Friday, October 31, 2008

Ungrounded Technology

In my post on Shifting Paradigms and Disruptive Technology, I asked

Why on earth would technologists wish to claim that their favourite innovation is a "disruptive technology", let alone a "paradigm shift"?

I now have a follow-up question. Why on earth would technologists wish to claim that their favourite innovation is "completely new"?

In his Note to Vendors on the Church-Turing Thesis, Steve Jones points out that this claim is generally false.

"No it isn't, it's an evolution of something, it might be a clever idea but it's not going to be a completely and utterly new solution that no-one in the whole world has ever done anything like it before."

Quite so. For my part, when I hear sales people making these claims, I just hope they don't know what they are talking about. If the innovation really were completely new, now that would be scary.

Do you want to fly in a plane whose engine design departs from all old-fashioned ideas about engine design, whose wings are constructed from a completely new and untested material, and whose software architecture doesn't use any recognized patterns? No, I thought not.

If I am presenting a technological innovation to a management audience, for every manager who is excited about the novelty of the innovation, there are at least three who are cautious. How do you know it's going to work? How many organizations are already using this? What is the largest and most complex implementation to date? Do you have any metrics?

Why would you trust an innovation if you couldn't trace the engineering history behind it?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Shifting Paradigms and Disruptive Technology

Why on earth would technologists wish to claim that their favourite innovation is a "disruptive technology", let alone a "paradigm shift"?

Disruptive technologies are like awkward adolescents - rude, unreliable, difficult. As Tim O'Reilly pointed out several years ago

"Disruptive technologies are often not "better" when they start out -- in fact, they are often worse. Case in point: the PC. It wasn't better than the mainframe or minicomputer. It was a toy. Similarly, the WWW was far less capable than proprietary CD-ROM hypertext systems, and far less capable than desktop apps. And developers of both derided it as slow, ungainly, and ineffective. This is a typical response to disruptive technologies." [Lunchtime Keynote at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, May 8, 2002]

More examples from the IT world: relational databases, object orientation, anything by Christopher Alexander.

Paradigm shifts are even worse. In science, the new paradigm is supposed to be incommensurable with the old one. As Paul Feyerabend pointed out, even the basic concepts have to be reinterpreted to fit the new paradigm. So if something is easy to understand and quick to adopt, then it probably isn't a paradigm shift. [For a quick introduction, see Steven Shaviro on Against Method.] Bruno Latour's sociological take on science and technology is probably more relevant than Kuhn/Popper/Feyerabend/Lakatos these days, but even his account doesn't exactly encourage us to overuse these terms.

I guess we aren't supposed to take these terms literally. Randall C. Willis, the Executive Editor of Drug Discovery News, reckons the presence of these two terms is a dead giveaway for unfounded hype. His article Hopped up on Hype (October 2005) presently ranks top in an internet search for "paradigm shift disruptive technology".

Presently coming second, somewhat to my surprise, is the piece that made me put aside my other work to write something here - a blogpost called Event Servers, A Disruptive Technology by one Perren Walker of Oracle, extolling the virtues of Event Servers in general and Oracle's Event Server in particular. I arrived at this piece via Opher Etzion of IBM, who responded with a piece called On Event Processing as a paradigm shift.

Opher make the paradigm shift sounds like an exercise in navigating through some topological space - avoiding barriers and finding new avenues. I certainly agree that this is a good source of metaphors for change management, including technology change management.

But why call it a paradigm shift? What's so cool about paradigm shifts, and why are vendors boasting of the disruptive qualities of their products?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tractor Pulling

Phyl Speser blogs some reflections on tractor pulling as an example of disruptive technology change. But how much does tractor pulling really tell us about technology change in other contexts?

In a sporting context, technology change is subject to enormous constraints. Most of the technologies that would really disrupt sports (such as remote controlled baseball bats and performance enhancing drugs) are regarded as cheating and therefore disallowed. So what's left? Are we to regard the switch from wooden tennis rackets and skis and racing boats to carbon fibre as disruptive? Or the introduction of electronic line judges and video replays? Or air travel, which allows Russian tennis hopefuls to train in Florida?

In some sports, technical innovations to the equipment have allowed improvements in performance. But modern sports are so highly regulated that the opposite is also possible. For example, the javelin was redesigned (respecified) in 1984 to reduce the distances thrown [source: Wikipedia].

The technology that has disrupted the sporting world the most is surely television, having hugely increased the earning potential of top sportsmen and introduced a significant secondary economy of coaches and commentators and so on. Many sports have been forced to abandon the glorification of "amateur" status.

To understand the role of technology in any system, it matters how you frame the system. There are lots of aspects of technology change that we cannot understand without including economic factors within the system - stuff like "the means of production" and "the relations of production".

The curious thing about tractor pulling as a sport is that it takes the tractor away from its normal economic function. Of course that's true of many other sports as well. The original function of the javelin was catching and killing food. The original function of the marathon was long-distance communication; the technology innovation that separates the modern runner from the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides is that we no longer need to run 42 kilometres to carry news, we run to raise money for our pet charity. Or something.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Invented Here?

A news story describes a technological problem
Two major technology companies and two American universities are researching the problem
But it seems the problem has already been solved, according to a couple of bloggers.
Research and development is so fragmented these days, it is certainly possible that a solution already exists in some obscure corner. And large expensive research projects may not be good at producing small and simple solutions. So it is possible that Intel and Microsoft are wasting their research dollars.

But on the other hand, there are too many people - especially in software engineering - who have no real understanding of size. Small and simple solutions don't always scale. So it is just possible that Intel and Microsoft do know what they are doing after all.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Technological Perfecta 2

Following my post on Technological Perfecta on my SOA blog, Tim Bass and Opher Etzion have continued the discussion on Orthogonal Blogging at the SOA Horse Races. Tim writes:
"End users rarely build “SOAs” “EDAs” or CEPs”. End users have IT budgets to solve business problems with the most cost effective technology they can find; and they do not care (if they have a clue) what cute three letter acronyms have been created by analysts to describe momentum in the software market."
Tim's argument here is not about SOA or any other TLA (three letter acronym), but about software innovation in general.

But is anybody asking end-users to build SOAs? To my mind, it is the vendors that are building SOA; they are hoping that their customers will use SOA and related technologies to solve business problems.

But why would anyone want to use new technologies, if the old technologies were adequate? Underlying Tim's post are some fairly fundamental challenges about software innovation.

1. Why should anyone innovate? In particular, why should any individual or organization adopt new software technologies or otherwise change the way they use software to solve business problems?

2. Who should innovate? Should the adoption of new software technologies be visible to developers and end-users, or should it managed by a specialist team of technical architects (either in the organization or in some external supplier) who make sure that everything is transparently efficient and effective for everyone else.

3. When should people innovate? Does it make sense to get in early, or should people emulate the Japanese businessman quoted by Tim: "What we care about are mature technologies with solid reference clients and proven implementations."

4. How should people innovate? Small incremental steps, one technology at a time? Or sweeping changes, adopting an entirely new development paradigm in a single leap? How many simultaneous innovations can an organization cope with, and can (should) this capacity for change be increased?

5. And finally, given that there are so many new technologies to choose from: Which innovations, in which combinations?

To my mind, a strategy for software innovation is not about choosing specific software products, or even classes of software product - it is about managing these five critical questions over time. Specific TLAs will come and go, and software industry analysts will try to create meaningful maps of a complicated and constantly shifting TLA landscape, but there will always be a need for innovation. Won't there?


Nicholas Negroponte obviously thought he could get some cheap publicity for his One Laptop Per Child project by comparing it with terrorism. [BBC News, original video], triggering derision from Fake Steve Jobs and Adam Shostack.

NN: "... up to now we have been more like a terrorist group, threatening to do something and making big claims ..."

FSJ: "Seriously, who does this guy's PR? ... I sort of imagine them all sitting there cringing every time he starts to speak."

Successful technology projects (and for that matter successful terrorist campaigns) often adopt so-called guerrilla tactics, based on low-cost organization and surprise attack. Furthermore, technology champions often see themselves as some kind of revolutionary vanguard or avant-guard - several paces in front of the early adopters. But to confuse these metaphors with terrorism is either carelessly or hopelessly muddled.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Change of Address

I am moving this blog to Blogspot. If it works properly, all existing posts should be copied across. Archive copies will remain here on my personal website, but will not be updated.

The new location of the blog will be

If you are subscribed to this blog, please make sure that you are using the feedburner feed, as this will be redirected automatically.

Depending on your feed settings, you may receive repeated notification of updated posts when the blog moves. Please bear with me during this move. Normal service will be resumed etc etc.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Stockhausen died last week. I lent my copy of Stimmung to my son's teacher, who played it to the class today.

In 1995, BBC Radio 3 facilitated an exchange between Stockhausen and several young composers. Stockhausen listened to some of music from each composer, and provided some comments and suggestions. In particular, he thought there was too much repetition.

One of the composers, Daniel Pemberton, responded thus: "I know what he means about loops though; that’s because I haven’t got much equipment."

Oh dear, poor Danny. As I pointed out in my earlier post Art and the Enterprise, Stockhausen and his contemporaries didn't exactly have much equipment either. Sometimes innovators have to build their own tools, or forage their own materials, before they can create what they want to create. And sometimes that turns out to be an essential part of the creative process.

Stockhausen is a major figure in twentieth century culture - reviled by those who hate the avant guard on principle, but admired by some of the most popular figures in twentieth century pop music - from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, and from Frank Zappa to Sonic Youth.

Ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Sources: Advice to Clever Children (The Wire, November 1995)
Wikipedia: Karlheinz Stockhausen