Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Re-visit the Desktop Anti-Trust Remedy

Microsoft, I thought you were learning to play nice with the competition. I guess I was wrong. Maybe it's just ineptitude, maybe it's simply too many years taking shortcuts to squash competition. Whatever it is, this thing with Google, it's bad.

Microsoft has been caught using Google's search engine results to better their own. They (apparently) used their installation of a toolbar to siphon results for searches so that their search results (at least the top one) would be relevant (like Googles').

In case you think this is some kind of anomaly, here's some history. When it came to MS DOS 6, Microsoft wanted to add disk compression (there was a time when disk drive space was tight -- and on-the-fly compression, at the OS level, was the order of the day). They wanted Stac Electronics "Stacker", specifically. They went to Stac, asked to include the product -- virtually at no revenue benefit to them (Stac). Stac said no. Microsoft really wanted it bad, so they basically stole the driver code, and included the key piece of it in their product.

And they got caught.

There were two things going on here -- 1) theft of the driver and 2) an attempt to catch up to a competitor (Digital Research, who was offering a competing DOS that had the compression). You can read a pretty good breakdown of the behavior of this incident here.

Is this related to what's going on with Google? I'd argue that it's very similar behavior -- and it's bad for business. We live in an ecosphere of business operation where important innovation needs to be rewarded. Businesses need to reward innovation and shun activity like the above. Rewarding Microsoft for theft (hardly anyone understood what was happening -- the courts did, for what its worth) amounts to a blank check for further theft. Doing something about this kind of behavior -- say, not buying the products offered by such a company -- would help put some kind of a check in place to at least inhibit this kind of activity.

Now, you could argue that Microsoft got their due in the above. Disk compression got a bad name (Microsoft's implementation more or less sucked in my humble opinion) and Digital research went out of business. There were factors besides the above that hastened their demise -- per processor licensing, the fiddling with Windows so that DR DOS wouldn't work and some other dirty tricks -- all of these actions greeted in the industry by mild journalistic outrage -- but most of the people on the business side, when they heard of these tactics greeted them with a sense of I would call admiration. Like, "Wow, those guys really know how to sideline the competition." They were indifferent. They continued to purchase the Microsoft products, in other words, and didn't seem to care about the moral implications. The legal ramifications were bad, but it's not like they mattered.

Fast forward to today. Desktop competition is more or less non-existent. As stated elsewhere, there's an irrelevance to this fact -- Tablet and Mobile computing are finally blunting Microsoft's monopoly -- but that's despite what's happened in the past. The sad thing is that Microsoft still doesn't seem to think that the rules apply. They seem to think that stuff like this stealing of Google's search algorithm results using software they load on the desktop side of the equation is still par for the course.

But it's not OK -- Microsoft, in this case, would be nothing without Google's hard work. Rather than make a better, more innovative search algorithm, instead they're doing the usual sneak about, the usual corner-cutting and I'm seeing the same old yawn from business folks. It's like "So what."

The department of justice should step in here. I think it's time they re-visit the remedy for Microsoft's desktop monopoly. I think it's time that they break the company into several business units. This is why anti-trust legislation exists.

Microsoft needs to be a pure desktop company. The Office monopoly needs to exist in another company. The search engine folks, Xbox and so on -- all of them need to be broken up into separate companies with no visible connection. I say all of these things because clearly they think it's OK to use one monopoly to create another (In my humble opinion, that's how they've survived this long with the Office/OS product lines -- it certainly wasn't due to making a superior product). And I wouldn't be saying this if stuff like this behavior wasn't obviously recurring.

In this case, you can see them using their desktop monopoly to attempt to create a real presence for Bing -- and as we can see, Bing wouldn't be usable (or arguably, it would be much worse in terms of product) if it were not for Google's search engine.

Is Google doing similar things? It will be perceived that way -- you go to Google's mail and there's the search engine link above and so on -- but Google has established its dominance without these kinds of dirty tricks. They don't have a web monopoly, after all. They're simply the best (again, my humble opinion) and have been for years.

There's no law against what Microsoft has done here (except for the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which is hard for people to understand in the context of technology -- more on that later) -- I will argue that there is an obvious moral break from expected and acceptable business practice.

Let's start with business -- do you like having innovative things like Google? Haven't they helped save you some hard cash recently? Want that to stay the same? Call your local Microsoft representative and tell them how you feel about them doing what they're doing with your desktop software to help seed their (obviously flawed) search engine technology. Threaten to ditch your desktops for Google android tablets or Apple iPad devices. You will save money and potentially make the computing ecosystem more diverse. Do your part and blunt the desktop monopoly and save cash at the same time.

I'm also appealing to the Department of Justice -- the anti-trust laws of this country are supposed to help create real competition in the marketplace. When a dominant player uses their position to attempt to take over another market (in this case, the search engine market), it's time to do your job and begin litigating a remedy.

There are plenty of dead company bodies lying around as examples -- let's do it before Google is one of them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

FOSS Infrastructure and Your Boss

Published on Being a Free/Open Source Software Catalyst : Part I.

This is part one of a series where I will cover the social components of corporate FOSS decisions and adoption. It is focused upon empowering people using experiences that come from the position of someone who's been there (me and people in my circle).

My aim is to help those wanting to learn the better side of diplomacy score more enjoyable work experiences by helping them overcome common objections to Free/Open Source software.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ding Dong, The Desktop is Dead

The biggest news of 2010 from a tech perspective (besides Facebook taking over the world) was that the fastest selling device of all time was the Apple iPad. While it's not a desktop, I'd argue that it's a sure sign that Microsoft no longer rules the computing roost.

Some businesses are even rolling out tables as desktop alternatives. Since the main contenders for the tablet space don't run Windows, the inevitable market diversification that will follow this trend means that consumers and businesses alike will win.

Read the article here:

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Business Value of Taco Bell Programmers...

Ted Dziuba has said something fundamental that I've been executing for years without thinking about it. Thinking about what he's said in this one blog posting has made me realize that the Zen of Linux is often missed for its incredible business value.

It's often widely misunderstood and even more often devalued (to the tune of thousands to millions of dollars) by management. These managers are frequently (in my experience) people who unfortunately don't know the difference between someone who can create elegant (Taco Bell Infrastructure) solutions and someone who can only click on mindless dialog-box-driven (and quite often, costly) "solutions". I, for the record, can somewhat understand this confusion, but I have a hard time overlooking the cost to the business.

Believe me the difference is stark. Complicating matters, there are technical blowhards that want to be a Linux geek, talk like one (over-communicating, so to speak, their abilities) but given something important, simply can't deliver. Too bad managers can't tell the difference in this case as well.

If you're a mid-level manager trying to tell the difference, I have advise here -- I recommend looking at the track record of the technical person -- are they able to solve problems? That's a good sign. Or, as an alternative, do their actions end up causing expensive outages? Do they frequently pipe up in meetings with value-less "me too" comments that infer that they too can execute some solution that another admin or engineer is explaining? That's a bad sign if their track record is slim. Do their actions result in excessive, unexpected license fees? In general do their actions result in pissing off the rest of your enterprise while they should be improving or delivering service?

Yeah, I know what you're thinking "That's obvious!", but my experience over the years has shown that there are a lot of simple-minded folk out there who can't tell the difference. They're focused upon spin, and not on objective delivery statistics. While it's hard to gather objective stats around this kind of performance, managing this kind of team was never supposed to be simple or easy. Your job, in other words, as a manager of an infrastructure team that's delivering Linux solutions, is going to be hard in this context.

Your infrastructure is at risk: There are only so many (percentage-wise) people who are going to think like Ted in your organization. You're probably missing their power as these people tend to lay low, get things done and under-communicate when they've saved you cash.

Similar to Ted's technical advice, my commentary is directed at those in charge of infrastructure management: "Man up" and reward the positive, creative "taco bell" people in your enterprise (or they will be gone). After all, businesses are implementing Linux at an increasing rate. At a rate like never before, for that matter, and these people are invaluable these days.

Man Up! Recognize the Business Value of these people -- before someone else does.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Microsoft and Yahoo ... Now What?

They've been talking merger forever. Microsoft and Yahoo finally have come to some kind of agreement -- Yahoo will get half a billion a year, and Microsoft gets the digital property rights to channel Yahoo users toward their new "Bing" search engine technology.

Bing, the Zune of Search engine technology...

Microsoft's stock went up, Yahoo's stock went down. It's obvious to the market, Yahoo loses in this deal. Why? One reason -- Because the obvious role that search engines now play in marketing.

My reason -- Microsoft controls the search engine infrastructure. They own, effectively, Yahoo. They now see all the data first. This will be touted as a partnership, but Yahoo is the lesser partner. The hits can be directed where Microsoft says (With advertising and other search engine tricks).

Sadly, all of this is background noise to what's important -- Google.

Microsoft may have won second place in the light of this new agreement, and Yahoo taken 3rd. Google takes a huge first place -- and that's all that counts in the long run.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ohio Linux Fest

Lot's of infrastructure people will be at the Ohio Linux Fest -- it's a wild, geeky event that I've always found valuable.

It's also a chance to network with others and to compare your experiences. This year is all about 40 years of Unix -- see the press release below for more. Essentially, the guy that invented the concept of Unix pipes will be giving the opening keynote.


Friday, January 30, 2009

The Ever Elusive Service Level Agreement

SLA: the Service Level Agreement.

This is often a metric assigned by a management oversight committee to an internal organization or an agreement between a Vendor and a Client. It dictates one of potentially many key measurement objectives that help determine quality of service. For example: when you walk into McDonald's, they might employ a service level agreement that says that a cup of coffee will be serviced at a particular level of quality. Maybe it's something as simple as this: A cup of coffee will be served to a waiting customer in no less than 2 minutes from door entry to coffee-in-hand on average.

This hypothetical SLA would be tracked via some observable mechanism and a particular set of controls would intervene if service quality wasn't met. For example, more front counter staff added, colder coffee served, manager replacement or in the most dire of situations, some sort of automated coffee launching mechanism employed that would hurl the product across the counter to minimize that final "cup-pour-cap-hand-off" sequence. This final solution would potentially kick off a new series of lawsuits -- I'm guessing that's why I have yet to see it in operation. Still, you can bet that it's in the prototype stage in markets with extremely demanding customers.

Regardless of the SLA that's being tracked or that exists at the contract level, there's a potentially unspoken SLA in effect at almost all times when it comes to service and especially when it comes to infrastructure.

And there are complications surrounding real versus perceived SLA. McDonald's may have a 2 minute SLA that they're tracking -- but customers of McDonald's may think that the SLA is more like 1 minute. This is why its extremely important to have dialog with customers and carefully listen to this kind of expectation. Its why social media is a great marketing tool -- it's possible to have a conversation with a group of customers over important aspects of quality. Social media can give the company providing that service a direct insight into the good, the bad and the ugly experiences of their customers.

I've said it here before and and I'll say it again; Infrastructure is difficult in part because when it's working it is hidden out of sight. It sits under all of the things that everyone else views as bright and shiny. Complicating the hidden aspects is the fact that being good infrastructure is partly what makes it invisible.

This is another reason that explains why good infrastructure people are good communicators; Listening is more important at the infrastructure level than talking. Arrogance can net you blind spots or worse lead to difficult customer relationships. People with crappy communication skills make difficult managers in general; In the context of infrastructure, however, this relationship is made doubly crucial.

When it comes to providing infrastructure service, opportunities to interact with customers are rare. These crucial interactions are made all the more difficult by personalities that empty the emotional bank account in advance. A good relationship with your customer is extremely crucial because a lot of the basis for success or failure potentially rest upon SLA metrics that may not be evident or are incorrectly perceived by the customer. Worse, when the desired SLA metrics are discovered, they may be impossible or meeting them may not make business sense. Your customer often doesn't know what they need. They don't know why something works in a lot of cases. They may want 100% service but only 99.5% is possible without going out of business.

One thing is for certain; They will be more than unhappy to tell you when something is broken or an SLA is not being met.

For example, I woke up this morning snoring. This may sound like an event that is completely unrelated to the topic of SLAs, but humor me.

Last night I flew in on U.S. Airways and upon arrival, my luggage was missing. In my luggage: a CPAP machine that helps me deal with my own SLA -- it keeps me from snoring too much. If I snore too much I miss sleep and wake up. Too much missed sleep and I have a crappy day. My body and I have this service level agreement; keep the snoring to a minimum and it won't have a heart attack on me before age 50.

I had a feeling that something like this was going to happen when I turned loose of the handle of my suitcase at the departing airport. Why? Because my usual claim ticket looked like a hall pass for a 3rd grader. U.S. Airways computers were down and instead of the usual neat claim ticket with bar-code, my name and other things encoded on it -- instead I had something with carbon paper and scribbled numbers on it. I had a boarding pass with some numbers and letters jotted on it that I prayed were in the right locations. Maybe 9F was my seat? (it was near a box that said something to that effect) Or maybe it was the departing gate? Was the Gate 35A or was it terminal A and gate 35? Fortunately I had about an hour and a half to kill ahead of the flight so I was easily able to make it onto the plane.

Too bad my luggage wasn't so lucky. Riding to the plane on a shuttle bus (it was an outside boarding situation) I could see the crew loading bags into the belly of the plane. I didn't see my luggage there either (it's amazing how many times I've caught sight of my bag being loaded from the inside of a plane). I could tell that with all of the normal automation down my luggage was going to be a long shot. We sat on the tarmac for another 30 minutes or so delay because the pilot was unable to file a flight plan and had to do it "manually". Upon landing about half the suitcases for the flight were missing. I was fortunately home, so I had things to wear.

Other customers were not so happy.

U.S. Airways has violated an SLA -- the one it has with its customer in this context. Is it truly in violation of an SLA from a contractual basis? Possibly not. They may have carefully calculated statistics that account for a certain amount of delay and a particular percentage of lost bags every year. So far this year they may have only lost some small percentage of bags. In other words, their SLA might be fine because the current number of lost bags is potentially still below the number that they were expecting to lose. I don't know for sure if this is the case at the end of the day because I don't know what SLAs (if any) that they're maintaining internal or otherwise.

One common saying applies here though; while a lot of people may question a system that's working and wonder out loud if everything has been done the right way -- everyone can easily be in agreement over a system that's broken. U.S. Airways had failed to deliver service -- their computers were down and therefore my bag was not there at the end of a delayed flight.

And what about their SLA? Has it been met? Maybe they're fine at a statistical level. Possibly they've accounted for a certain amount of this, in other words, as business as usual. When it comes to their SLA, the moment a piece of luggage is lost at the end of a trip, you can bet that any customer, me included, is going to think otherwise.
--Paul Ferris