Friday, October 09, 2009

Proprietary Drivers Lead to Hardware Duplication

I'm your typical geek, obsessed with gadgets and technology, so I could probably burn through almost any size budget, buying cool things to hack on and/or play with, without even blinking. Conversely, I'm young, and still working my way up the ladder, so my income is definitely limited. Finally, I'm married, and have two young children, so I have far better things to spend my money on than the new 8.02.11xn enabled light bulb. (Bonus points if it also speaks wireless DMX)

So, the net effect of this, is that when I do get something new to play with, I have to choose carefully, and try to get the most tech bang for my dollar. Case in point, the first time I've gotten a GPS device to play with it is in my corporate supplied Blackjack 2 smartphone. Now, I've wanted a GPS for a while. Geocaching looks like a lot of fun, and is something I've wanted to try for a while. I'm also interested in wardriving as well as helping out

However, a Windows mobile smartphone without wifi isn't really the best tool for any of these activities. However, it has GPS builtin, and it has bluetooth, just like a typical bluetooth GPS dongle. And, thanks to a hack I found online, the internal GPS can be accessed directly on a COM port, instead of only through the Windows Mobile APIs. In an ideal world, I could just read the GPS NMEA data over bluetooth from my laptop, and use it the same as any other GPS dongle. However, because of the proprietary nature of everything involved, this isn't an option, and I'm forced to buy a different GPS receiver if I want to use the GPS with my laptop.

This is all a software issue though. The technical capability clearly exists in the devices. However, the drivers don't allow for it. Drivers, written by hardware companies, who don't want anyone else to know the intricacies of how to interface with their hardware, as that is "proprietary knowledge" and a "trade secret". Now, there is some legitimate concern here. If you know how to talk to a piece of hardware, and can map inputs to outputs, then reverse engineering, especially the two team, clean room style, becomes much easier. However, many hardware companies write really lousy drivers, full of bugs, and lacking many features.

This is a fight faced by the Linux and BSD communities since the beginning. There isn't enough market share for most hardware manufacturers to create their own drivers for open source operating systems. However, despite offers from the community to do the development, the manufacturers are also unwilling or unable to release any sort of technical specifications, or provide any sort of support at all. Which really created the old school Linux mentality of finding something you wanted to have work, then hacking at it until you had created a working driver for it. The end result here is that the consumer loses, and the manufacturers don't see the problem, when I have to buy a separate GPS device because my laptop can't use the one built into my smartphone.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Metrics Can Lead to Poor Customer Service!

We eat far too much fast food. Unfortunately, it is too attractive to us. It is quick, relatively cheap, and simple. Also, we can usually pick up something that the kiddos will eat, or at least not complain about. I think the real kicker often is the quick, and that it doesn't mean having to clean dishes around the house, which is all too big of a plus for us right now.

I was realizing today just how low my expectations have become. No matter where I'm ordering, no matter how straight-forward the order, I expect that there will be at least one mess up. If it's just that they forgot to include straws for the drinks, I'm happy. If it is that the ignored a special order request, despite it having been heard, and ticketed properly, I'm unsurprised. And if it is the failure to include some add-on condiment (like sour cream at Jack in the Box) that I paid for, I'm only mildly annoyed. Which is really pathetic. I should expect to get my food the way I ordered it, all of it. If it doesn't get entered properly when I order it, I understand that, although I get annoyed if it happens after I've repeated myself and corrected the order 5 or 6 times. But, when the order gets taken and entered correctly, but made incorrectly, that is either laziness, carelessness, or sloppiness. And yet, I've come to accept and expect it.

However, the point of this rant is about the other annoying practice most fast food restaurants have gotten into at the drive-through window, asking you to pull into a parking space and wait for your food. I find that this also rarely perturbs me, although it really gets under my wife's skin. When I've ordered something that I know takes a bit longer to cook, and there are several cars behind me, then I have no problem with pulling into a space to wait. My only annoyance at is is that I know I won't be asked about any condiments I would like, and I won't be able to point out any issues I find right away, like I could at the window. However, whenever I get asked to pull in when there are no cars behind me, then I blame metrics. Or, an even better variant that I experienced today: this was one of the places were you pay at the first window, and get your food at the second. There were about 3 cars behind me when I paid, and the car in front of me had already left the second window. I was asked to wait at the first window, and not pull up until I was told that my food was ready.

Clearly, both of these requests are intended to minimize time spent at the delivery window. Having worked in a fast food restaurant in college, I know that things like wait time and time at window get tracked by management. Just like we were warned when the "secret shopper" would be stopping by, and everyone knew who he was, so his order always exceeded the minimum standards for amount of ingredients, the employees are going to do anything they can to boost these metrics if there is either reward or consequence attached to it. Whether it is average wait time, average time at window, or even max time at window, the drive is to improve the measured metric, even at the absolute expense of the customer experience. This isn't all that different from backfiring incentives. Of course, this doesn't apply only to the fast food industry, but is a danger with any metric in any industry. If the metric becomes the be-all end-all, then it's entire purpose has been defeated. This is on my mind right now, because I am now part of setting metrics both for myself, and for the department I'm currently responsible for training and overseeing.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Space, the Forgotten Frontier

I've always been a huge fan of the space program, so the existence thereof has never been something I thought needed justification. However, I find that in my daily life, many of the people I run into hold the opinion that the space program is a huge waste of money with absolutely no benefits whatsoever. I've mostly written this off as ignorance, but still been bothered by it. However, a recent trip to Florida made me consider how poor a job of marketing itself NASA has done.

On this trip, we spent several days at Walt Disney World, then stopped by NASA's Kennedy Space Center, before visiting the Atlantic Ocean (as we had several people, our kids included, who had never seen it before) and then heading back home. The difference between Disney World and NASA was one of the most dramatic I have ever seen. Granted, I was giving Disney World pretty high marks. I had only been the once before, as a young child, so my only memories of it were faint, and glossy with childhood nostalgia. In addition to that, I had recently read Cory Doctorow's book "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom", so I was reliving the book as I walked through the park. So, I spent the entire time at the park annoying my wife with comments about how efficient I found things, how well designed and themed areas were, how well things tied together, how this area was important in the book, etc.

We then visited NASA, where it felt like we had found a run-down back-country tourist-trap/ghost-town. The place was almost deserted, and looked like it was running on a skeleton crew as well. There was one ticket lane open, but the way they were set up, you had to walk up to each one to see if it was open or not. You were largely left to yourself to explore the exhibits, and read the plaques, with little or no direction from the staff. It was overall a horrible experience, and one the kiddos did not enjoy at all. While I can't blame them for that, it did hurt me, their geek dad/space buff, that they weren't as fascinated by the shuttles and space hardware as they were by the princesses and talking animals a few days before.

Even for me, the experience was rather disappointing. I wasn't engaged at all, I didn't learn anything I didn't already know. Yes, there was a shuttle on the launch pad, but you couldn't really see anything more than the top 6 inches of the External Tank from the observation tower. Granted, I had fussy kids to keep me busy, so I didn't get to see some of the exhibits I wanted to. Additionally, this visit was near the end of our trip, and everyone was gearing up for the couple days in the car it would take to get home. Still, it was the sheer underwhelmingness of the experience that impressed upon me the most.

We are talking about the space program here. Space Shuttles with Solid Rocket Boosters and External Tanks, some of the most advanced technology in this country, in the world even. Yet, I couldn't really get into it. If only NASA had the Walt Disney Imagineering department working for them, how might the Space Center be different? How might the public's impression of the Space Program as a whole, be different? Space travel has become routine, so it only makes the news when something goes horribly wrong. At any given point in time, how many people around you could tell you how many people are currently in space?

NASA has done very little that I have seen to work on its public image. So, consequently, very few people know what the agency's mission is, or what its goals are. Even fewer people seem to understand the impact NASA has on life here on earth. The common opinion is that money spent by NASA is either a) turned into smoke when a rocket launches or b) launched into space, and has no impact here on earth, that it is being completely wasted. So, let me throw some numbers your way, ok?

NASA's requested budget for 2007 was $17 Billion. (source) In isolation, that is a large number. Certainly more than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes. However, when we start to add in some context, how does it look? The recent bailout package was approved for up to $700 Billion. The auto industry is asking for $25 Billion in bailout loans. The US national budget for 2007 was $2.784 Trillion, so NASA's slice of the pie was 0.58% of the national budget. Finally, social programs (the place most people say the money going to NASA should be spent instead, totaled $1.581 Trillion. So, for every $1 spent on NASA, we are already spending $98 on social programs. Finally, for every dollar spent by the government on R&D in NASA, it is estimated the government earns $7 in personal and corporate income taxes. (source) Let me repeat that, the government brings in $7 for every $1 it sends out to research projects inside of NASA.

The last piece of the puzzle, is what we call spinoff technologies. Things that had their beginning in the space program, but ended up in the public, usually in very different forms. These are the things I think NASA could really do a better job of publicizing, although they have put together a very neat site to showcase some of them. Many of them are exotic sounding things you'll probably never encounter, such as advanced welding systems and magnetic liquids. However, there are a few that are very important to many people.

  • Infrared In-ear thermometers, a parent's best friend.
  • Cordless vacuums, like the DustBuster.
  • LED lights.

Of course, there is also the obvious, telecommunication satellites. The things that make so many of your phone calls, internet usage, and tv watching possible. Not to mention the many advances in weather monitoring and forecasting, useful both to those in the path of a hurricane, and those with a farm in the midst of a drought. These are things that the space program brought to life, usually inadvertently. It can also be argued that the current age of advanced technology is largely thanks to the space race era, and the many engineers and scientist who worked on the projects, and many others who may never have been involved with the space program directly, but were inspired to go into science and technology because of it. Because ultimately, to me, that is what the space program is all about. It is about solving problems, about exploring, and about learning new things and adding to the sum total of human knowledge, and inspiring new generations to do the same things.

I am a Christian, so I'm not one who believes our only hope for survival is in colonizing other planets, and eventually other solar systems. However, I do believe that the future of the US of A, as a country, relies on our being leaders in technology and science, areas we are quickly falling behind in. We once were the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, but now that is all being shipped abroad. We now import much of our food, more than we really have to. If we stop leading in innovation, what will we excel in, as a country?