14 August 2008

Who says that "design by committee" must always be bad?

Filed under: collaboration, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 3:47 am

Writing in EE Times yesterday, comparing the prospects of different mobile operating systems, Rick Merritt has a bit of illicit fun complaining about what he sees as inevitable slowness in the operation of the forthcoming Symbian Foundation:

Trailing behind

…it will take developers as long as two years to meld all the pieces of the unified open-source platform Nokia plans.

The environment will combine the best elements of the UIQ and MOAP(S) environments created by Sony Ericsson and Docomo, respectively. But it will not run existing apps written for those environments.

Worse, the unified Symbian will be defined by a complex set of interworking groups at the Symbian Foundation—including separate councils on feature road mapping, user interface and architecture—drawn from the dozen companies that make up the new foundation. What’s the Finnish term for “design by committee”?

This description of the intended collaborative design and review mechanism of the Symbian Foundation implies that such a process is bound to be ineffective. The underlying idea is that committees (or “councils”, to use the word from the Symbian Foundation whitepaper) are for losers, and never produce anything good.

It’s true that many committees struggle. They can degenerate into talking shops. But not all committees have such a fate.

Indeed, what’s proposed for the Symbian Foundation isn’t something brand new. It’s an evolution of a collaborative design and review mechanism that is already in place, and which has been working well for many years, guiding the evolution of Symbian OS up till now.

For example, Symbian TechCom (“Technology Committee”) has met three or four times each year since 1998, and successfully performs many of the tasks slated for the new councils. Symbian TechCom membership includes leading technical specialists and senior product managers from phone manufacturers around the world. What makes TechCom work so well is:

  • A series of processes that have evolved over the ten years of TechCom’s existence
  • Continuity of high-calibre personnel attending the meetings, who have learned how to work together effectively
  • Skilled management by the Symbian personnel responsible for the operation of this body
  • Excellent preparation before each meeting – and good follow up afterwards.

The skills of running an effective committee may sound boring, but believe me, if done right, they enable better decisions and a new level of combined buy-in to the conclusions eventually reached.

As another example, from further back in my professional career, I remember countless long discussions over aspects of the Psion EPOC suite of software. How should the Agenda app operate in such-and-such a circumstance, exactly what APIs should the OPL scripting language provide, which software features should be centralised to libraries and which left in individual apps…? These questions (and many many others) were decided by a process of debate and eventual consensus. It can be truly said that this software system was “designed by committee”. Some people might think that’s a criticism. On the contrary, it’s a great strength.

In short, collaboration is hard, but when you’ve got the means to make it work, the outcome will be better (for complex problems) than if strong individuals work independently.

Let me briefly comment on the other two paragraphs from the above extract:

The [Symbian Foundation] environment will combine the best elements of the UIQ and MOAP(S) environments created by Sony Ericsson and Docomo, respectively. But it will not run existing apps written for those environments.

However, it will run existing apps written for the S60 environment – which is the majority implementation of Symbian OS.

it will take developers as long as two years to meld all the pieces of the unified open-source platform Nokia plans.

But there’s no need to wait for two years before working with this software. That software will represent a smooth evolution of existing Symbian OS. Symbian OS will continue to be updated regularly, with new releases continuing to appear roughly two or three times each year. Any effort applied by developers to create solutions for these existing and forthcoming releases will be well worth it:

  • These solutions will run on the smartphone platform that has by far the largest marketshare
  • These solutions will also run on devices running the version of Symbian OS released in due course by the Symbian Foundation.

In conclusion, I don’t agree with any implication that the Symbian Foundation is going to result in slower software development. On the contrary, the outcome will be deeper collaboration and swifter innovation.

10 July 2008

Inspiring the rising stars in universities

Filed under: collaboration, Essay contest, universities — David Wood @ 11:28 pm

One of the goals I set myself for 2008 involves influencing university research departments around the world to become more active in the areas of smartphones and Symbian OS.

With that goal in my mind, I decided to accept an invite to the “Wireless 2.0” conference organised by Silicon South West, here in Bristol, where I’ve travelled for the event. I decided to attend because of the mix of both industry and university attendees.

The event hosted a “Rising Star Awards Dinner” this evening, where six university students studying electrical engineering (or a related degree) received special awards – a plaque and a handy amount of spending money. There was one winner from each of the six universities in the area covered by Silicon South West: Bath, Bournemouth, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, and West of England. It was heart warming to hear the personal testimonies of the winners (and their university tutors).

But links between commercial research departments and university research departments aren’t always so rosy. Universities and industry have many overlapping interests, but also some conflicting cultures. I see Symbian as having had mixed success, historically, in relations with universities:

  • On the clearly positive side, we’ve run good graduate recruitment and induction programs, every year since 1993 (that was in the Psion days, pre-Symbian); these have gone from strength to strength.
  • On the increasingly positive side, 58 universities have enrolled into the Symbian Academy program, in which Symbian supports university lecturers to deliver academic courses on Symbian OS software development.
  • On the “could do better” side, there are still only a small number of truly productive ongoing research collaborations between Symbian and individual universities, in which findings from university research projects regularly feed into Symbian’s roadmap (and vice versa).

It turns out that it’s not just Symbian that feels somewhat uncomfortable about the limited benefits realised from attempted collaboration with universities. Other commercial companies have noted similar concerns. And this has even become a field of academic study in its own right, known as (amongst other names) UIC, meaning University-Industry Collaboration. My friend Joel West of San Jose State University recently attended a two-conference on UIC at University of California, Irvine, and wrote up his observations. There’s lots to ponder there. For example, Joel described three pieces of advice on successful UIC negotiations, as given in a presentation by UIDP executive director Anthony Boccanfuso:

  1. A successful UI collaboration should support the mission of each partner. Any effort in conflict with the mission of either partner will fail. (Joel’s translation: all deals must be win-win)
  2. Institutional practices and national resources should focus on fostering appropriate long term partnerships between universities and industry. (It’s more than just the money)
  3. Universities and industry should focus on the benefits to each party that will result from collaborations by streamlining negotiations to ensure timely conduct of the research and the development of the research findings. (There is a finite window for commercialization)

With Symbian research projects, one additional hiccup has been the difficulties in allowing universities access to Symbian OS source code. Time and again we’ve been discussing an attractive-sounding joint research project with a university, when we’ve realised that the project would need more visibility of Symbian source code than was possible under the existing licensing rules. And that’s constrained the kinds of projects we can consider. (This realisation was just one of many that led to an increasing desire inside the Symbian ecosystem to find ways to liberalise access to our source code – and thus helped to set the scene for the mega-decision to embrace open source principles.)

However, not all research requires close access to source code. With that thought in mind, Symbian Research decided a few weeks back to launch the Symbian Student Essay Contest. This involves students writing an essay of no more than eight pages on the general topic “The next wave of smartphone innovation – issues and opportunities with smartphone technologies“. Up to ten students will receive a prize of UKP 1000. (See here for the contest rules.)

This prize contest has some common principles with the Silicon South West “Rising Star Awards”:

  • We’re seeking to encourage and reward individual students who show particular insight into this ever-more important set of ideas
  • We’re also seeking to inspire individual universities to give a higher priority to this domain of study.

High quality essays from a university will indicate to Symbian that there is good smartphone expertise in that university. That’s something we’re particularly interested to find out, since Symbian Research needs to decide which universities worldwide should receive higher priority attention for future collaborative research projects. That’s a tough decision to make.

Footnote: At tonight’s dinner, Prof Joe McGeehan of the University of Bristol mentioned that wise heads had been advising him, ever since 1973, that “there’s no future in research in wireless communications”. Thankfully, he persistently ignored these skeptics, and the field has indeed grown and grown. There’s now an impressive list of local south-west companies that have world-beating wireless technologies. I’m looking forward to hearing, tomorrow, what they have to say. The future of smartphones is, of course, a big part in “wireless 2.0”, but there’s lots more going on at the same time.

1 July 2008

Win-win: how the Symbian Foundation helps Google to win

Filed under: collaboration, Google, RIM — David Wood @ 9:29 am

Olga Kharif of Business Week has found an interesting new angle on the Symbian Foundation announcement, in her article “How Nokia’s Symbian Move Helps Google“:

Nokia rocked the wireless industry June 24 with news it would purchase the portion of Symbian, a maker of mobile-phone software, that it didn’t already own—and then give away the software for nothing. …

But Nokia’s move may play right into Google’s hands, by helping to nurture a blossoming of the mobile Web and spur demand for all manner of cell-phone applications—and most important, the ads sold by Google. “There’s nothing to say that this isn’t what Google’s plan was all along,” says Kevin Burden, research director, mobile devices at consultancy ABI Research. “They might have wanted a more open device environment anyway. This might have been Google’s end game.”

My comment on this analysis is: why does it need to be a bad thing for Nokia and Symbian, if the outcome has benefits for Google? If Google wins (by being able to sell more ads on mobile phones than before), does it mean that Nokia and Symbian lose? I think not. I prefer to see this as being mutually beneficial.

The truth is, many of the companies who provide really attractive applications and services for Symbian-powered phones are both complementors and competitors of Symbian:

  • RIM provide the first class BlackBerry email service that runs on my Symbian-powered Nokia E61i and which I use virtually every hour I’m awake; they also create devices that run their own operating system, and which therefore compete with Symbian devices
  • Google, as well as working on Android, provide several of the other mobile applications that I use heavily on my E61i, including native Google Maps and native Google Search.

If companies like RIM and Google are able, as a result of the Symbian Foundation and its unification of the currently separate Symbian UIs (not to mention the easier accessibility of the source code), to develop new and improved applications for Symbian devices more quickly than before – then it will increase the attractiveness of these devices. RIM and Google (and there are many others too!) will benefit from increased services revenues which these mobile apps enable. Symbian and the various handset manufacturers who use the Symbian platform will benefit from increased sales and increased usage of the handsets that contain these attractive new applications and services. Win-win.

I see two more ways in which progress by any one of the open mobile operating systems (whether Android or the Symbian Platform, etc) boosts the others:

  1. The increasing evident utility of the smartphones powered by any one of these operating systems, helps spread word of mouth among end users that, hey, smartphones are pretty useful things to buy. So next time people consider buying a new phone, they’ll be more likely to seek out one that, in addition to good voice and text, also supplies great mobile web access, push email, and so on. The share of smartphones out of all mobile phones will rise.
  2. Progress of these various open mobile operating systems will help the whole industry to see the value of standard APIs, free exchange of source code, open gardens, and so on. The role of open operating systems will increase and that of closed operating systems will diminish.

In both cases, a rising tide will lift all boats. Or in the words of Symbian’s motto, it’s better to seek collaboration than to seek competition.

29 June 2008

The enhancement of the dream

Filed under: collaboration, Psion, Symbian Story — David Wood @ 12:49 pm

Did this week’s announcements about the Symbian Foundation herald “The end of the dream“, as Michael Mace suggests?

No matter how it works out in the long run, the purchase of Symbian by Nokia marks the end of a dream — the creation of a new independent OS company to be the mobile equivalent of Microsoft. Put a few beers into former Symbian employees and they’ll get a little wistful about it, but the company they talk about most often is Psion, the PDA company that spawned Symbian. …

What makes the Psion story different is that many of the Psion veterans had to leave the UK, or join non-UK companies, in order to become successful. Some are in other parts of Europe, some are in the US, and some are in London but working for foreign companies. This is a source of intense frustration to the Psion folks I’ve talked with. They feel like not only their company failed, but their country failed to take advantage of the expertise they had built.

I understand the thrust of this argument, but I take a different point of view. Rather than seeing this week’s announcement as “the end of the dream”, I see it as enabling “the enhancement of the dream”.

During the second half of 2007, Symbian’s executive team led a company-wide exercise to find a set of evocative, compelling words that captured what we called “The Symbian Story”. Some of the words we came up with were new, but the sentiment they conveyed was widely recognised as deriving from the deep historic roots of the company. Here are some extracts:

  • The world is seeing a revolution in smarter mobile devices
  • Convergence is real, happening now and coming to everyone, everywhere
  • Our mission is to be the OS chosen for the converged mobile world
  • No one else can seize it like we can
  • Our talented people, building highly complex software, have established a smartphone OS that leads the industry
  • We welcome rapid change as the way to stay ahead
  • We’ll work together to fulfill our potential to be the most widely used software on the planet, at the heart of an inspiring, exciting and rewarding success story.

This story – which we might also call a dream, or a vision – has by no means ended with this week’s announcements. On the contrary, these steps should accelerate the outcome that’s been in our minds for so long. There will be deeper collaboration and swifter innovation – making it even more likely that the Symbian platform will become in due course the most widely used on the planet.

But what about the dream that Symbian (or before it, Psion) could be “the next Microsoft”?

In terms of software influence, and setting de facto standards, this dream still holds. In terms of boosting the productivity and enjoyment of countless people around the world, through the careful deployment of smart software which we write, the dream (again) still holds. In terms of the founders of the company joining the ranks of the very richest people in the world, well, that’s a different story, but that fantasy was never anything like so high in our motivational hierarchy.

What about the demise of “British control” over the software? Does the acquisition of UK-based Symbian by Finland-based Nokia indicate yet another “oh what might have been” for the United Kingdom plc?

Once again, I prefer to take a different viewpoint. In truth, the software team has long ago ceased to be dominated by home-bred British talent. The present Symbian Leadership Team has one person from Holland and one from Norway. 50% of the Research department that I myself head were born overseas (in Russia, Greece, and Canada). And during the Q&A with Symbian’s Nigel Clifford and Nokia’s Kai Oistamo that took place in London at all-hands meetings of Symbian employees on the 24th of June, questions were raised using almost every accent under the sun. So rather than Symbian being a British-run company, it’s better to see us as a global company that happens to be headquartered in London, and which benefits mightily from talent born all over the world.

Not only do we benefit from employees born worldwide, we also benefit (arguably even more highly) from our interactions with customers and partners the world over. As Symbian morphs over the next 6-9 months into a new constellation of organisations (including part that works inside Nokia, and part that has an independent existence as the Symbian Foundation), these collaborative trends should intensify. That’s surely a matter for celebration, not for remorse.

25 June 2008

A tale of two meetings

Filed under: climate change, collaboration, Nuclear energy, SitP, solar energy, Spiked — David Wood @ 10:31 pm

In the past, I’ve enjoyed several meetings of the London Skeptics in the Pub (“SitP”). More than 100 people cram into the basement meeting space of Penderel’s Oak in Holborn, and listen to a speaker cover a contentious topic – such as alternative medicine, investigating the paranormal, the “moon landings hoax”. What’s typically really enjoyable is the extended Q&A session in the second half of the meeting, when the audience often dissect the speaker’s viewpoint. Attendee numbers have crept up steadily over the nine years the group has existed. It’s little surprise that the group was voted into the Top Ten London Communities 2008 by Time Out.

Last night, the billed speaker was the renowned (many would say “infamous”) climate change denier, Fred Singer. The talk was advertised as follows:

Global Warming: Science, Economics, and some Moral Issues: What Al Gore Never Told You.

The science is settled: Evidence clearly demonstrates that carbon dioxide contributes insignificantly to Global Warming and is therefore not a ‘pollutant.’ This fact has not yet been widely recognized, and irrational Global Warming fears continue to distort energy policies and foreign policy. All efforts to curtail CO2 emissions, whether global, federal, or at the state level, are pointless — and in any case, ineffective and very costly. On the whole, a warmer climate is beneficial. Fred will comment on the vast number of implications.

Since this viewpoint is so far removed from consensus scientific thinking, I was hoping for a cracking debate. And indeed, the evening started well. Singer turned out to be a better speaker than I expected. Even though he’s well into his 80s, he spoke with confidence, courtesy, and good humour. And he had some interesting material:

  • A graph that seemed to show that global temperature has not been rising over the last ten years (even though atmospheric CO2 has incontrovertibly been rising over that time period)
  • A claim that all scientific models of atmospheric warming are significantly at variance with observed data (and therefore, we shouldn’t give these models much credence)
  • Suggestions that global warming is more strongly influenced by cosmic rays than by atmospheric CO2.

(The contents of the talk were similar to what’s in this online article.)

So I eagerly anticipated the Q&A. But oh, what a disappointment. I found myself more and more frustrated:

  • Quite a few of the audience members seemed incapable of asking a clear, relevant, concise question. Instead, they tended to go off on tangents, or went round and round in circles. (To my mind, the ability to identify and ask the key question, without distraction, is an absolutely vital skill for the modern age.)
  • Alas, the speaker could not hear the questions (being, I guess, slightly deaf from his advanced age); so they had to be repeated by the meeting moderator, who was standing at the front next to the speaker
  • The moderator often struggled to capture the question from what the audience member had said, so there were several iterations here
  • Then the speaker frequently took a LONG time to answer the question. (He was patient and polite, but he was also painstakingly SLOW.)

Result: lots of time wasted, in my view. No one landed anything like a decisive refutation of the speaker’s claims. There were lots of good questions that should have been asked, but time didn’t allow it. I also blamed myself, for not having done any research prior to the meeting (but I had been pretty busy on other matters for the last few days), and for not being able to do my usual trick of looking up information on my smartphone during a meeting (via Google, Wikipedia, etc) because network reception was very poor in the part of the basement where I was standing. In conclusion, although the discussion was fun, I don’t think we got anything like the best possible discussion that the speakers’ presentation deserved.

I mention all this, not just because I’m deeply concerned about the fearsome prospects of runaway global warming, but also because I’m interested in the general question of how to organise constructive debates that manage to reach to the heart of the matter (whatever the matter is).

As an example of a meeting that did have a much better debate, let me mention the one I attended this evening. It was hosted by Spiked, and was advertised as follows:

Nuclear power: what’s the alternative? The future of energy in Britain

As we seek to overcome our reliance on fossil fuels, what are the alternatives? Offshore turbines and wind farms are often cited as options but can they really meet more than a fraction of the UK’s energy needs? If not, is nuclear power a viable alternative? Public anxieties about nuclear plants’ safety, their susceptibility to terrorist attacks, and the problem of safely disposing of radioactive waste persist. But to what extent are these concerns justified? Is the real issue the public’s perception of both the risks and potential of nuclear energy? Ultimately, does nuclear energy, be it the promise of fusion or the reality of fission, finally mean we can stop guilt-tripping about energy consumption?

Instead of just one speaker, there were five, who had a range of well-argued but differing viewpoints. And the chairperson, Timandra Harkness (Director of Cheltenham Science Festival’s Fame Lab) was first class:

  • She made it clear that each speaker was restricted to 7 minutes for their opening speech (and they all kept to this limit, with good outcomes: focus can have wonderful results)
  • Then there were around half a dozen questions from the floor, asked one after the other, before the speaker panel were invited to reply
  • There were several more rounds of batched up questions followed by responses
  • Because of the format, the speakers had the option of ignoring the (few) irrelevant questions, and could concentrate on the really interesting ones.

For the record, I thought that all the speakers made good points, but Keith Barnham, co-founder of the solar cell manufacturing company Quantasol, was particularly interesting, with his claims for the potential of new generation photovoltaic concentrator solar cells. (This topic also featured in a engrossing recent Time article.) He recommended that we put our collective hope for near-future power generation “in the [silicon] industry that gave us the laptop and the mobile phone, rather than the industry that gave us Chernobyl and Sellafield”. (Ouch!) Advances in silicon have time and again driven down the prices of mobile phones; these benefits will also come quickly (Barnham claimed) to the new generation solar cells.

But the conclusion I want to draw is that the best way to ensure a great debate is to have a selection of speakers with complementary views, to insist on focus, and to chair the meeting particularly well. Yes, collaboration is hard – but when it works, it’s really worth it!

Footnote: the comparision between the Skeptics in the Pub meeting and the Spiked one is of course grossly unfair, since the former is run on a shoestring (there’s a £2 charge to attend) whereas the latter has a larger apparatus behind it (the entry charge was £10, payable in advance; and there’s corporate sponsorship from Clarke Mulder Purdie). But hey, I still think there are valid learnings from this tale of two different meetings – each interesting and a good use of time, but one ultimately proving much more satisfactory than the other.

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