September 29th, 2011

A few remarks about predictions

I've said a variety of things about predictions (laughing about them when they are wrong, tracking pundit predictions to get a sense of how seriously to take their future predictions, the easiest prediction to make is more-of-the-same, etc.). But I'm not sure I've posted anything about predictions that turn out to be right, in an amazingly remunerative and useful and important way, that in no way benefits the person who made the original prediction, mostly because their model for the prediction coming true was wildly wrong.

Here's a specific example.

When I was in college getting an undergraduate degree in computer science (over 20 years ago), my fellow computer science students (and others as well) participated in the usual bull sessions of college days. Some of these debates had been engaged in so many times they were really painfully boring and we developed idioms for avoiding getting sucked back into them (e.g. which is better: vi or emacs), or some of us did anyway, after a few years. Some of the debates were more interesting: when will ebooks replace pbooks (<-- not the terminology used at the time), and fun to watch play out (mostly because I was _really really right_ about it taking more than a few years to happen). And some of the debates weren't really arguments with each other, but trying to figure out how to make a desired goal happen. I would put Unix Taking Over the World into that category.

Our operating system choices in those days were varied but almost universally proprietary. A full open source operating system was still a distant dream, but people were rabidly backing the Hurd even then. I had friends who started a bespoke software company to develp for the NeXT (and are still in business doing quite well, altho obviously not developing for NeXT any more). While I had a couple buddies who genuinely loved PCs and went off to work at Microsoft, most of my friends were die-hard Unix fans of one flavor or another, and if you knew what to say, you could put a nickel in the Unix Will Take Over the World jukebox and sit back with a sandwich for a half hour of mild entertainment.

I'd like to take this moment to point out that they were all more or less right: Unix is indeed taking over the world, whether as the basis for QNX over at RIM, webOS at HP, Android in any number of places, or iOS and OS X over at Apple. True, neither Nokia's OS nor the two major variants of Windows Mobile OSs (much less Windows itself in any incarnation) are based on Unix. But I think the proportionate market representation and trends suggest that Unix Has Taken Over the World.

But it doesn't look anything like what any of us thought, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Unix Taking Over the World Would Look Like. Specifically, a lot of what we, as baby programmers, liked about Unix is mostly if not completely absent from the experience of all these Unix systems, for virtually all end users. On the other hand, the devices do actually work pretty great, which was an important part of our argument for why this should occur.

To the extent that any of us made money off of believing this would happen before it did, we failed to make other money -- that is, we didn't go work for Microsoft, but started other companies or worked for other companies or both. And I think that's a really important lesson about predictions.

(1) You can be right, and barely recognize it when you are (and not just because you forgot the prediction you made).
(2) Even if you are right, and even if you benefit from being right, you might have benefited as much or more by being wrong, or by making choices as if you were going to be wrong.

Visualizing the future in an optimal way is an intractable problem, but the effort is interesting and rewarding.

Playbook price cut at Best Buy and other tablet news

Down to $299. Bill of materials on Playbook is under $200 so they should in theory not be losing too much money on the physical bits.

"NPD Group analyst Richard Shim, who closely watches the tablet market, said his firm sees a production gap as well. "Our supply chain research indicates they (RIM) don't have production plans for PlayBooks beyond this year." "

I have this theory, which is that RIM had some sort of supply chain worked out -- only the Playbook clearly didn't need it. So Amazon took over the parts that would have gone into PlayBooks if the Playbook had been successful, took out some of the more expensive ones (camera, microphone, memory, 3G) and produced the kFire from what was left. Where the Playbook was conspicuously lacking in what you could connect to with it, the kFire looks like it'll roll with a lot of stuff to access with it. Where the Playbook was conspicuously marketed to the enterprise market (altho with some missing pieces even for that), the kFire is conspicuously aimed at the consumer market. But those differences aren't inherent in the physical parts.

Quoting Shim again:

""We heard from the supply side that RIM's ODM (original design manufacturer) partners don't have plans for production beyond this year," Richard Shim, an analyst at DisplaySearch, told CNET, referring to the PlayBook tablet. "And it is unusual for a manufacturing partner not to have plans for next quarter," he said."

If you feel like reading random, silly speculation about the Amazon supply chain and whether the kFire will sell out during the holidays, you can read this:

iSuppli provides some data, which other people decide to ignore.

Nate Hoffelder over at The Digital Reader spotted an oops posting of information about Kobo's Android tablet:

That's just got to suck. You put this thing together thinking you're going up against BKS with NookColor at a $250 price point, and you get AMZN announcing a tablet a few weeks earlier at a $199 price point.

On the other hand, what a _fantastic_ Christmas season this is going to be for lots and lots of people: some of them will get the new Nook Color. Some of them will get a kFire. Some of them will get a Kobo tablet. And instead of spouses trying to squeeze the budget to get an iPad for Someone Special, family Santa can afford two for someones special. Happy Holidays are ahead!

possible progress towards an HIV vaccine

This is actually super cool coverage from the NHS:

It both explains what's going on _and_ details how well developments are being covered in various news outlets, all in very clear, neutral language. It is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. At the bottom are links to other coverage and to the original study.