Have you ever seen the old BBC TV show â€śConnectionsâ€ť? Itâ€™s a little old now, but I loved how it followed threads through time, and I marveled at the surprising historical depth of important â€śinventions.â€ť I think we need to remember that as engineers and technologists. We get caught up in the short-term tactical delivery of technology. We donâ€™t see the sometimes immense ripples in society from our work â€“ even years later.
I got a flurry of emails yesterday, arranging an anniversary get-together in August at the Apple campus. Why? Itâ€™s the 20th anniversary of the Newton. Ok â€“ so this has nothing to do with LSI really, but it does have a lot to do with our everyday lives. More than you think.
So you either know the Newton and think it was a failure (think Trudeauâ€™s famous handwriting cartoon), or you donâ€™t and youâ€™re wondering what the *bleep* Iâ€™m talking about. Sometimes things that donâ€™t seem very significant early on end up having profound consequences.Â And I admit, the Newton was a failure, too expensive and not quite good enough, and the world couldnâ€™t even get the concept of a general-purpose computer in your hand.
But oh â€“ you could smell the future and get a tantalizing hint of what it would be. Remember â€“ weâ€™re talking 1993 here.
First â€“ why does Rob Ober care? Itâ€™s personal. While I didnâ€™t remotely help create the Newton, I did help bring it to market, mature the technology, and set the stage for the future (well â€“ itâ€™s not the future any more â€“ itâ€™s now). I was at Apple wrapping up the creation of the PowerPC processor and architecture, and the first Power Macs. I have a great memory around that time of getting the first Power Mac booted. Someone had the great idea of running the beta 68K emulator (to run standard Mac stuff). That was great, it worked, and then someone else said â€“ wait â€“ I have an Apple II emulator for the 68K Mac. So we had the very first PowerPC Mac running 68K code as a Mac to emulate a 6502 as an Apple II â€¦ and we played for hours. I also have a very clear memory of that PowerPC Mac standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Robotron game in the Valley Green 5 building break room. It was a state-of-the-art video game and looked like this.
Yea, that shows you it was a while ago. (But it was a good game.)
A guy named Shane Robison pulled me over (yea, the same HP CTO, now CEO of FusionIO) to come fix some things on the super-hush Newton program. In the end, I took over responsibility for the processors, custom chips, communication stacks and hardware, plastics and tooling, display, touch screen, power supply, wireless, NiMH and LiION batteriesâ€¦ Â A lot. Â We pushed the limits of state of the art on all those fronts. It was a really important wonderful/terrible part of my career. I learned an amazing amount.
(If youâ€™re interested in viewing a Newton from todayâ€™s perspective, there is a fascinating review here: http://techland.time.com/2012/06/01/newton-reconsidered/)
Let me start with some boring effects. We were using the ARM processor because of its low power. But. It wasnâ€™t perfect, and ARM itself was on the edge of insolvency. We invested a sizable chunk of money, and gave it guidance on how to transition from ARM 6 to 7 to 9. ARM is alive today because of that, and the ARM 9 is still in 100â€™s of millions of products. And we also worked with DEC to create the StrongARM processor family, which became XScale at Intel, then went to Marvel, and also bootstrapped Atom, and, andâ€¦
The Newton needed non-volatile storage. Disks were immense, expensive and power-hungry. 2-1/2â€ť disk? Didnâ€™t exist. Â 3-1/2â€ť was small. The only remotely cost-effective technology was called NAND flash, which was fundamentally incompatible with program execution, and nightmarish for data storage/retrieval, and unbelievably expensive per bit. I think the early Newtons were 8 Mbytes? (thatâ€™s mega not gigaâ€¦). The team figured out how to make that work. Yep â€“ that was the first use of Toshiba NAND for program/data. (Iâ€™ve been playing with flash for storage since then.)
Then some more interesting thingsâ€¦
I wired the Apple campus with wireless LAN base stations (it would be 6 years until Wifi, and 802.11 wasnâ€™t even dreamt up yet) and built the wireless LAN receivers into Newtons, gave them to the Apple execs and set up their mail to be forwarded. You couldnâ€™t even do that on laptops. We could be anywhere in the campus and instantly receive and send emails. More â€“ we could browse the (rudimentary) web. I also worked with RIM (yea â€“ Research In Motion â€“ Blackberry) and Metricom to use their wireless wide area net technology to give Newtons access to email and the Web anywhere in the Bay Area. Quite a few times I was driving to meetings, wasnâ€™t sure where to go, so pulled over and looked up the meeting in my Newton calendar, then checked the address on my browser with MapQuest. 1995. Sound familiar?
We also spent time with FedEx pitching it on the idea of a Newton-based tablet to manage inventory (integrated bar code scanner), accept signatures on screen with tablet/pen (even the upside down thing to hand it to the customer), show route maps, and cellularly send all that info back and forth for live tracking. FedEx was stunned by the concept. Sound familiar? I still have the proposal book with industrial designs in my garage. Yes, another Silicon Valley garage. Hereâ€™s what it rolled out 10 years laterâ€¦ which is ultimately pretty similar to our proposal.
And donâ€™t forget Object Programming. (You remember when OOPS was a high-tech term?) Iâ€™m not really a software guy â€“ just not my thing â€“ but I loved programming on the Newton. In 10 minutes you could actually bang out a useful, great-looking program. Personally, I think the world would have been way better off if those object libraries had been folded into the Java object library. Even so, I get a nostalgic feel when I do iOS programming.
I even built a one-off proto that had cellphone guts inside the plastic of the Newton. (OK â€“ it was chunky, but the smallest phones at the time were HUGE). I could make phone calls from the contacts or calendar or emails, send and receive SMS messages, and rudimentary MMS messages before there was such a thing â€“ used just like a very overweight iPhone (OK â€“ more like the big Samsung galaxy phones). I could even, in a pinch, do data over the GSM network â€“ email, web, etc. It was around that time Nokia came calling and asked about our UI, our OS, our ability to used data over the GSM networkâ€¦ Those talks fell apart, but it was serious enough I made trips to Nokiaâ€™s mothership in Helsinki and Tampere a few times. (Thatâ€™s north even for a Canadian boyâ€¦)
And then years later I got a phone call from one of the key people at Apple â€“ Mike Culbert (who, sadly, recently passed away) â€“ to ask about cellular/baseband chipsets and solutions. He knew I knew the technology. I introduced him to my friends at Infineon (now Intel Mobile) for a discussion on a mystery projectâ€¦ Those parts ended up in the iPhone. A lot of the same people and technology, just way more advancedâ€¦
iPad? Sure. A lot of the same people were involved in a Newton that never saw the light of day. The BIC. Here it is with the iPad. Again â€“ 15 years apart.
And you remember the $100 laptop (OLPC?). As a founding board member, I brought an eMate kids Newton laptop to show the team early on. And of course the debate on disk vs. flash followed the same path as it had in Newton. Â Here they are together, separated by more than 10 years. And then of course, OLPC has direct genetic parentage of netbooks, which then lead to Ultrabooksâ€¦ (Did you know at one point Apple was considering joining OLPC and offering Darwin/OSX as the OS? Didnâ€™t last long.)
And then there are the people. Off the top of my head there were founders or key movers of Palm, Xbox, Kindle, Hotmail, Yahoo,Â Netscape, Android, WebTV (think most set-top boxes), Danger phone (you remember the sidekick?), Evernote, Mercedes research and a bunch of others. And some friends who became well-known VCs.Â And I still have a lot of super-talented friends from that time, many of whom are still at Apple.
Sometimes things that donâ€™t seem very significant have profound follow-on consequences. I think we need to remember that as engineers and technologists. We donâ€™t see the sometimes immense ripples in society from our work â€“ even years later. Today weâ€™re planting the seeds for all those great things in the future. I admit, the Newton was a failure, but oh â€“ you could smell the future and get a tantalizing hint of what it would be. Remember â€“ weâ€™re talking 1993 here.
Tags: 802.11, Android, Apple, Apple II, ARM, BIC, Blackberry, Darwin, DEC, eMate, Evernote, FedEx, FusionIO, Hotmail, HP, Intel, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Marvel, Mercedes, Metricom, Mike Culbert, MMS, Netscape, Newton, Nokia, object programming, OLPC, Palm, Power Mac, PowerPC, Research in Motion, Robotron, Shane Robison, SMS, StrongARM, Toshiba, Ultrabook, Web TV, Wifi, Xbox, XScale, Yahoo
I’ve just been to China. Again. Â Itâ€™s only been a few months since I was last there.
I was lucky enough to attend the 5th China Cloud Computing Conference at the China National Convention Center in Beijing. You probably have not heard of it, but itâ€™s an impressive conference. Itâ€™s â€śthe oneâ€ť for the cloud computing industry. It was a unique view for me â€“ more of an inside-out view of the industry. Everyone whoâ€™s anyone in Chinaâ€™s cloud industry was there. Our CEO, Abhi Talwalkar, had been invited to keynote the conference, so I tagged along.
First, the air was really hazy, but I donâ€™t think the locals considered it that bad. The US consulate iPhone app said the particulates were in the very unhealthy range. Imagine looking across the street. Sure, you can see the building there, but the next one? Not so much. Look up. Can you see past the 10th floor? No, not really. The building disappears into the smog. Thatâ€™s what it was like at the China National Convention Center, which is part of the same Olympics complex as the famous Birdcage stadium: http://www.cnccchina.com/en/Venues/Traffic.aspx
I had a fantastic chance to catch up with a university friend, who has been living in Beijing since the 90â€™s, and is now a venture capitalist. Itâ€™s amazing how almost 30 years can disappear and you pick up where you left off. He sure knows how to live. I was picked up in his private limo, whisked off to a very well-known restaurant across the city, where we had a private room and private waitress. We even had some exotic, special dishes that needed to be ordered at least a day in advance. Wow.Â But we broke Chinese tradition and had imported beer in honor of our Canadian education.
Sizing up China’s cloud infrastructure
The most unusual meeting I attended was an invitation-only session â€“ the Sino-American roundtable on cloud computing. There were just about 40 people in a room â€“ half from the US, half from China. Mostly what I learned is that the cloud infrastructure in China is fragmented, and probably sub-scale. And itâ€™s like that for a reason. It was difficult to understand at first, but I think Iâ€™ve made sense of it.
I started asking why to friends and consultants and got some interesting answers. Essentially different regional governments are trying to capture the cloud â€śindustryâ€ť in their locality, so they promote activity, and they promote creation of new tools and infrastructure for that. Why reuse something thatâ€™s open source and works if you donâ€™t have to and you can create high-tech jobs? (Thatâ€™s sarcasm, by the way.) Many technologists I spoke with felt this will hold them back, and that they are probably 3-5 years behind the US. As well, each government-run industry specifies the datacenter and infrastructure needed to be a supplier or ecosystem partner with them, and each is different. The national train system has a different cloud infrastructure from the agriculture department, and from the shipping authority, etcâ€¦ and if you do business with them â€“ that is you are part of their ecosystem of vendors, then you use their infrastructure. It all spells fragmentation and sub-scale. In contrast, the Web 2.0 / social media companies seem to be doing just fine.
Baidu was also showing off its open rack. Itâ€™s an embodiment of the Scorpio V1 standard, which was jointly developed with Tencent, Alibaba and China Telecom. It views this as a first experiment, and is looking forward to V2, which will be a much more mature system.
I was also lucky to have personal meetings with general managers,chief architects and effective CTOs of the biggest cloud companies in China. What did I learn? They are all at an inflexion point. Many of the key technologists have experience at American Web 2.0 companies, so theyâ€™re able to evolveÂ quickly, leveraging their industry knowledge. Theyâ€™re all working to build or grow their own datacenters, their own infrastructure. And theyâ€™re aggressively expanding products, not just users, so theyâ€™re getting a compound growth rate.
Hereâ€™s a little of what I learned. In general, there is a trend to try and simplify infrastructure, harmonize divergent platforms, and deploy more infrastructure by spending less on each unit. (In general, they donâ€™t make as much per user as American companies, but they have more users). As a result they are more cost-focused than US companies. And they are starting to put more emphasis on operational simplicity in general. As one GM described it to me â€“ â€śYes, techs are inexpensive in China for maintainence, but more often than not they make mistakes that impact operations.â€ť So we (LSI) will be focussing more on simplifying management and maintainence for them.
Baiduâ€™s biggest Hadoop cluster is 20k nodes. I believe thatâ€™s as big as Yahooâ€™s â€“ and it is the originator of Hadoop. Baidu has a unique use profile for flash â€“ itâ€™s not like theÂ hyperscale datacenters in the US. But Baidu is starting to consume a lot. Like most other hyperscale datacenters, it is working on storage erasure coding across servers, racks and datacenters, andÂ it is trying to make a unified namespace across everything. One of its main interests is architecture at datacenter level, harmonizing the various platforms and looking for the optimum at the datacenter level. In general, Baidu is very proud of the advances it has made, and it has real confidence in its vision and route forward, and from what I heard, its architectural ambitions are big.
JD.com (which used to be 360buy.com) is the largest direct ecommerce company in China and (only) had about $10 billion (US) in revenue last year, with 100% CAGR growth. As the GM there said, its growth has to slow sometime, or in 5 years itâ€™ll be the biggest company in the world. I think it isÂ the closest equivalent to Amazon there is out there, and they have similar ambitions. They are in the process of transforming to a self-built, self-managed datacenter infrastructure. It is a company I am going to keep my eyes on.
Tencent is expanding into some interesting new businesses. Sure, people know about the Tencent cloud services that the Chinese government will be using, but Tencent also has some interesting and unique cloud services coming. Letâ€™s just say even I am interested in using them. And of course, while Tencent is already the largest Web 2.0 company in China, its new services promise to push it to new scale and new markets.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it …
And then there was press. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Yuan Shaolong, editor at WatchStor, that I think ran way over. Amazingly â€“ we discovered we have the same favorite band, even half a world away from each other. The results are here, though Iâ€™m not sure if Google translate messed a few things up, or if there was some miscommunication, but in general, I think most of the basics are right: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=zh-CN&u=http://tech.watchstor.com/storage-module-144394.htm&prev=/search%3Fq%3Drobert%2Bober%2BLSI%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1346%26bih%3D619
I just keep learning new things every time I go to China. I suspect it has as much to do with how quickly things are changing as new stuff to learn. So I expect it wonâ€™t be too long until I go to China, againâ€¦
Tags: Abhi Talwalkar, Alibaba, Amazon, Baidu, China, China Cloud Computing Conference, China National Convention Center, China Telecom, datacenter, Hadoop, hyperscale, JD.com, WatchStor, web 2.0, Yahoo