Silver Bullets

werewolfLike many famous papers, Fred Brooks No Silver Bullet is more referenced than read but it deserves better. Here is Brooks explaining why verification hype, for example the recent vast investment in marketing supposed security levels of Common Criteria Software (“EAL”), needs to be taken with more than one grain of salt:

More seriously, even perfect program verification can only establish that a program meets its specification. The hardest part of the software task is arriving at a complete and consistent specification, and much of the essence of building a program is in fact the debugging of the specification.

And here is Brooks getting at the core economic issue

Buy versus build. The most radical possible solution for constructing software is not to construct it at all. […] A surprising thing has happened here. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, study after study showed that users would not use off-the-shelf packages for payroll, inventory control, accounts receivable, and so on. The requirements were too specialized, the case-to-case variation too high. During the 1980’s, we find such packages in high demand and widespread use. What has changed? Not the packages, really. They may be somewhat more generalized and somewhat more customizable than formerly, but not much. Not the applications, either. If anything, the business and scientific needs
of today are more diverse and complicated than those of 20 years ago.

The big change has been in the hardware/software cost ratio. In 1960, the buyer of a two-million dollar machine felt that he could afford $250,000 more for a customized payroll program, one that slipped easily and nondisruptively into the computer-hostile social environment. Today, the buyer of a $50,000 office machine cannot conceivably afford a customized payroll program, so he adapts the payroll procedure to the packages available. Computers are now so commonplace, if not yet so beloved, that the adaptations are accepted as a matter of course.

Finally, here is Brooks explaining the thing that is most difficult for big companies to accept.

Whereas the difference between poor conceptual designs and good ones may lie in the soundness of design method, the difference between good designs and great ones surely does not. Great designs come from great designers. Software construction is a creative process. Sound methodology can empower and liberate the creative mind; it cannot inflame or inspire the drudge

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OSIM Madrid and Value Manifolds

Goya family of charles 3Spent a couple of very interesting days at the OSIM conference in Madrid as part of my consulting for WindRiver which has a very powerful market position in cellular handsets now – partly due to their acquisition of RTLinux for embedded last January. Interesting to see these companies negotiate the vast complexity of the technology being deployed in handsets and the equally complex picture of software intellectual property and the famous “value line” – which really has way too many dimensions to be reduced to a line and should be renamed the “value manifold”. Both Trolltech and Funambol touted dual-license models where the some feature of the open source product pushes possible customers to buy non-open source licenses. You could cynically characterize these models as “we get free market presence and the people who violate the license would have stolen the software anyway.” Pragmatic. People from Gnash were advocating a pure open source model on the old fashioned “sell services” plan – claiming that the embedded flash environment was so fractured and that services were needed for many projects. In both these cases: my understanding may differ from their understanding, so please don’t ascribe my opinions to anyone else.

From my point of view, a large part of the evolution in this market has been a painful and expensive process of learning that chip and device companies and operators cannot cost effectively dabble in the operating system business when the devices get to the current level of sophistication.

(painting above by Goya shows management of very large multinational who made a lot of bad decisions. This painting is in Madrid, but has little to do with the OSIM conference exactly.)

Exciting moments in fiber

… the first truly game changing advance in bend-insensitive fiber came at the FTTH Council Europe meeting in Amsterdam early 2005, when an NTT engineer demonstrated a tough fiber that could be tied into knots. As we reported in oour March 2005 issue, the 700 person audience – mainly engineers and executives – rose to a standing ovation. – Broadband Properties, August 2007

“Broadband Properties” is a trade journal intended for people involved in providing communications to apartment buildings and complexes.

Thinking like a subcontractor

Many industries are organized so that a small group of companies controls the “product” and sit on top of a pyramid of subcontractors who provide parts and labor. It’s natural for companies at the top of the chain to prefer this scheme since from the top you can squeeze of BOM (Bill of Materials ) costs and essentially move profit margin to your side. All the talk about the “value line” in the Free Software world is just an alternative formulation of the same idea: the suppliers below the value line provide labor and compete on cost, the organizations over the value line sell products and compete, if they do, on features and brand.

Apple’s strategic brilliance

I may be reading too much into it, but Apple looks to have come up with a strategy to pass Microsoft in the next ten years. They are linking their phone, music, and PC business together to form an unavoidable platform in a way that has not been done since Microsoft put together the office suite and windows. It’s unfortunate that this is all being done on the flawed Mach base, but it probably doesn’t matter. The killer advantages Apple brings are all centered around their ability to runover the middlemen and reach out directly to paying customers. In the cell phone market, where billions have been spent trying to win over operators and the main phone makers, Apple has ignored all the standards bodies and consortia and operator specs and produced something end-customers demand. Same with itunes and the bitterly complaining music industry. Instead of thinking like a subcontractor, Apple thinks like a market innovator.

Apple’s strategic brilliance

I may be reading too much into it, but Apple looks to have come up with a strategy to pass Microsoft in the next ten years. They are linking their phone, music, and PC business together to form an unavoidable platform in a way that has not been done since Microsoft put together the office suite and windows. It’s unfortunate that this is all being done on the flawed Mach base, but it probably doesn’t matter. The killer advantages Apple brings are all centered around their ability to runover the middlemen and reach out directly to paying customers. In the cell phone market, where billions have been spent trying to win over operators and the main phone makers, Apple has ignored all the standards bodies and consortia and operator specs and produced something end-customers demand. Same with itunes and the bitterly complaining music industry. Instead of thinking like a subcontractor, Apple thinks like a market innovator.