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A post in the New York Times this morning asserted that Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law. It’s a short post, but the money quote is from Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington:
“The rate of change in hardware captured by Moore’s Law, experts agree, is an extraordinary achievement. “But the ingenuity that computer scientists have put into algorithms have yielded performance improvements that make even the exponential gains of Moore’s Law look trivial,” said Edward Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington.
The rapid pace of software progress, Mr. Lazowska added, is harder to measure in algorithms performing nonnumerical tasks. But he points to the progress of recent years in artificial intelligence fields like language understanding, speech recognition and computer vision as evidence that the story of the algorithm’s ascent holds true well beyond more easily quantified benchmark tests.”
If you agree with this, the implications are profound. Watching Watson kick Ken Jennings ass in Jeopardy a few weeks ago definitely felt like a win for software, but someone (I can’t remember who) had the fun line that “it still took a data center to beat Ken Jennings.”
While that doesn’t really matter because Moore’s Law will continue to apply to the data center, but my hypothesis is that there’s a much faster rate of advancement on the software layer. And if this is true it has broad impacts for computing, and computing enabled society, as a whole. It’s easy to forget about the software layer, but as an investor I live in it. As a result of several of our themes, namely HCI and Glue, we see first hand the dramatic pace at which software can improve.
I’ve been through my share of 100x to 1000x performance improvements because of a couple of lines of code or a change in the database structure in my life as a programmer 20+ years ago. At the time the hardware infrastructure was still the ultimate constraint – you could get linear progress by throwing more hardware at the problem. The initial software gains happened quickly but then you were stuck with the hardware improvements. If don’t believe me, go buy a 286 PC and a 386 PC on eBay, load up dBase 3 on each, and reindex some large database files. Now do the same with FoxPro on each. The numbers will startle you.
It feels very different today. The hardware is rapidly becoming an abstraction in a lot of cases. The web services dynamic – where we access things through a browser – built a UI layer in front of the hardware infrastructure. Our friend the cloud is making this an even more dramatic separation as hardware resources become elastic, dynamic, and much easier for the software layer folks to deploy and use. And, as a result, there’s a different type of activity on the software layer.
I don’t have a good answer as to whether it’s core algorithms, distributed processing across commodity hardware (instead of dedicated Connection Machines), new structural approaches (e.g. NoSql), or just the compounding of years of computer science and software engineering, but I think we are at the cusp of a profound shift in overall system performance and this article pokes us nicely in the eye to make sure we are aware of it.
The robots are coming. And they will be really smart. And fast. Let’s hope they want to be our friends.
At the end of each day, I encourage you to reflect on whether you spent your day on “signal” or “noise.” Let me explain.
Recently, I wrote a post titled Managing Priorities. In it I talked about the idea of P1′s. My weeks start on Monday morning so my P1 for the current week (which ends in about 20 hours since I usually get up at 5am on Monday morning) is to get a draft of the new book I’m writing with Jason Mendelson to our publisher (Wiley). That’s it – one P1 for the week. Of course I did a ton of other things last week, including spending two days at Blur doing an HCI brain soak, working on closing a new investment, working on two M&A deals, having a few board meetings, giving a few talks, meeting with a bunch of people, and having a few enjoyable dinners with friends. But every morning when I woke up I thought about my P1 (the book) and every night before I went to bed I thought about whether or not I had made progress on it.
I committed to myself to spend all day Saturday and Sunday on the final edit push. Now that I’m on my second book, I know my limits and know that six hours is the most I can work productively on the book in one day. So yesterday I slept in, did email and my normal Saturday morning info scan, and then settled in for six hours of editing. Every 30 minutes I took a short break – did email, had lunch, took a nap, talked to Amy, and did a 15 minute phone call with another VC who was struggling with an issue in real time. But I got my six hours in and then went out to dinner with Amy and a bunch of friends. Today I’m going to catch up on email until about 11, head to my condo in Boulder, and spend a good solid six hours on the final pass before hitting send on the draft. I’ll reward myself with dinner with some friends, although I have no idea with whom at this point.
So, while I let a little noise drift into my weekend, I’ll have spent the majority of it on signal (my P1). This morning as I was doing my morning infoscan (Daily Web Sites, Twitter, RSS Feeds) I noticed a ton of stuff that I’d put in the noise category. There were apparently a few debates that blew up yesterday – I’ll use the one around Angellist as an example of noise.
I love Angellist and think it’s a remarkably interesting thing. However, it’s of relatively little direct utility to me – of our 35 investments made from Foundry Group, none have come from Angellist. Regardless, it has had an undeniably huge impact on angel and seed investing in the past few years. At the minimum, it’s interesting to watch the social dynamics of it. Will it impact a new generation of successful entrepreneurs and angel investors or will it result in a big money pit? Who knows – check back in ten years.
However, I saw a bunch of tweets about it (including some hostile ones followed by some conciliatory ones from the same people) linking to a handful of blog posts, comments, and more tweets. After reading a few of them, I’m not actually sure what the debate is actually about. I thought it was about “is Angellist helpful or not”, but it quickly evolved into something else.
As I was pondering this, I saw a tweet from Paul Kedrosky that said “I have had more than a few entrepreneurs complain lately about VCs/angels tweeting/blogging up storms, but ignoring emails.” While I’m not 100% sure Paul was building off of the Angellist noise, I know Paul pretty well and am going to guess that at the minimum it inspired his tweet. And his tweet is on the money – I know plenty of VCs who are making a ton of “content noise” these days but don’t seem to be able to respond to their signal-related emails. And if entrepreneurs think VC to VC email is somehow special, I’m included in that category (there are plenty of emails I’ve sent to my VC friends with specific stuff in them that are never responded to.)
Now, this is not criticism of the Angellist discussion or VCs not responding to emails. Rather, it’s an effort to give an example of noise overwhelming signal. In this case, Angellist is the signal. The discussion around it in the last 48 hours is mostly noise (I’m sure there’s some signal in there, but it’s a lot of work to pull it out, which results in a bad signal to noise ratio.)
In my little corner of the universe, signal matters a lot. I can’t consume signal 100% of the time (or my head would explode) so I let plenty of noise creep in, but I’ve got very effectively tunable noise filters. Anyone involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem should ponder this – I encourage you to focus on amplifying signal, not noise.
At Foundry Group, we have now completely switched to Google Apps. This started in August when I decided to Try Gmail For A Week. Five months later I am ready to declare this experiment a complete success.
As every day passes, I find a new magic happy thing that ties my life together better. Today it was Google rolling out a bookmark importer for Delicious. Amy and I have been heavy delicious users, although I stopped a while ago when it was uncertain what delicious’ future was. Amy kept asking me what the long term solution was now that we are on Google Apps – it turns out that the answer is “import your Delicious tags into Google Bookmark and keep on going.”
About once a week I’m stymied by something, but the +1 each day nets out to +6 for the week. That’s fine for me – I figure out a work around and usually, voila, as if the $GOOG could read my mind, the thing that didn’t work right or didn’t exist suddenly appears.
Yesterday’s magic was finally connecting up my Youtube account (which was connected to my personal Gmail account) to my Google Apps account. Ahem – it did exactly what I wanted it to and now my Youtube life is smooth and happy again.
And even when I publicly criticize Google, they react amazingly well. A month ago I wrote a post titled Time For Google To Get Serious About Enterprise Tech Support. Within an hour of it going up, I got an email and a call from the head of Google Enterprise support. We talked through the issues, he acknowledged certain weaknesses, talked about what they were doing to improve things, and listened carefully to my very specific feedback on a few things. He connected up with our IT guy (Ross) and they spent some time going through our experiences. Again, he listened to the feedback. And we’ve seen real improvements based on what we told them. Oh, and now that we are through the migration, we almost never need support.
If anyone still doubts Google’s intention in the enterprise, you shouldn’t. Count me impressed.
It’s fascinating to me when a new product aggressively shifts from early adopters to the mainstream. It should be no surprise that the day the iPad came out a bunch of them appeared at the Foundry Group offices. At the next board meeting I was at, I think every VC had one and was using it in the meeting presumably to view their board package (although I caught at least one checking his email throughout the meeting.) When the Kindle for iPad app appeared, I started toting my iPad around with me everywhere until I kept forgetting to charge it, at which point I went back to my Kindle for reading.
At my birthday on December 1st, I gave everyone that attended (including Amy and my partners) an iPad. I was surprised how much everyone loved them – I know that for some of them it was the jedi master trick of giving your birthday party attendees a gift, but for several, including the non-technologists / non-nerds at dinner, there was real delight with this newfangled device.
I repeated the trick at the Foundry Group holiday party and gave everyone at Foundry Group an iPad. Well, I started out by giving them an iTunes card for $50 which everyone seemed to like, but then went back to the gift well a few moments later for the real gift.
Today, I read that the city of Boulder is mulling iPad purchases for all council members in order to save paper, staff time, and money. A college that I’m familiar with is considering getting an iPad for every board member to go paperless on board packages and other communication. I got an email from an exec (and friend) at a major software company who is rolling out their product on the iPad which should dramatically improve the iPad’s ability to interact with legacy enterprise systems.
At CES, there were 60+ tablets. One was from RIM, the other 59 were built on Android. The only one that impressed me was the RIM tablet – the Android ones all were slick but materially inferior to the iPad. As a result, I made a mental note to myself a few weeks ago that I thought Apple had very clear sailing in front of it for another year, although as with smart phones, there is no question that Google / Android will grind away hard at this market and given the incredible hardware distribution and amazing software talent at Google, will make real inroads.
Microsoft was no where to be seen. Yeah, there was a little chatter and a few demos of Windows on tablets, but if you remember how poorly this has gone the past two times Microsoft tried to put Windows on a tablet, I think you are probably in the same boat that I’m in which is that Microsoft is going to have to take an Xbox or Windows Mobile like approach to their tablets (e.g. completely new software OS stack and UI than “Windows”) if they want to get in the game.
My conclusion – the wave of iPad purchasing has just begun. The iPad 2 is expected soon (maybe this quarter, certainly next quarter) – I think it’s going to be an absolute monster success.
After a two-fer of deeply annoying arrogance demonstrated by two different VCs on the first business day of 2011 that I’m still pondering (a mix of conflict avoidance behavior and passive aggressive behavior) I’m really looking forward to CES.
Several years ago, my partners and I started going to CES together. Jason and Ryan had being going for a while. I’m not a trade show guy although I diligently went to Comdex for several years in the 1990′s as part of Softbank (which owned Comdex at the time.) Generally, I’m completely overwhelmed by the people and the stuff and the idea of spending a few days in Las Vegas playing trade show monkey makes me tired just thinking about it.
But there’s something deliciously seductive to me about CES. When combined with an attitude change (rather than fighting the crowds, I just roll with it and pretend like I’m in the ocean, swimming around, not really noticing all the dirt and animals), I’m really enamored with wandering around, looking at, and playing with all the new stuff on display. Rather than target specific stuff, I just spend two days looking at everything.
It helps that we have two really fun dinners with a bunch of friends (it’s my year to organize – actually, that means Kelly has done all the work – thanks Kelly). An early morning run, followed by eight hours of walking around playing with technology, followed by three hours hanging out with good friends and colleagues at a great Las Vegas restaurant. Ok – that’s a good day.
In the past we’ve discovered new investments (such as Cloud Engines) and seen lots of companies we are investors in make good progress (e.g. this year I expect both Sifteo and Orbotix to get a lot of airplay based on what they are announcing.)
I’m heading out a day early for a BigDoor board meeting. It seems appropriate that we’d kick of our 2011 gamification of the universe with a meeting in Las Vegas. So make that three great dinners with friends.