31 December 2009

The constant economy

Filed under: books, Economics, green, leadership, market failure, vision — David Wood @ 2:54 pm

I’ve had mixed thoughts when reading Zac Goldsmith‘s “The constant economy: how to create a stable society” over the last few days.  It makes some useful contributions to an ultra-important debate.  However, the recommendations it makes frequently strike me as impractical.

Zac has been one of the advisors to the UK Conserative Party on environmental matters.  He is now the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for the Richmond Park constituency, which is adjacent to the one I live in.  It’s possible that his views on environmental matters will have a significant influence over the next UK government.

Some of the examples in the book made me think, “Gosh, I didn’t realise things were so bad; things can’t be left to go on like this“.  I had these thoughts when reading, for example, about the huge decline in fishing stocks worldwide, and about the enormous swathe of plastic waste in large parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Other parts, however, made me think, “Hang on, there’s another side to this story” – for example, for some of the incidents described in the chapter about the Precautionary Principle, and for the section about nuclear power.

This book is like a manifesto.  Mixed in with real-world anecdotes and analysis, each chapter contains a list of “Voter Demand Box” items.  For example, here’s the list from the chapter on “A zero waste economy”:

‘Take back’

People should have a legal ‘take back’ right enshrined in consumer law.  This would give everyone the right to take any packaging waste back to the shop it was bought from, and impose an obligation on retailers to recycle that waste once it was received.

Paying people to recycle

No more landfill

Using the right materials

Built to last

Government buying power

Incineration, a last resort

And from the chapter “An energy revolution”:

Find out the truth about oil

A cross-party taskforce should be established immediately to draw up a risk assessment.  It should not invite the traditional fuel industry to take part, as it would effectively be studying a risk scenario that says their maths is incorrect.  The taskforce should be required to publically report its findings within a year.

At the same time, we should also expect our government to put pressure on the UN or International Energy Authority to undertake a review of the world’s oil reserves.  If the economic models of every nation on earth are based on the assumption of everlasting oil supplies, it is reasonable that they should know how much oil actually exists.

Capture the heat

Reward the pioneers

Break the rules


We urgently need a renewable energy fund to provide substantial grants for the research and development of radical new clean energy technologies.  From wave power to clean coal technology, potential solutions remain in the pipeline due to a lack of investment.  Government should provide that investment.  Diverting money that would otherwise be spent subsidizing fossil fuels or the nuclear energy could provide billions of pounds for research, support and, crucially, for upgrading the national grid.

Stop paying the polluters

Whilst there are elements of good sense to all (or nearly all) of these recommendations, this set of items needs a lot more work:

  • The items are uncosted, and generally open-ended;
  • It’s often unclear how the recommendations differ from policies and processes that are already in place;
  • There’s no prioritisation (everything is equally important);
  • There’s no roadmap (everything is equally urgent).

Despite this weakness, this book still has merit as a good conversation starter.

The book’s introduction provides a higher-level picture.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

The world is in trouble.  As human numbers expand and the resource-hungry economy grows, the natural environment is suffering an unprecedented assault.  Forests are shrinking, species are disappearing, oceans are emptying, land is turning to desert.  The climate itself is being thrown out of balance.  In just a few generations, we have created the biggest threat to the natural world since humanity evolved.  Unless something radical is done now, the world in which our children grow up will be less beautiful, less bountiful, more polluted and more uncertain than ever before.

The top-level recommendations in the book are, in effect:

1.) The need for first-class political leadership on environmental issues

We need political leaders who can free themselves from the constraints of pressure groups, whose vision extends far beyond the next election, and who can motivate strong constructive action (rather than just words):

Politicians in Britain, as elsewhere, can see the rising tide of concern over green issues, and in many cases know what solutions are required.  The environment has never been so high on the political agenda…

Yet few politicians are prepared to take the action needed.  Nothing happens.  Time ticks by, the situation becomes more urgent – and government does nothing.  Why?

Politicians are terrified of acting because they believe that tackling the looming crisis will involve restricting the electorates choices.  They believe that saving the planet means destroying the economy, and that neither business nor voters will stand for it.  They fear the headlines of a hostile media.  They fear, ultimately, for their jobs.  It always seems easier to do nothing – and to let the situation drift and hope that someone else takes the risk…

2.) The need to adapt market economics to properly respect environmental costs

Our defining challenge is to marry the environment with the market.  In other words, we need to reform those elements of our economy that encourage us to damage, rather than nurture, the natural environment.

The great strength of the market is its unique ability to meet the economic needs of citizens.  Its weakness is that it is blind to the value of the environment…

Other than nature itself, the market is also the most powerful force for change that we have.  The challenge we fact is to find ways to price the environment into our accounting system: to do business as if the earth mattered, and to make it matter not just as a moral choice but as a commercial imperative

Note: this is hardly a new message.  For one, Jonathon Porritt covered similar ground in his 2005 book (with a new edition in 2007), “Capitalism as if the world matters“.  However, Zac has a significantly simpler writing style, so his ideas may reach a wider audience – whereas I confess I twice got bogged down in the early stages of Jonathon’s book, and set it aside without reading further.

3.) The need for better use of market-based instruments such as taxation

We need to change the boundaries within which the market functions, by using well-targeted regulation.

Taxation is the best mechanism for pricing pollution and the use of scarce resources.  If tax shifts emphasis from good things like employment to bad things like pollution, companies will necessarily begin designing waste and pollution out of the way they operate…

The other major tool in the policymakers’ kit is trading.  Carbon emissions trading is a good example of a market-based approach which attaches a value to carbon emissions and ensures that buyers and sellers are exposed to this price.  As long as the price is high enough to influence decisions, it can work…

Note: it’s clear that the existing carbon trading scheme has lots of problems (as Zac describes, later in the book).  That’s a reason to push on quickly to a more effective replacement.

There’s also a latent worry over Zac’s confident recommendation:

It’s crucial that wherever money is raised on the back of taxing ‘bad’ activities is used to subsidise desirable activities.  For example, if a new tax is imposed on the dirtiest cars, it needs to be matched, pound for pound, on reductions in the price of the cleanest cars.

The complication is that once the higher taxation drives down usage of (in this example) the dirtiest cars, the amount of tax earned by the government will be reduced, and the “pound for pound” balance will break.  It’s another example of how the ideas in the book lack detailed financial planning.  Presumably Zac intends these details to be provided at a later stage.

4.) We need a fresh approach to regulation

Direct controls force polluting industries to improve their performance, and can eliminate products or practices that are particularly hazardous…  Markets without regulation would not have delivered unleaded petrol, for instance, or catalytic converters.  Without regulations requiring smokeless fuel, London’s smogs would still be with us.

This approach, however, needs to be effective.  With some products and processes, the regulatory bar needs to be raised internationally to avoid companies chasing the lowest standards globally.  We also need a change in our regulatory approach, away from an obsessive policing of processes towards a focus on outcomes.  If the regulatory system is too prescriptive, there is no room for innovation, and no real prospect of higher environmental standards…

5.) We need to measure what matters

Almost every nation on earth uses gross domestic product (GDP) to measure its economic growth.  The trouble is, expressed as a monetary value, GDP simply measures economic transactions, indiscrimately.  It cannot tell the difference between useful transactions and damaging ones…

Chopping down a rainforest and turning it into toilet paper increases GDP.  If crime escalates, the resulting investments in prisons and private security will add to GDP and be measured as ‘growth’.  When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground and spilt its vast load of oil on the pristine Alaskan shoreline, US GDP actually soared as legal work, media coverage and clean-up costs were all added to the national accounts…

US Senator Robert Kennedy said something similar:  “GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play”, he said.  “It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

But the pursuit of economic growth, as measured by GDP, has been the overriding policy for decades, with the effect that the consequences have often been perverse…

A number of organisations have tried to assemble a new tool for measuring progress.  But the result is invariably a toolkit that is monstrous in its complexity and too impractical for any government to use.  A neater approach would be for the government to establish a wholly independent Progress Commission, staffed by experts from a wide variety of fields: economists, environmentalists, statisticians, academics, etc…

Whichever indicators are selected, the results would be handed each year to Parliament and the media.  The government would be required to respond…

Note: again, the suggested practical follow-up seems weaker than the analysis of the problem itself.  The economy has been ultra-optimised to pursue growth in GDP.  That’s how businesses are set up.  That’s going to prove very difficult to change.  Attention to non-financial matters is very likely to be squeezed.

However, it’s surely good to have the underlying problem highlighted once again.  Robert Kennedy’s stirring words ring as clearly today, as when they were first spoken: March 1968.

Let’s keep these words in mind, until we are confident that society is set up to pursue what matters, rather than simply to boost GDP.

Further reading: The book has its own website, with a blog attached.

29 October 2009

Bridging the knowing doing gap

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership — David Wood @ 12:50 pm

A May 2000 Fast Company article Why Can’t We Get Anything Done? poses a very good question:

These days, people know a lot. Thousands of business books are published around the world each year. U.S. organizations alone spend more than $60 billion a year on training — mostly on management training. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on consulting. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 MBAs graduate each year from U.S. business schools. These students presumably have been taught the skills that they need to improve the way that companies do business.

But all of that state-of-the-art knowledge leaves us with a nagging question: Why can’t we get anything done? It’s a mystery worthy of a business-school case study. If we’re so well trained and so well informed, then why aren’t we a lot more effective? Or, as Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton ask in their useful book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), “Why is it that, at the end of so many books and seminars, leaders report being enlightened and wiser, but not much happens in their organizations?”

Pfeffer and Sutton’s book “The Knowing Doing Gap” made a big impact on me when I read it.

The book recounts a story of a company paying consultants to come in and give them advice on particular strategy issues.  The consultants eventually found that previous consultants had already been engaged and produced reports that matched what they themselves were going to recommend.  The company had already received the advice which the consultants thought was best – but had failed to be able to act on that advice.

It’s a familiar story.  Companies bring in external advisors who say things that management agree make sense, but … nothing changes.

My own takeaway from the book was the following set of five characteristics of companies that can successfully bridge this vicious “Knowing Doing Gap”:

  1. They have leaders with a profound hands-on knowledge of the work domain;
  2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts;
  3. They encourage solutions rather than inaction, by framing questions asking “how”, not just “why”;
  4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop – ensuring that actions are completed (rather than being forgotten, or excuses being accepted);
  5. They are not afraid to “learn by doing”, and thereby avoid analysis paralysis.

If you don’t have time to read the whole book, there’s a 38 minute long download “The smart talk trap” from Audible that covers much of the same ground.  It’s the audio version of a 1999 Harvard Business Review article by Pfeffer and Sutton:

The key to success in business is action. But in most companies, people are rewarded for talking – and the longer, louder, and more confusingly, the better. The good news is, there are 5 strategies that can help you avoid the trap.

Footnote: There’s one other angle that deserves a mention on this topic.  It’s the angle of why change programs frequently fail.  John Kotter has shed much light on this question.  I wrote about this previously, in “Why good people fail to change bad things“.

25 December 2008

Why good people fail to change bad things

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership, urgency — David Wood @ 3:22 pm

2008 has been a year of great change in the Symbian world. Important change initiatives that were kicked off in previous years have gathered speed.

2008 has also seen change and trauma at many other levels, throughout the mobile industry and beyond. And the need for widespread change still remains. Daily – perhaps hourly – we encounter items that lead us to wonder: Why isn’t someone getting this changed? Why isn’t someone taking proper care of such-and-such a personal issue, family issue, social issue, organisational issue, political issue, educational issue, environmental issue, operating system issue, ecosystem management issue, usability issue, and so on?

I’ve attended quite a few “change facilitation workshops” and similar over the last 24 months. One thinker who has impressed me greatly, with his analysis of the causes of failure of change initiatives – even when good people are involved in these initiatives – is Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter describes a series of eight steps which he recommends all significant change initiatives to follow:

  1. Build a sense of urgency
  2. Establish an effective guiding coalition
  3. Create a clear, appealing vision
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  5. Remove obstacles (“empower”)
  6. Celebrate small wins
  7. Follow through with wave after wave of change
  8. Embed the change at the cultural level.

Lots of other writers and speakers have their own different ways of describing the processes of successful change initiatives, but I find Kotter’s analysis to be the most insightful and inspiring.

The main book that covers this eight stage process is “Leading Change” – a book that must rank high in the list of the most valuable business books ever written.

Subsequently, Kotter used the mechanism of an easily-read “cartoon book”, “Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions“, in order to provide a gentle but compelling introduction to his ideas. It’s a fable about penguins. But it’s a fable with real depth. (I noticed it and purchased a copy in the Inverness airport bookshop one day, and had finished reading it by the time my plane south landed at Gatwick. I was already resolved to find my copy of “Leading Change” and re-read it.)

As Kotter emphasises, the steps in the eight-stage change leadership process have mirror images which are the main eight reasons why change initiatives stumble:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management changes can unravel the progress made).

A few months ago, Kotter released yet another book on the subject of change initiatives that go wrong. Like “Our Iceberg Is Melting”, this is another slim book – only having 128 pages, and with large typeface, making it another very quick read. But, again, the ideas have real merit. This book is called “A sense of urgency“.

As the name implies, this book focuses more fully on the first stage of change initiatives. The biggest reason why significant change initiatives fail, in Kotter’s considered view, is because of a lack of:

a real sense of urgency – a distinctive attitude and gut-level feeling that lead people to grab opportunities and avoid hazards, to make something important happen today, and constantly shed low-priority activities to move faster and smarter, now.

Instead, most organisations (and most people) become stuck in a combination of complacency and what Kotter describes as “false urgency”:

  • Complacency is frequently fuelled by past successes and time-proven strengths – that may, however, prevent organisations from being fully aware of changes in circumstances, technologies, and markets;
  • False urgency involves more activity than productivity: “It is frenetic. It is more mindless running to protect themselves or attack others, than purposive focus on critical problems and opportunities. Run-run, meet-meet, talk-talk, defend-defend, and go home exhausted.”

Kotter provides a helpful list of questions to help organisations realise if they are suffering from over-complacency and/or false urgency:

  • Are critical issues delegated to consultants or task forces with little involvement of key people?
  • Do people have trouble scheduling meetings on important initiatives (“Because, well, my agenda is so full”)?
  • Is candour lacking in confronting the bureaucracy and politics that are slowing down important initiatives?
  • Do meetings on key issues end with no decisions about what must happen immediately (except the scheduling of another meeting)?
  • Are discussions very inwardly focused and not about markets, emerging technologies, competitors, and the like? …
  • Do people run from meeting to meeting, exhausting themselves and rarely if ever focusing on the most critical hazards or opportunities? …
  • Do people regularly blame others for any significant problems, instead of taking responsibility and changing? …

The centrepiece of “A sense of urgency” is a set of four tactics to increase a true sense of urgency:

  1. Bring the outside in. Reconnect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards. Bring in emotionally compelling data, people, video, sights, and sounds.
  2. Behave with urgency every day. Never act content, anxious, or angry. Demonstrate your own sense of urgency always in meetings, one-on-one interactions, memos, and email, and do so as visibly as possible to as many people as possible.
  3. Find opportunity in crises. Always be alert to see if crises can be a friend, not just a dreadful enemy, in order to destroy complaceny. But proceed with caution, and never be naive, since crises can be deadly.
  4. Deal with the NoNos. Remove or neutralise all the relentless urgency-killers: people who are not skeptics but who are determined to keep a group complacent or, if needed, to create destructive urgency.

The rest of the book fleshes out these tactics with examples (taken from Kotter’s extensive consulting and research experience) and additional checklists. To my mind, there’s a great deal to learn from here.

Footnote: Kotter’s emphasis on the topic of “real urgency” may seem to fly in opposition to one of the most celebrated messages of the literature on effectiveness, namely the principle that people should focus on matters that are important rather than matters that are merely urgent. In the renowned “first things first” language of Stephen Covey, people ought to prioritise “Quadrant two” (activities which are important but not urgent) over “Quadrant three” (activities with are urgent but not important).

To my mind, both Kotter and Covey are correct. We do need to start out by figuring what are the most important activities. And then we have to ensure that we keep giving sufficient attention to these activities. Kotter’s insight is that organisations and people can address this latter task by means of the generation of a sufficient sense of urgency around these activities. In other words, we should drive certain key targets out of Quadrant two into Quadrant one. That way, we’ll be more likely to succeed with our key change initiatives.

29 September 2008

Market failure and mobile operating systems

Filed under: Economics, fragmentation, leadership, market failure — David Wood @ 9:57 pm

In seeking to talk about economics, and about market failure, I’m moving way outside my depth. There seem to be so many different viewpoints about economics, each appearing reasonably plausible to me (when I read them in isolation), yet all contradicting each other. It’s a tough subject! What one writer sees as a market failure, another writer sees instead as a failure of individual actors within that market – and so on.

However, one of my correspondents has made a series of thought-provoking comments about market failure in the particular field of mobile operating systems. I believe these comments are sufficiently unusual and also sufficiently intriguing, to deserve consideration by a wider audience – despite my reticence to broach the subject of economics. The comments arose in the responses to an earlier posting of mine, “De-fragmenting the mobile operating system space“. To quote from these responses:

Currently, mobile developers withstand very high development costs due to a very fragmented mobile ecosystem, meanwhile mobile OSes enjoy a much lower developing cost than they would if they had to built compatible OSes between versions: therefore, a de-fragmentation process would move developing costs from mobile developers to mobile OS developers, that is, mobile OS companies/foundations would have to internalize those costs.

But developing an OS with full source or binary compatibility between versions is an order of magnitude more expensive than building one with broken compatibility, and it gets worse with time and versions. Moreover, building a de-fragmented mobile OS requires committing considerable resources (people, money, time) in the present, sunk costs that must have positive expected returns in the future (at least to cover developing costs and money opportunity costs).

Will foundations/consortiums (Symbian, LiMo, OHA/Android), given their non-profit nature, carry these investments in the present to obtain stable software platforms in the future? As Adam Smith wrote, displaying good will and hope is not enough: mobile foundations/consortiums/companies committing resources in the present must charge higher prices in their future and profit handsomely from their risky investments, otherwise the effort will stop…

To paraphrase:

  • Economic incentives on individual mobile operating systems will lead these operating systems to diverge from each other;
  • This divergence will mean that application developers (and providers of middleware, etc) will suffer greater difficulties, because of having to spread their efforts across larger numbers of diverse mobile operating systems;
  • As things stand, no one who is in a position to actually do something to reduce the divergence of mobile operating systems, has a sufficient financial incentive to make that happen;
  • So we can actually expect things to get worse for application developers, rather than better.

(I’m over-simplifying what my correspondent actually says; see the original for the full argument.)

Tentatively, I have the following answers:

  • I believe that things will actually get better for application developers, rather than worse;
  • It’s my experience that major players in the mobile phone industry can, on occasion, take actions based on strategy rather than business case;
  • This requires strong self-discipline on the part of these companies, but it’s not unknown;
  • Action on strategic grounds becomes more likely, the more clearly the argument is made that the actions that make sense in the short-term are actually detrimental to longer term interests;
  • The other key factor in this decision is whether the various actors can have a high degree of confidence in at least the medium-term viability of the software system they’re being asked to collectively support.

So, in line with what I’ve argued here, what we need to do is to keep on pushing (in creative and diverse ways) the merits of the case in favour of de-fragmenting mobile operating systems – and to keep on highlighting the positive features of the mobile operating systems (such as Symbian OS) that are most likely to enable at least medium-term success for the whole industry.

Incidentally, one big contribution that the shareholders and customers of Symbian are taking, towards that end, is to agree to standardise on S60 as the UI framework for the future. They’ve taken that decision, even though both UIQ and MOAP(S) have much to commend them as alternative UI frameworks on top of Symbian OS. They’ve taken that decision for the greater common good. New phones based on the UIQ and MOAP(S) UI frameworks will continue to appear for a while, during a transitional period, but the Symbian Foundation platform software is standardising on the S60 framework. Elements of both UIQ and MOAP(S) will be available inside the Symbian Foundation platform, but the resulting system will be compatible with S60, not UIQ or MOAP(S). That’s a decision that will bring some pain, but the shareholders and customers have been able to support it because:

  • S60 is now (in contrast to the earlier days) sufficiently flexible and mature, to support the kinds of user experience which previously were available only via UIQ or MOAP(S);
  • Indeed, S60 now has flexibility to support new types of UI experiences, whilst maintaining common underlying APIs;
  • Distribution of S60 will pass out of the hands of Nokia, into the hands of the independent Symbian Foundation.

I also believe that the disciplines of binary compatibility that have been built up in Symbian, over several years, are significantly reducing the difficulties faced by developers of add-ons and plug-ins for Symbian software. Because of this discipline, it now costs us less to maintain compatibility across different versions of our software. It’s true that some practical issues remain here, with surprising incompatibilities still occasionally arising in parts of the software stack on Symbian-powered phones other than Symbian OS itself. But progress is being made – and the leading nature of the Symbian platform will become clearer and clearer.

To finish, I’ll give my response to one more comment:

Samsung is gaining market share and producing S60 devices. Let’s suppose that Samsung starts snatching portions of market share from Nokia, do you really think anyone believes that Nokia would refrain from intentionally breaking compatibility to derail Samsung, if that would be necessary?

I can see that there might be some temptation towards such a behaviour, inside Nokia. But I don’t see that the outcome is inevitable. Nokia would have to weigh up various possible scenarios:

  • Symbian Foundation quality assurance tests will notice the compatibility breaks, and will refuse to give Symbian accreditation to this changed software;
  • The other licensees could create their own fork of the software (which would have official endorsement from the Symbian Foundation) and build up a lot of momentum behind it.

Instead, Nokia – like all users of Symbian Foundation software – should be inclined to seek differentiation by providing their own unique services on top of or alongside Symbian platform software rather than by illicitly modifying the platform software itself. That’s a far better way to deploy skilled software engineers.

17 September 2008

Five reasons open source won’t work in mobile(?)

Filed under: fragmentation, leadership, OSiM — David Wood @ 9:44 pm

John Bruggeman, Chief Marketing Officer of Wind River, gave the stand-out presentation on Day One of OSiM (Open Source in Mobile) conference in Berlin today. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre, that captivated the audience – who were already in the midst of a feast of interesting and thought-provoking presentations from other speakers.

Officially entitled “How open source can drive your next device innovation breakthrough“, the majority of the presentation focused on an artful walkthrough of what John called “Five reasons why open source won’t work in mobile“.

These reasons were presented, with great eloquence and wit, as a wake-up call – “to uncover the ugly truth”.

Here’s the context. Speakers earlier in the day had outlined enchanting prospects for Open Source Linux to reach an installed base of 10 billion mobile devices within perhaps just five years (that’s right – it would involve many people having more than one device – such as separate mobile phones and MIDs). But John said that such prospects were illusory, and he gave the following reasons:

1. Linux phones will never be as good as the iPhone

Here, despite what you might first think, “good” means “good for application developers”. Apple iPhone application developers can be confident that, with just one version of their code, they can reach every member of the 15M+ iPhone user community. But in the Linux space, there are already 96 different major and minor variants (based on 10 different mobile Linux platforms). So application developers will have to work much harder, even to begin to reach all Linux phone users.

[Although John was exaggerating some of his rhetoric, for effect, he was quite clear that the figure of 96 was bona fide – and he said that his Wind River colleague Jason Whitmire would show a slide to justify that figure in another presentation later in the day. Unfortunately I missed that later presentation, since I was in another stream at that time.]

2. The mobile industry has been confused and misled by the Symbian Foundation announcement

Previously, open source endeavours in mobile were united (albeit in a highly fragmented sense – see point 1) around the vision of Linux being at the heart of any praiseworthy phones. But with the announcement that the Symbian platform will become open source, everyone has become confused.

[John actually said that “Symbian have polluted the open source message by telling everyone open source is easy” and “Symbian has a gigantic community, but in an evil and dirty way, Symbian is attracting children with candy”. As I said, it was an extraordinary piece of theatre – with lots of exaggeration for effect.]

3. Operators insist on hedging their bets

Because there are so many platform choices, without clear winners, operators are fearful of the risk of standardising on the wrong choices. That’s a big risk for them. So they bet on multiples – perpetuating the fragmented status quo.

4. Phone manufacturers won’t let go of the past

Phone manufacturers have built up huge amounts of legacy code, on numerous operating systems, and they insist on keeping on using these systems. Just like the operators, they fear the risk of giving up what turns out to be a winning system – and in this way, they keep the whole industry confused.

5. Too many people in the mobile value chain just don’t get it

Too many people have been confused by the word “free” and have thought that, because Linux itself has zero licensing cost, everything else of value in the emerging new mobile value chain should also be free of cost. They don’t realise that the real meaning of “free” is “free access”. This distracts people from being able to generate the new kinds of revenues that will strengthen the companies who have key roles to play in the open source mobile value chain.

In summary, “We are all to blame”.

After the wake-up call

Was that the end of the talk? (After all, due to previous sessions over-running, it was now well into the time allocated for the lunch session.)

Well, after some dramatic suspense, John went on to offer another set of five points – things that, whilst hard for us to do (he said), would make open source work in mobile after all:

  1. Hire new product marketers, who deeply understand the different world of open source;
  2. Hire new engineering directors, who (likewise) deeply understand the different world of open source. We need to realise that developing open source software solutions is fundamentally different from the processes in proprietary projects;
  3. Stop looking over your shoulder, and learn to innovate;
  4. Change your low cost platform into a high value play;
  5. Think outside the phone – there are incredible lessons that we can learn from adjacent and complementary markets.


My own view is that the proposed solutions are a lot less convincing than the list of problems. True, open source introduces and demands new thinking models. However, many of the disciplines of large-scale system software development apply in fairly similar ways across both closed-source and open-source projects.

As I see it, the real solution to platform fragmentation is clear platform leadership. Once it becomes clear to operators and handset manufacturers that a given platform is going to allow them strong opportunities for meaningful differentiation, speedy product development, good quality output, and significant revenues, they’ll naturally gravitate towards that platform, and other platforms will fade from the scene.

Remember the old adage: the best marketing tool is a winning product. That beats a bunch of pretty powerpoint slides anyday. If you don’t have a winning product, then you’ll inevitably struggle. Historically, the Symbian platform has been advanced by the visible market successes of a series of breakthrough phone models. (And the very first phone manufacturers who came to us, had all taken a close look at the Psion Series 5 PDA, and liked what they saw.) The longer term success of the Symbian platform will be determined by whether or not there are new breakthrough commercially successful phones in the next 12-24 months. With 92 separate products (*) under development by our customers at the last count, I see plenty of grounds for optimism.

And by the way, if anyone ever does hear me (or anyone else from Symbian) giving the impression that “open source is easy”, please pull me up. Building world-beating smartphones is hard, however you go about the business. Recognising that it is a hard task is, paradoxically, part of the beginning of the real solution. Sad to say, clinging to the hope that there’s an easy route to smartphone success has been the downfall of many a project.

Footnote: (*) Symbian uses the following principle to count the number of products under development (as opposed to those which are merely “prospects” or “roadmap items”):

Models in development are defined by Symbian as phones prior to launch where licensees

  1. have committed a minimum development team; and
  2. have a visible plan to launch; and
  3. have a minimum expected lifetime shipment for the phone.

3 August 2008

Human obstacles to audacious technical advances

Filed under: cryonics, flight, leadership, UKTA — David Wood @ 7:11 pm

[A] French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, …, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”

Throughout history, individual humans have from time to time dared to dream that technological advances could free us from some of the limitations of our current existence. Fantastic tales of people soaring into the air, like birds, go back at least as far as Icarus. Fantastic tales of people with lifespans exceeding the biblical “three score years and ten” go back at least as far as, well, the Bible. The French noblewoman mentioned above, in a quote taken from Lewis Lapham’s 2003 Commencement speech at St. John’s College Annapolis, made the not implausible connection that technology’s progress in solving the first challenge was a sign that, in time, technology might solve the second challenge too.

Mike Darwin made the same connection at an utterly engrossing UKTA meeting this weekend. Since the age of 16 (he’s now 53), Mike has been trying to develop technological techniques to significantly lower the temperature of animal tissue, and then to warm up the tissue again so that it can resume its previous function. The idea, of course, is to enable the cryo-preservation of people who have terminal diseases (and who have nominally died of these diseases) until reviving them at such time in the future when science now has a cure for that disease.

Mike compared progress with the technology of cryonics to progress with the technology of powered manned flight. Renowned physicist Lord Kelvin had said as late as 1896 that “I do not have the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning“. Kelvin was not the only person with such a viewpoint. Even the Wright brothers themselves, after some disappointing setbacks in their experiments in 1901, “predicted that man will probably not fly in their lifetime“. There were a host of detailed, difficult engineering problems that needed to be solved, by painstakingly analysis. These included three kinds of balance and stability (roll, pitch, and yaw) as well as lift, power, and thrust. Perhaps it is no surprise that it was the Wright brothers, as accomplished bicycle engineers, that first sufficiently understood and solved this nexus of problems. Eventually, in 1903, they did manage one small powered flight, lasting just 12 seconds. Later that day, a flight lasted 59 seconds. That was enough to stimulate much more progress. Only 16 years later, John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. And the rest is history.

For this reason, Mike is particularly keen to demonstrate incremental progress with suspension and revival techniques. For example, there is the work done by Brian Wowk and Gregory Fahy and others on the vitrification and then reanimation of rabbit kidneys.

However, the majority of Mike’s remarks were on topics different from the technical feasibility of cryonics. He spoke for over two hours, and continued in a formal Q&A session for another 30 minutes. After that, informal discussion continued for at least another 45 minutes, at which time I had to make my excuses and leave (in order to keep my date to watch Dark Knight that evening). It was a tour-de-force. It’s hard to summarise such a lengthy passionate yet articulate presentation, but let me try:

  1. Cryonics is morally good
  2. Cryonics is technically feasible
  3. By 1968, Cryonics was a booming enterprise, with many conferences, journals, and TV appearances
  4. However, Cryonics has significantly failed in its ambitions
  5. Unless we understand the real reasons for these failures, we can’t realise the potential benefits of this program
  6. The failures primarily involve people issues rather than technical issues
  7. In any case, we should anticipate fierce opposition to cryonics, since it significantly disrupts many core elements of the way society currently operates.

The most poignant part was the description of the people issues during the history of cryonics:

  • People who had (shall we say) unclear ethical propriety (“con-men, frauds, and incompetents”)
  • People who failed to carry out the procedures they had designed – yet still told the world that they had followed the book (with the result that patients’ bodies suffered grievous damage during the cryopreservation process, or during subsequent storage)
  • People who were technically savvy and emotionally very committed yet who lacked sufficient professional and managerial acumen to run a larger organisation
  • People who lacked skills in raising and handling funding
  • People who lacked sufficient skills in market communications – they appeared as cranks rather than credible advocates.

This rang a lot of bells for me. The technology industry as a whole (including the smartphone industry) often struggles with similar issues. The individuals who initially come up with a great technical idea, and who are its first champions, are often not the people best placed to manage the later stages of development and implementation of that idea. The transition between early stage management and any subsequent phase is tough. But it is frequently essential. (And it may need to happen more than once!) You sometimes have to gently ease aside people (ideally at the same time finding a great new role for them) who are your personal friends, and who are deeply talented, but who are no longer the right people to lead a program through its next stage. Programs often grow faster than people do.

I don’t see any easy answers in general. I do agree with Mike on the following points:

  • A step-by-step process, with measurable feedback, is much preferable to reliance on (in essence) a future miracle that can undo big mistakes made by imprecise processes today(this is what Mike called “the fallacy of our friends in the future“);
  • Feedback on experiments is particularly important. If you monitor more data on what happens during the cryopreservation process, you’ll discover more quickly whether your assumptions are correct. Think again about the comparable experiences of the Wright brothers. Think also of the importance of carrying out retrospectives at regular intervals during a project;
  • Practice is essential. Otherwise it’s like learning to drive by just studying a book for six months, and then trying to drive all the way across the country the first time you sit in the drivers seat;
  • The quality of the key individuals in the organisations is of paramount importance, so that sufficient energies can be unleashed from the latent support both in the organisation and in wider society. Leadership matters greatly.

Footnote: I first came across the reference to the tale of the venerable French duchess in the commentary to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s evocative online reminiscences regarding the death of his 19-year old brother Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky.

29 June 2008

The five laws of fragmentation

Filed under: fragmentation, leadership, Open Source, Symbian Foundation — David Wood @ 9:42 am

As discussion of the potential for the Symbian Foundation gradually heats up, the topic of potential fragmentation of codelines keeps being raised. To try to advance that discussion, I offer five laws of fragmentation:

1. Fragmentation can have very bad consequences

Fragmentation means there’s more than one active version of a software system, and that add-on or plug-in software which works fine on one of these versions fails to work well on other versions. The bad consequences are the extra delays this causes to development projects.

Symbian saw this with the divergence between our v7.0 and v7.0s releases. (The little ‘s’ was sometimes said to stand for “special”, sometimes for “strategic”, and sometimes for “Series 60”.) UIQ phones at the time were based on our v7.0 release. However, the earliest Series 60 devices (such as the Nokia 7650 “Calypso”) had involved considerable custom modifications to the lower levels of the previous Symbian OS release, v6.1, and these turned out to be incompatible with our v7.0. As a pragmatic measure, v7.0s was created, that had all of the new technology features introduced for v7.0, but which kept application-level compatibility with v6.1.

On the one hand, v7.0s was a stunning success: it powered the Nokia 6600 “Calimero” which was by far the largest selling Symbian OS phone to that time. On the other hand, the incompatibilities between v7.0 and v7.0s caused no end of difficulties to developers of add-on or plug-in software for the phones based on these two versions:

  • The incompatibilities weren’t just at the level of UI – UIQ vs. Series 60
  • There were also incompatibilities at many lower levels of the software plumbing – including substantial differences in implementation of the “TSY” system for telephony plug-ins
  • There were even differences in the development tools that had to be used.

As a result, integration projects for new phones based on each of these releases ran into many delays and difficulties.

Symbian OS v8 was therefore designed as the “unification release”, seeking as much compatibility as possible with both of the previous branches of codeline. It made things considerably better – but some incompatibilities still remained.

As another example, I could write about the distress caused to the Symbian partner ecosystem by the big change in APIs moving from v8 to v9 (changes due mainly to the new PlatSec system for platform security). More than one very senior manager inside our customer companies subsequently urged us in very blunt language, “Don’t f****** break compatibility like that ever again!”

Looking outside the Symbian world, I note the following similar (but more polite) observation in the recent Wall Street Journal article, “Google’s Mobile-Handset Plans Are Slowed“:

Others developers cite hassles of creating programs while Android is still being completed [that is, while it is undergoing change]. One is Louis Gump, vice president of mobile for Weather Channel Interactive, which has built an Android-based mobile weather application. Overall, he says, he has been impressed by the Google software, which has enabled his company to build features such as the ability to look up the weather in a particular neighborhood.

But he says Weather Channel has had to “rewrite a few things” so far, and Google’s most recent revision of Android “is going to require some significant work,” he says.

2. Open Source makes fragmentation easier

If rule 1 was obvious (even though some open source over-enthusiasts seem to be a bit blind to it), rule 2 should be even clearer. Access to the source code for a system (along with the ability to rebuild the system) makes it easier for people to change that software system, in order to smooth their own development purposes. If the platform doesn’t meet a particular requirement of a product that is being built from that platform, hey, you can roll up your sleeves and change the platform. So the trunk platform stays on v2.0 (say) while your branch effectively defines a new version v2.0s (say). That’s one of the beauties of open source. But it can also be the prelude to fragmentation and all the pain which will ensue.

The interesting question about open source is to figure out the circumstances in which fragmentation (also known as “forking”) occurs, and when it doesn’t.

3. Fragmentation can’t be avoided simply by picking the right contract

Various license contracts for open source software specify circumstances in which changes made by users of an open source platform need to be supplied back into the platform. Different contracts specify different conditions, and this can provoke lengthy discussions. However, for the moment, I want to sidestep these discussions and point out that contractual obligations, by themselves, cannot cure all fragmentation tendencies:

  • Even when users of a platform are obligated to return their changes to the platform, and do so, it’s no guarantee that the platform maintainers will adopt these changes
  • The platform maintainers may dislike the changes made by a particular user, and reject them
  • Although a set of changes may make good sense for one set of users, they may involve compromises or optimisations that would be unacceptable to other users of the platform
  • Reasons for divergence might include use of different hardware, running on different networks, the need to support specific add-on software, and so on.

4. The best guarantee against platform fragmentation is powerful platform leadership

Platform fragmentation has some similarities with broader examples of fragmentation. What makes some groups of people pull together for productive collaboration, whereas in other groups, people diverge following their own individual agendas? All societies need both cooperation and competition, but when does the balance tilt too far towards competition?

A portion of the answer is the culture of the society – as reflected in part in its legal framework. But another big portion of the answer is in the quality of the leadership shown in a society. Do people in the group believe that the leaders of the group can be relied on, to keep on “doing the right thing”? Or are the leaders seen as potentially misguided or incompetent?

Turning back to software, users of a platform will be likely to stick with the platform (rather than forking it in any significant way) if they have confidence that the people maintaining the trunk of the platform are:

  1. well-motivated, for the sake of the ecosystem as a whole
  2. competent at quickly and regularly making valuable new high quality releases that (again) meet the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.

Both the “character” (point 1) and the “competence” (point 2) are important here. As Stephen Covey (both father and son) have repeatedly emphasised, you can’t get good trust without having both good character and good competence.

5. The less mature the platform the more likely it will be to fragment, especially if there’s a diverse customer base

If a platform is undergoing significant change, users can reason that it’s unlikely to coalese any time soon into a viable new release, and they’ll be more inclined to carry on working with their own side version of the platform, rather than waiting for what could be a long time for the evolving trunk of the platform to meet their own particular needs.

This tendency is increased if there are diverse customers, who each have their own differing expectations and demands for the still-immature software platform.

In contrast, if the core of the platform is rock-solid, and changes are being carefully controlled to well-defined areas within the platform, customers will be more likely to want to align their changes with the platform, rather than working independently. Customers will reason that:

  • The platform is likely to issue a series of valuable updates, over the months and years ahead
  • If I diverge from the platform, it will probably be hard, later on, to merge the new platform release material into my own fork
  • That is, if I diverge from the platform, I may gain short-term benefit, but then I’ll likely miss out on all the good innovation that subsequent platform releases will contain
  • So I’d better work closely with the developers of the trunk of the platform, rather than allowing my team to diverge from it.

Footnote: Personally I see the Symbian Foundation codeline to be considerably more mature (tried and tested in numerous successful smartphones) than the codeline in any roughly similar mobile phone oriented Linux-based foundation. That’s why I expect that the Symbian Foundation codeline will fall under less fragmentation pressure. I also believe that Symbian’s well-established software development processes (such as careful roadmap management, compatibility management, system architecture review, modular design, overnight builds, peer reviews, and systematic and extensive regression testing) are set to transfer smoothly into this new and exciting world, maintaining our track record of predictable high-quality releases – further lessening the risks of fragmentation.

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