from people who aren’t techies, they assured me that all their friends either have Androids or are planning to get them.

This being WBC, my sample was probably a bit above average in IQ and likely to lean towards early adoption. Still, it makes me suspect the iPhone is losing its grip on one of its core markets.