Meeja: July 2009 Archives

Anyone trying to dramatise the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has my sympathy. At first glance, the project seems to have everything you need for post-watershed TV: sex; glamour; tragedy. It also has too many characters, most of them pretty unsympathetic gits, not afraid to do a bit of Victorian moralising while destroying the people they purported to love.

The only one who isn't a git is a bit naïve and dull, gets married, paints the ultimate chocolate-box picture, gets rich and er...that's it. It becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly why no-one has tried dramatising the story before.

Techcrunch calls Google's announcement of an operating system designed to run precisely one application a nuclear bomb on Microsoft. A commenter further down tones it down a bit: "a bullet aimed at Microsoft". Or maybe it's a fart in the general direction of Redmond, WA?

The Techcrunch claim is based on a largely detail-free, claim-heavy blog post at the official Google blog. It's all vaguely reminiscent of the pronouncements that Sun Microsystems made for Solaris in the 1990s with almost zero evidence:

"It's scalable. Way more scalable than any other OS."

"But it's a warmed-over Unix."

"No other Unix or OS is as scalable as this one. It will scale from your toaster to a mainframe."

As it turned out, it scaled from an expensive workstation to an expensive minicomputer. And its creator looked near helplessly on as Windows and another warmed-over Unix ate even into that space. Oddly enough, Linux can run in a toaster, just as long as you don't mind slamming a few megabytes of DRAM into an appliance with the sole function of heating bread.

What has Google got in its hype playbook? Why, the web, of course. "...the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web." What, like Unix? This is either a clue that the infrastructure for Chrome OS is resolutely not Linux or just a bit of marketese that Google hopes people will forget as the project nears fruition. In either case, it begs the question, exactly which core feature do existing multitasking OS implementations lack that a browser requires to be built in? Are there special spinlocks or mutual exclusion semaphores that a browser requires?

In fact, Chrome OS will run on a Linux kernel. Erm, wouldn't that be an OS designed before the web came along? Linux itself may have been born after Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues implemented the initial HTTP protocol. But the core architecture is that of an operating system designed in the late 1960s, which is even pre-Internet.

The Chrome OS will apparently have a new security infrastructure. Built on top of Linux. "Users won't have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates." That's right, because Linux never has to implement security updates. Oh, wait a minute...

It's possible that Google will insert checks for buffer overflows and other common attacks. But those modules have been available for Linux for some time.

"We have a lot of work to do, and we’re definitely going to need a lot of help from the open source community to accomplish this vision." So, this marvellous OS that is designed in the era of the browser...isn't really ready yet? It doesn't launch until the second half of next year, although an early version of the source code should arrive in the autumn of this year. But the early FUD clobbers Ubuntu and the rest. And Android.

The FUD has already infected Techcrunch where, apparently, Android just isn't built for the x86, whereas Chrome OS is. I'm sure that kind of thing really bothered the engineers at Apple when they looked at OS X. "You know, this thing just isn't built for x86...oh no, it's OK, I found an x86 compiler."

Android remains Linux with some kind of weird Java engine on top. Java was designed explicitly to run on register-limited architectures such as the x86. Unix was designed well before RISC architectures such as ARM existed. Plus, in the meantime, Intel came up with a few tricks to get around the register-based limitations in the x86. Plus, as MC Siegler then admits, there are ports of Android to the x86.

Google admits there will be overlap between Chrome OS and Android but adds: "we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone". Translation? "You work it out. We will have two Linux-based OSs, one of which is designed for netbooks and desktops but has been hobbled more than the one for phones."

So, in an environment where support for Android is respectable, but still fragile, Google drops a bomb on its own OS. And, because the time between announcement and actual code is relatively long, people won't have a good idea of how restricted the Chrome OS environment is. It also begs the question of whether Android is actually web-ready if Google needs another go at an OS.

Finally, you have to consider the main target: Microsoft. Google claims applications written for Chrome OS will run in any "standards-based" browser. Stalwarts of web development will probably let out a hollow laugh at this point: which standards are we talking about here? And, note the emphasis: apps written for Chrome. It does not mean the converse.

As an example, Outlook Web Access runs well in precisely one browser: IE. Does Google plan to reverse engineer IE web apps in the hope of running them on its own browser? Or does it hope that the primary destination for Chrome OS users will be Google Apps and need not worry about the rest?

I was going to write on the insidious effect of search-engine optimisation (SEO) on communication but Read/Write Web basically wrote the first half of it for me:

"It's happening to more and more of the blogs I read: the personality, quirkiness and unique voice that once made them so appealing to me are fading. In their place, an SEO-driven uniformity that puts keyword placement ahead of pretty much everything.

"That approach has been afflicting newspapers for some time, as clever headlines give way to the kind of blandness that only a machine could love (which is no coincidence, because machines are the target audience). And many pro bloggers who rely on AdSense for their revenue have been doing it for years.

"But now I'm starting to see it trickle into the blogging of friends and loved ones. I understand the desire to rank more highly in search engines, but as SEO goes mainstream, I can't help but feel we're losing something."

(I don't normally copy out most of a blog post, but you might want to go there anyway as there's also a cartoon.)

The long-term effect of SEO is the thing that really bothers me. The chances are that Google and other search engines will react faster than those creating the 'rules' that people think they need to obey to get better rankings. But the rules might stick around long enough to become a tradition. Worse, they might even forget why the rules were created: "Why are we doing this?"; "That's the way we do it round here."

And, let's face it, what's so great about the idea of writing for a machine? Machines can't read. It's going to be a while before they can read. All they can do, for the moment, is make a list of keywords and their relative positions from which they compute some kind of weighting matrix. All we can hope for in the short term is that the war of keyword stuffing gets so bad - and it's a war where the spammers and sploggers are better able to push keyword stuffing as far as it will go - that the search engines get better at looking for the warning signs of over-SEOd pages.

But spam has encouraged search engines to ignore the out-of-band data that writers could use to improve findability without wrecking the text itself. The meta tag? Vestigial at best and yet with better heuristics to spot spammy pages this is arguably the best home for SEO data. Far better, from the point of view of people than stuffing the SEO data in headlines and crossheads.

The effect on Google of widespread SEO has not done the search engine that much good either. It's taken a while, but the results pages for many popular topics are showing the creeping nonsense that afflicted AltaVista on its way down. The problem for Microsoft is that Bing starts off just as bad.

Free fall

1 July 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's lengthy demolition of Chris Anderson's latest book Free has given Gladwell's review a lot more attention than the book itself. Google Blog Search turned up an estimated 8000 hits for "gladwell anderson review free new yorker". Even given Google's legendary inaccuracy in calculating the number of hits (the chances are it's closer to 800), that's still a lot of comment and bloggage. And here's another one.

Alan Patrick of Broadstuff argues that Gladwell has the necessary superstar cachet to be noticed by the media - economists have criticised Free with barely a nod. But there is another reason why people have latched onto Gladwell's critique: it's one member of The Big Idea book-writing club rounding on another. While Patrick argues that the fascination with Gladwell's review is symptomatic of a forward march into the Age of Unreason, it could be that one bestselling form of business book is nearing extinction.

It's a form that's been falling apart for a while. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times began the review of Gladwell's own Outliers with:

"Malcolm Gladwell's two humongous best sellers, 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink', share a shake-and-bake recipe that helps explain their popularity. Both popularize scientific, sociological and psychological theories in a fashion that makes for lively water-cooler chatter about Big Intriguing Concepts...Both books are filled with colorful anecdotes and case studies that read like entertaining little stories. Both use Powerpoint-type catchphrases...to plant concepts in the reader's mind. And both project a sort of self-help chirpiness, which implies they are giving the reader useful new insights into the workings of everyday life."

I don't know how chirpy Free is for I haven't read it. But that paragraph could so easily be applied to the glut of high-concept business books that greet you on the promo tables of airport bookshops around the world.

Normally, for a book of this you have to stretch out the argument to ten chapters, in the knowledge that one would do the job - this is possibly why the lecture tours do so well. Why read the book when the author can cut out the chaff live without the unnecessary bother of reading? It is at least one step up from my use of video recorders, which seem to wind up watching films on my behalf. The video recorder never gives me a summary of whether it was worth the decoding.

Kakutani, unlike the victim of his review, gives away the secret in the second paragraph: "'Outliers'...employs this same recipe. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing".

Now, of course, most reviewers can wield the knife with greater impunity. I don't believe Kakutani has a high-concept business book on the shelves. The problem for Gladwell is that his critique of Free can so easily be applied to his own work. You wouldn't have to change many words in the final sentence of the New Yorker review:

"The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws."

So, if the proponents of the high-concept business book are now turning on the form - maybe Gladwell has had a bit of an epiphany or reckons the game is up - will publishers start to turn away from it, fearing that the public itself is getting bored with expositions of easy theories that leave out the counter-evidence?