Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Halloween XII: The Reckoning

I've been working at Google for almost three months now, and enjoying myself immensely. I'm excited about the Android platform and think it has a very bright future. It's also a fun platform to write code for. This post isn't about Android, though.

The title of this post is a reference to the Halloween Documents, the first of which was an internal Microsoft memo leaked by an employee to Eric S. Raymond, who posted it to his website in 1998 (on Halloween), where it was picked up by Slashdot and other sites. The topic of the memo was the growing threat of Linux and the open-source movement, and the ways in which Microsoft could attempt to neutralize the threat to their closed-source locked-in monopoly OS, office suite, and related products. The other Halloween documents are a combination of other leaked memos and commentary on the topic of Microsoft, and specifically their heavy-handed PR (and other) tactics to try to discredit Linux and open source.

I recently reread the Halloween documents, as well as a number of other articles about Microsoft and their dastardly ways, many of them culled from TechRights.org, a site that tirelessly catalogs all of the wrongdoings of Microsoft and related companies. The list is quite lengthy. In a little over five months, it will be the 12th anniversary of the leaking of the first Halloween memo.

My own personal experiences with Microsoft in the past have been mixed. Sometimes their stuff works well, other times it's somewhat buggy, and far too often it's completely broken in one way or another. By and large, I've tried to stay away from their products as much as possible. In July 2005, I was hired as a software engineer at Danger, Inc., a small startup company that had made a splash in certain communities as the designer of the Hiptop messaging phone, better known as the T-Mobile Sidekick.

During my time at Danger, I implemented a number of features and fixed quite a few bugs in the telephony layer of the stack, and I'm quite proud of the work that I did on the six phones that we shipped during my time there: hiptop/Sidekick 3, iD, LX, Slide, 2008, and LX 2009. I would have happily stayed there, except for the unfortunate situation that we were acquired by Microsoft in 2008.

As I described in a previous post, I did not have a very fun time at Microsoft, in any way, shape, or form. It was an incredibly stressful situation, compounded by the fact that I'm a UNIX guy at heart and found the Windows environment we were working in to be woefully primitive and clunky, and this is coming from a guy who actually likes OpenVMS, for God's sake!

I became more and more depressed until I burned out completely and had to quit last summer. I left a few months before Microsoft lost all the T-Mobile Sidekick users' data: I think I would have lost it completely if I'd been around when that happened. I would have probably thrown a chair at Roz and gotten fired or something.

Perhaps you've guessed by now that I was one of the earliest assigned to work on the Kin project (well, it was "Pink" at the time). I have nothing good to say about that phone. There is literally no reason for anyone to purchase one, unless of course you're a Microsoft employee, and you've been brainwashed into "supporting the team".

The sickest thing to me about the Microsoft experience was how incredibly cult-like the company is. Now I know that Apple has been accused of having something of a cult mentality (no non-iPhones allowed, etc.), but if they're the cult of Steve, at least their cult leader has very good taste.

For the record, Google feels very much like a university or research campus, and freedom of thought and opinion is expected, and rewarded. Engineers are an ornery bunch, and we don't have to censor ourselves if we think something isn't right. It's all about making cool stuff that people will enjoy using, and not about "killing" or "dominating" or "cutting off the air supply" of the competition, as Microsoft once liked to talk about. Of course they're not able to do that so much anymore.

One thing that Microsoft seems to do a lot of is "AstroTurfing", particularly commenting on news stories about Microsoft with fawning comments that don't seem like they came from a real person. The big tip-off signs of a comment that obviously came from a MSFT employee are that they refer to the company as MSFT and not MS or M$ or any other abbreviation, they tote the party line, cheerlead for some product or other, and never say anything negative. There is an independent Windows "enthusiast" contingent that likes to pimp Microsoft, especially if they can put down Apple or Google at the same time, but those guys tend to not sound so much like they're from the People's Republic of MSFT. Seriously, if you work at the company, write that in a disclaimer or something... oh wait, you can't do that because your comment would sound even more pathetic. Maybe you shouldn't comment at all then, if you find yourself in that position.

There's a famous quote by John Gilmore of the EFF: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." I'd like to think that over the past 10 years, the entire tech community has decided to interpret Microsoft as damage and has quite successfully routed around them in a variety of ways, starting with Firefox, OpenOffice, and the increasing popularity of Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, and more recently with some of the stuff Google has been doing, such as Android, and Chrome. [edit: and of course all the awesome stuff that Apple has been doing since the return of Steve Jobs. Apple has been the huge tech success story of the past decade (well, Apple and Google), and I can't believe I left them off the list.]

Gmail and Google Docs aren't open source, but in terms of "routing around (the brain damage of) MS Office/Exchange/SharePoint", I can say that I'm enjoying the Google Apps experience far more than I did the equivalent Microsoft version. The Google Docs word processor and spreadsheet are still somewhat primitive, but my needs are generally pretty simple, and if I need more power, I can always use OpenOffice. I wouldn't have thought that I could be so happy switching back to Ubuntu, Gmail, vim and IntelliJ, from using the "latest and greatest" Windows, Office, SharePoint, Visual Studio, etc. at Microsoft. Did I mention how much I hated working on Windows Mobile? That stuff is just broken beyond belief.

And it's in the mobile space where Microsoft has most completely fallen down. One thing I learned about myself from the whole Kin ordeal was that I truly have a great deal of identification with the stuff that I'm working on. If I don't think there's a purpose and a meaning behind the code I'm writing, then I become very upset. Now a company like Google would tend to think that being passionate about making the best possible product is probably a good trait to have in a software engineer, but it's a genuine disadvantage at a company like Microsoft, where all is politics, and the middle management is utterly adrift.

Let me just say that I think that Steve Ballmer is a clown and a buffoon, and he has no idea just how utterly pointless the whole "Windows Phone 7" exercise is. Good luck with that, dude, but I don't see it having any more of a chance than Kin did (i.e. slim to none). The rest of the mobile industry has already routed around your flavor of brain damage, and I hate to break it to you, but I'm pretty sure that your remaining handset and carrier partners are pretty much just humoring you at this point.

In the end, I'd say that Paul Graham called it, when he blogged in 2007 that Microsoft has been dead since about 2005. They've been dead in the sense that the other innovators in the market no longer fear that they'll step all over them and screw things up. Well, they could (and did) do that to Danger by acquiring us, and they stepped all over Yahoo by threatening to buy them, so they still have some power to interfere with progress. They can still bully companies who ship Linux products into coughing up royalties for their alleged Linux patents, but that's not really something to be proud of now, is it?

I am so glad I don't work at Microsoft anymore. Actually, I'm extra glad that I landed a job at Google to work on Android. Google is pretty much the anti-Microsoft, and Android is something like the anti-Windows, and since I was so miserable over there, it's no surprise that I would be pretty happy working over here. Plus, the free food in the cafes is pretty tasty.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Achievement Unlocked

Working at Google is a lot of fun. The Nexus One is a very impressive phone and Android is a very cool platform to work with. Since I've been a big fan of Gmail, Google search, Blogger, YouTube, and many other Google products for years, it's really amazing to be working at the company that created all of that cool stuff, and to get to play with new features and new products before they are released to the public. The first week I really felt like I had unlocked an achievement in a videogame. It's very cool, and the free food is very tasty as well!

One fairly new Google service that not many people have heard of is Google Public DNS, which is a free public high-performance and secure DNS resolution service that you can use instead of the DNS resolver provided by your Internet provider. If you're not familiar with DNS, it's the service that translates the hostname that you type into your browser, for example "example.com", into a numeric IP address, such as for example.com.

(BTW, Wikipedia's entry for DNS also uses example.com for its example hostname, but I hadn't read it when I wrote the previous sentence. I knew that "example.com" is officially reserved for the purpose of using as an example, and apparently so did the author of the Wikipedia entry!)

The IP address is what's used for the actual routing of data to the server, but hostnames are almost always used in URLs instead of IP addresses so that the URL will continue to point to the correct site no matter where the physical server is located. For a large site such as google.com, there are many thousands of web servers distributed across a number of data centers around the world with different IP addresses that all serve the same content. One of the features of DNS resolution is that the DNS server for a given domain can be configured to return different IP addresses depending on where the requesting server is physically located, so that requests to the actual web site will hopefully be routed to the nearest and least heavily loaded web servers.

Normally your computer will never perform the task of recursive DNS lookup directly (there are a few dozen root servers which in turn point to the DNS servers that are authoritative for a particular domain, and then you must query those servers to get the IP address of the full hostname), but will use a caching DNS server provided by your Internet provider, which will be typically be automatically configured for you by DHCP when you connect your computer to your router. The advantage of using a caching DNS server is that it saves a lot of time compared to querying the actual DNS servers, especially if it's a popular site and the answer is already in the cache.

The disadvantage of using your ISP's DNS server, as I discovered a few months ago, is that they can mess around with the DNS server to redirect you to a search page of their choosing if you look up a hostname that doesn't exist (rather than telling the browser that the hostname doesn't exist). Comcast turned that on a while back and I was really annoyed by that behavior. I tried running my own DNS server for a while, but that ended up slower than Comcast's DNS server, which I didn't like. I remembered hearing something about Google starting a DNS service, and sure enough, they had. I configured my Wi-Fi router to use and for DNS and now the websites I visit load more quickly with very little time spent in "Resolving host", and no redirect to some lame page I didn't want to go to if I mistype a URL with a hostname that doesn't exist.

One final point that I think is pretty neat: Google set up something called anycast routing for those two IP addresses ( and so that they will take you to the nearest Google public DNS server to your location anywhere in the world. Not only does that make DNS lookup even faster, but it's compatible with the geographic load-balancing I mentioned earlier, so when you look up google.com or some other site, the DNS server for that site will return the IP address nearest to the Google DNS server, which will hopefully also be near to you as well. You can read more about the performance and security improvements at the Google Public DNS site.

Next time I might talk about Google Web Toolkit, another cool product from Google that I have been meaning to play around with for some time now, since I'm intrigued by the concept, and since I'd much rather write an AJAX site in Java than JavaScript. I'll also continue with my series on OpenVMS, as well as any interesting Android adventures that I'm allowed to talk about.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Joining the Google Android Team!

I'm pleased to announce that I have accepted a position on the Android team at Google, starting March 8, where I will be applying my expertise in smartphone platform development towards improving an already quite exciting and impressive platform.

Going to work at Google feels like a dream come true, especially after the frustration and pain I experienced trying to fit in at Microsoft and salvage something of value out of their horrible, rotting Windows Mobile codebase, all the while dealing with a truly abusive work environment. I'd rather not say any more about that experience on a public forum, as it would detract from the positive stuff that I'd prefer to focus on in this blog.

I was quite fortunate to have my choice of great companies to work for in the Bay Area. There aren't very many developers in the U.S. with industry experience building great mobile device platforms, and it's a bit of a tight-knit community, rather like the voiceover artists for movie trailers. Many of the original Android developers came from Danger, and a number of them came from Be, Inc. before that. I was an intern at Be in 1997, and a regular contributor to the bedevtalk mailing list around that time period, and so I found out about Danger through a contact from Be when I came up to the Bay Area in 2005 looking for exciting work. So there is a creative lineage from Be to Danger and from there to Apple, Helio, Palm, Google, and others.

If you ever wondered how Apple and Palm were able to build such compelling devices on top of their own software stacks in such a short time with relatively few resources, a lot of it has to do with their hiring of engineers with experience building earlier devices for other companies, including for Danger. In my own time there, I contributed significant new code and many bug fixes to six different hiptop/Sidekick phones, starting with the Sidekick 3 (where I designed and implemented the UI and telephony layer for Danger's Bluetooth HFP implementation among other things) and continuing to the Sidekick LX 2009 (the 3G model). So I was quite flattered, but not particularly surprised, to have been actively recruited by the Google Android folks once they found out that I had left the company. I still had to pass the arduous interview process just like everyone else.

I also want to say a few nice things about Apple, since they were my second choice behind Google, and I'm sure that they would also have been an excellent company for me to work for. I'm a huge fan of Apple's computers, phones, and OS, and I think they are making some of the best products on the market in all of the categories in which they choose to compete. However, I see Apple as something like the BMW or Mercedes-Benz of the computer world: makers of fine luxury products that inspire the rest of the industry, but which aren't necessarily affordable to the masses. Also, since Apple's OS platform is only available to Apple, and their phone is only available through certain mobile operators, that leaves a big opening for Android and other open-source platforms that are available to anyone who wants to use them. That's really cool.

I'm a big fan of open source as a general principle, so I think that my own philosophy more closely meshes with Google than with Apple or any of the other players, and certainly as compared to Microsoft.  In the months since leaving their employ, I've read a great deal about Microsoft's pattern of abuse of their monopoly powers, much of which I knew already, but some of which was new, particularly their ongoing attempts to sabotage OpenDocument in favor of their inferior and defective OOXML "standard" (in quotes because even Microsoft Office doesn't conform to their own proposal!). I think that from a pragmatic engineering standpoint (as opposed to a legal/philosophical one), the biggest problem with Microsoft is that their software is just so bad: badly written, poorly documented, carelessly maintained.

One of my hobbies is my collection of various vintage computers. It's funny to me that my Commodore 64 is still in perfect working order and as useful (at least for playing games) as it ever was. On my desk is a genuine DEC VT320 terminal assembled on October 23, 1990, which had been sitting in my parents' garage for a number of years. I recently took it home and connected it to my small Alpha OpenVMS cluster (big thank you to Weird Stuff for having the proprietary DECconnect serial cables and adapters that I needed in their warehouse, since the VT320 lacks a standard RS-232 port). To my great joy there is no burn-in whatsoever on the CRT (likely due in part to the built-in screen saver feature that blanks the screen after 20 minutes of inactivity), and although it is a bit slow (max 19200 bps and no hardware flow control so it has to send ^S/^Q when it can't keep up with even that relatively slow speed), the LK201 keyboard has a satisfying clunkiness and the onscreen font is quite sharp. It's also a white phosphor tube as opposed to green or amber, which is nice. I opened it up to adjust an internal knob to make it a bit brighter (following the instructions in the pocket service guide) and other than some carbonization of the insulation around the flyback transformer (which I'd expected and predicted as the likely cause of the reduced brightness), it's in almost pristine condition.

I'll have more to write about my VMS adventures in future posts. I do intend to open up the cluster for semi-public consumption as a BBS, but I need to finish a few more sysadmin tasks first. Just a few days ago I reconfigured the OS, uninstalling DECnet-Plus in favor of the older DECnet Phase IV package, which is much leaner and more well-suited to my small network. I took advantage of the volume shadowing feature (basically a form of RAID-0 that you can boot from) to modify the OS on one of the two mirrored SCSI hard drives, bring everything back up, and then once I was satisfied with the new configuration, I restarted volume shadowing and mirrored the new configuration to the other drive. If anything had gone wrong, I could have easily recovered by booting the saved image on the first drive and mirroring it back to the second. In addition, I first made a full backup to DLT VS 160 tape, because one can never be too careful when working on a "mission critical" server environment even if it's just for fun and practice (more to the point, I didn't want to lose all of the time I'd put into configuration and setup so far). More on that in a future post.

My point in telling those stories in this post is that I think Microsoft as a company has done a lot more harm than good in terms of "training" people to have low expectations for the long-term usability of their investment in computer equipment. How is that so much 10-20 year old non-Microsoft stuff is perfectly usable today, while the typical Windows PC of half that age ends up encrusted with malware or bloated after too many app installs, too slow to run the latest Windows version, and yet is still perfectly capable of running, for example, Linux? I think it's because Windows just isn't very good, and Microsoft used a lot of dirty tactics in the 1990's to cut off consumers from pursuing other avenues, including BeOS. On the server side, I will have more to say about this in future VMS posts (the topic of UNIX vs. NT has already been beaten to death, but I think that there is still some benefit to comparing NT with other proprietary server OS's of that era, especially since NT is VMS reimplemented, poorly).

One informative book that I discovered recently, thanks to a comment at Mini-Microsoft, is Barbarians Led by Bill Gates, co-authored by a former early Microsoft engineer and by the daughter of Pam Edstrom, founder of Waggoner Edstrom, Microsoft's primary PR firm. Thanks in no small part to Mr. Eller and Ms. Edstrom's insider experience, as well as the interviews they conducted with other early employees and insiders, the book paints a vivid picture of just how thoroughly Microsoft is a product of pure public relations and not of any sort of software engineering expertise.

I like to tell people that Bill Gates and company made an excellent 8K ROM BASIC back in the day, but their engineering expertise, such as it was, clearly did not lead them to develop particularly high quality software of any greater complexity. One final story and then I'll wrap up this post. First, a passage from Barbarians:

Slightly disgusted that he had just joined a company [Microsoft] that was shipping defective software, Eller decided to take matters into his own hands. After researching graphics journals and spending nearly two weeks on this complicated problem, Eller finally hacked out a solution and wrote the new flood-fill algorithm. Though it was painfully slow and crawled across the screen, it did enable BASIC to correctly flood-fill.

Eller called his boss into his office once again. Whitten was less than thrilled. He had authorized the work, but Eller had spent two weeks on the flood-fill, ignoring the translator he was supposed to be writing. Undaunted, Eller set out to let others in on the flaw he had discovered and how he had fixed it. He pulled in any random developer he could find. He even pulled in Chairman Gates, whose office was just down the hall.

“Bill, check this out,” Eller said, pointing to his computer screen. “I mean . . . who was the jerk who wrote this brain-dead piece of shit?”

Gates stared at the screen.

“See, now that’s what I call a design flaw,” Eller said. “Now check out my new version. Pretty cool, eh?”

Gates nodded, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Does it work with really complicated things?” Gates asked.

“Sure,” Eller told him. He proceeded to draw a complicated object and flood-fill it.

“See? It works perfectly.”

“Can you prove that this works all the time?”

“Uhh, well umm, kind of,” Eller said. “I mean, I know it always works, but I’m a mathematician. The word ‘prove’ conjures up really ugly ideas.”

Gates told Eller his program was nice, then turned and walked back to his office.

After Gates left, Whitten walked into Eller’s office. He had heard the entire conversation.

“Do you know who wrote the original flood-fill algorithm?” he said, shaking his head.

“Ahhh, nope,” Eller replied. “I don’t believe I do.” Whitten paused, rubbed his finger on his left temple, and shook his head again.

“Bill wrote it,” he said. “Bill was the jerk who wrote this brain-dead piece of shit.”

Of course Bill was also "the jerk" who is famous for berating and insulting the intelligence of just about everyone he has ever disagreed with, so to read about him getting his comeuppance was quite amusing.

Even funnier: one of the first questions I was asked during my Google interview was to write an implementation on the white board to perform ... flood-fill! Fortunately, I had half-way thought through the solution while reading that excerpt, so I was able to cobble together a correct approach without too much trouble. I must not have embarrassed myself because I got the job. :)