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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ray Ozzie, the so-called "post PC" era, and the naivete of the software industry

A post on ForumOxford pointed me towards Ray Ozzie's monologue about Microsoft and the future direction of the IT industry, "Dawn of a New Day".

Beautifully-written, yes. And containing much wisdom and knowledge.

But displaying, once again, the arrogance of the software mindset which believes it has conquered physics.

Contrast this with Jobs' comment last week:
"We create our own A4 chip, our own software, our own battery chemistry, our own enclosure, our own everything"

The idea that software engineering has the capability of beating hard limits and challenges in RF, power management, silicon and so on is myopic. Apple understands this and works to juggle all of them appropriately. (As does RIM, incidentally). But then Apple value hardware at least as much as software, from milled aluminium shells to customised bits of radio front-ends.

Ozzie assumes that wireless networks will be fast and pervasive. But what the software crowd (whether it's in Redmond, Silicon Valley or London) fails to comprehend is that there are no 3G networks to connect tablets or clouds to, in most parts of the world. Nor the money to justify the build-out in the depth needed to realise Ozzie's vision. Nor the willingness to support subscription-based business models. Even in the developed world, ubiquitous, high-performance indoor networks would need fibre everywhere for WiFi or femtos.

And lets not even touch on the legal and regulatory hurdles. But good luck trying to persuade the GSMA to ditch roaming charges for data, specially for cloud devices. Maybe give the WTO a call and see if they can sort it out over the next decade or two? Until then, I'll keep my local storage and processing, thank you very much.

It's interesting that none of the best-known software billionaires talk about the "post-PC era". Maybe that's perhaps because, through their non-IT philanthropic work, they get exposure to true "ecosystems", ones based on far more complexity than Ozzie's filtered view of computing. We're not yet living in a post-malaria world, despite Gates' heroic efforts through his Foundation.

At a recent conference, I crossed swords with a well-known and outspoken financial analyst, who complained that PCs hadn't evolved in 20 years. I pointed out that sharks & crocodiles haven't evolved in over 100 million. They are still occupying and controlling their own (literal) ecosystems rather better than humanity does with its.

Ozzies's comment about devices that "They’re instantly usable, interchangeable, and trivially replaceable without loss" also displays the overwhelming naivete of the software mindset.

It ignores that fact that end-users (you know, customers) like expensive, unique and tangible hardware. It performs many social and behavioural functions, not just acting as a cloud-services end-point. Software isn't loved and cherished, and neither will cloud services be. Software isn't polished, used as a status symbol, or oohed-and-aahed over. Nobody walks across a cafe to excitedly ask a stranger if they've *really* got the new OS7.3.

Yes, there will be some "trivially replaceable" devices (3G dongles, for example, already are), but anything truly personal will stay expensive. Again, Apple understands this - as does Nokia, squeezing out an extra few bucks at the low-end, differentiating hardware against no-brand competitors in the developing world.

Telecom dinosaurs refer to "dumb pipes". I predict that software/cloud dinosaurs will refer to "dumb devices". Both are wrong. (Yes, I know - Larry Ellison already got this one wrong in the 1990s)

Yes, cloud services will be more important and we'll see more devices accessing them, or optimised for them.

But the notion that this means that the world is somehow destined for a "post PC" era remains as risible now as it did a year or two ago, when the term was first coined.


Jack Nook said...

I don't agree on the "beautifully written" part; it read like the overly florid prose people try at graduation speeches or cult initiations. ("YOU are the future! Now give us $500 and we'll show you the way!") However, there were a lot of very good points, particularly in regards to appliances and continuous services. I'll have to check his posts for more on that.

Something about these sorts of posts strikes me as condescending. They seem to ignore that for all our high-speed connections and cloud computing, many places in the world are still figuring out how to run enough fiber to serve a village. And when these posts do touch on emerging markets, it's with the same all-knowing tone that announces wireless will be used to completely transform these societies---never mind the very real work required of implmeneting and integrating technology and, oh yeah, infrastructure. Whatever, that'll all catch up, right? He glosses over infrastructure the same way people treat Photoshop in Hollywood. "Why can't you just enhance the image?"

People need to stop thinking of wired and wireless as mutually exclusive or somehow representative of two different things. Why not point some of these great visionaries towards real challenges: base stations that can be deployed safely in war zones, fiber optic cables that will withstand flooding, high-capacity and low-cost backhaul for cities...?

Brian S Hall said...

Well written, though I think we're already in the 'post PC' era. With 5 billion mobile phones in use, a rapidly growing share of those becoming smartphones, the PC may survive within its (ever-smaller) ecosystem, like crocodiles, but it's no longer central to global computing or communications.

If interested, this is pretty much all I write about on my site (www.brianshall.com).

I do think you are spot on, however, about the importance of software + hardware.

Dean Bubley said...

Jack - thanks.

Never mind enough fibre to serve a village, water and electricity would be good....

... then there's actually the costs & practicalities of building out decent wireless networks, especially in places with low GDP / capita, low bank account penetration etc.

Brian - thank for the comment. I had a look at the site. Interesting, but I disagree with some of it quite strongly.

Sure, smartphones have evolved a lot over the last decade & are now strongly useful. For some people in some places.

But they still don't have a fraction of the reach in to society & the economy that PCs do. Saying they are "longer central to global computing or communications" - well, I'll agree about communications, but then barring email & IM & a bit of Skype they never have been.

But global computing? What do you think runs the Treasury of every government & sits on the civil servants' desks? What is almost all software *written* on? What are the most important end-points for SAP? What lives inside a bank ATM machine or retailer's till?

And what do you think every teenager from Hanoi to Tbilisi to La Paz uses to set up their Facebook page?