Is Sharing for Suckers?

In my January editorial I asked, “Absent a government-industry technical agency, is the US shooting itself in the foot?” My comments were made in response to a former Bell Labs researcher who wrote that the US should consider reestablishing a government-supported technology research center.

A couple days ago in the Boston Globe, MIT science historian Loren Graham, an expert on Russian technology, points to how scientists there have led the way in everything from electric lights to fracking to the laser, none of which they were able to commercialize and thus take advantage of domestically.

Graham points to many reasons for this, specifically the Russians lack of a robust legal, political and economic system that would provide the necessary infrastructure and protections. But interestingly, he is convinced that individual mores are also to blame, saying, “In the Russian scientific community, the belief that business is dirty. And that you should not demean yourself by stepping out of the world of ideas.”


Some in the US are concerned that the pressure of competition might actually stymie ideas. It seems our counterparts in Russia may share those concerns.

iSuppli Ups the Ante

iSuppli is on to something, and it’s about time.

The research firm today distributed its estimates for the smartphone market in 2009. But instead of forecasting a single number, the company provided a range based on the best- (new options compel new purchases) and worst-case (customers sit on their wallets) scenarios.

This is a much wiser, useful way to approach forecasting. Whereas some may call it a copout — by providing a range, iSuppli gives itself a greater chance of being “right” — I see it as a long overdue move into what is standard practice elsewhere. Indeed, providing a range is a method many researchers in other fields use to describe what might actually happen.

The next step would be to offer probabilities for the different scenarios; in other words, 50% of the time, sales will be up by X%; 75% of the time, sales will be up by Y%, and so on. But I’ll settle for other research firms picking up on what iSuppli has started. Kudos!

Just Say No, IBM!

Over the years, OEM after OEM has fallen prey to Foxconn, lured by the temptation of higher margins by outsourcing product to the Taiwanese ODM. H-P, Motorola, Dell, Sony and Apple are among the many, many companies that outsource billions of dollars worth of product build each year.

Sadly, IBM, one of the few remaining major holdouts, appears on the brink of ending its streak. Big Blue is set to announce a deal to to codevelop something called “environment-friendly” products.

Pending release of financial terms, it’s unclear what IBM stands to gain from the program.

IBM has ventured down the environmentally friendly path before. In 2007, it committed $1 billion to fund Project Big Green, an effort toward environment-friendly, energy-efficient products and services. This is its first known deal with Foxconn, however.

It shouldn’t happen.

As The Economist pointed out earlier this month, China’s reputation for workmanship remains a negative in consumers’ eyes. “The poor external reputation of China’s products hurts not only Chinese companies but also Western firms known to be selling Chinese-made goods.” Citing last year’s scandals over various Chinese-produced toys, the US and India have passed new laws governing imports from the World’s Workshop.

And myriad stories have cited Foxconn’s dismal and imperialist working conditions.

IBM is America’s crown jewel, the greatest electronics company the world has ever known. Getting in bed with scofflaws like Hon Hai cheapens its luster and diminishes its reputation. IBM should walk away.

UPDATE: Whew! That wasn’t so bad. The Wall Street Journal is reporting Foxconn is licensing IBM’s GreenCert technology for estimating the amount of greenhouse gas emissions pumped from factories. It could have been much worse.

Just 3 Minutes

Three minutes is not much time. It’s about the amount of time to get a coffee from the vending machine or maybe not quite enough time to visit the restroom. Three minutes doesn’t seem important.

You have probably spent multiples of three minutes looking for a stencil that was misplaced. The job couldn’t get started until that stencil was found. Three minutes, 10 minutes; what’s the big deal?
Let’s say your company has a two-shift, five-days per week operation, and on each shift three minutes is lost each day. Assuming 250 days per year, this is 1500 minutes or 25 hours of lost production time in a year.

How much is this costing your company? Using ProfitPro cost-estimating software that I developed and information in annual reports, I analyzed the typical subcontract assembler’s profitability. It nets out that each hour lost on a typical assembly line is worth about $3500 of production. So 25 hours per year is almost $90,000 of lost production – all because of just three minutes.

And I’ll bet some of us are losing 30 minutes a day.

The Age of Spiritual Machines?

That Ray Kurzweil is a smart, creative, inventive and prolific person is beyond dispute. In addition, it cannot be said that he hasn’t made numerous accurate predictions, most with 10-year lead times, such as IBM’s Deep Blue computer beating world champion Gary Kasparov in chess, the growth of the Internet and emergence of flash memory drives. However, he goes way too far in his belief in “spiritual machines” and the advent of a technical singularity.

The spiritual machines argument is quite old (1999) and with little progress in that direction, it surprises me that his 2005 book The Singularity is Near still suggested that, as Wikipedia puts it, “the functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.” Why do I say there is little progress? Computers are faster and can perform more tasks than ever, but are still limited to what human programmers tell them to do. In addition, human consciousness is far from being understood today. Our brains are not machines that simply perform clever mathematical operations, developed by computer programmers.

All this somewhat dated information was brought back to me in an interview on Fox News recently. Kurzweil predicts that a computer will passing the Turing Test by 2019, and that by 2029 a computer-based machine would be recognized as having consciousness.

Why am I not a believer? Computers are terrific at mathematical operations. Many felt that computers would never beat a world champion at chess. But consider: chess can be described in strictly mathematical terms. Deep Blue did what computers do well, math, not human thought. As one person said upon hearing of the news of Deep Blue’s victory, “I’ll be impressed when a computer can write and understand poetry.” The best computers today, connected to a vision system cannot do what a six-month-old child can, recognize and follow its mother’s face in a crowd.

All this reminds me of a book I read a few years ago by Robin Cook called Abduction. In this novel, the main characters, while exploring the sea, happen upon an opening to Interterra, a society of humans living under the earth’s crust. Their society is so advanced that when their bodies wear out, a new test tube baby is selected as a replacement. Their memories are downloaded to the babies and hence the babies become them. Their old body is destroyed and they live another life through the baby. Many of Kurzweil’s farout ideas are similar to this type of human/technological immortality.

I can’t be the only person who believes there is something uniquely me and uniquely you, uniquely human, that goes beyond our memories and can’t be downloaded from our bodies.

Interesting stuff. Why am I discussing this? We will be the ones assembling the electronics for Kurzweil’s machines. It will be interesting to watch.

Apple’s Next Bite?

Great piece in Slate on the rise of the netbook craze and its pros and cons for the PC industry.

The reward, especially as companies like Apple reportedly consider a move into the loss-cost, stripped-down PC market, is greater market share and a renewed interest in buying computers at a time when the market could absolutely use some good news.

The risk, however, is the Forrest Gump-like devices (in that their presence outstrips their capability), will suck all the innovation out of the market, leaving little in the way of profits for future R&D.