Category Archives: Software

Impressions of “We Were Yahoo!: From Internet Pioneer to the Trillion Dollar Loss of Google and Facebook,” by Jeremy Ring

Recently I read We Were Yahoo, a chatty history of the former internet giant by an early employee. We Were Yahoo is similar to an abridged version of the cycle of Bell Labs’ history during the transistor era — Crystal Fire (growth), Life in the Crown Jewel (corporate politics), Optical Illusions (implosion), and Kitten Clone (living death). We Were Yahoo is all of these at once, but fittingly for such a short lived company told through the career of one employee over a 23 year period, 1994- 2017.

It also includes a bizarre kidnapping plot.

I initially was disappointed because the author, Jeremy Ring, is from sales and not engineering. You will learn nothing about the platforms or tools used by Yahoo, only the products and how they were sold. The narrator appears to neither have the critical overview of the entire industry like Sixty to Zero, or the critical perspective of CEO-level overviews like IBM under Lou Gersntner or Ford under Alan Mullaley. Ring’s early career in New York ad sales and his one-day stint working for Paul Allen is fascinating, but I would have preferred to know the engineering challenges¬† Yahoo faced.

Instead Ring focuses on the company’s large-scale revenue sources. Yahoo! went from no monetization, to display ads during the heydays, to keyword ads in the final painful days under Marissa Myer. I suspect some tension is lost in the telling and that a stronger editor could have been useful. Ring emphasizes the difference between display and text, but the enormity of the transition must be comprehended. Display ads work like billboards, generally attempting to create some form of positive brand impression. But keyword ads, displayed in line with search results, target people who are already actively researching a specific service or good (such as hotels in Hawaii or local personal injury lawyer). The latter are immensely valuable — almost all of Google’s market valuation is based on them — and Yahoo was late to develop a technology, was plagued by internal feuds over how it would be developed and monetized, made a poorly thought out alliance with Microsoft in the field, and then failed to internally develop a coherent competitor.

Ring provides color for the otherwise incoherent list of Yahoo CEOs recruited by the company over the years. The list begins with the founders and Timothy Koogle, who oversaw the dotcom boom and bust, and ends with Marissa Mayer. But Jeremy Ring saves most of his fire for Terry Semel, a former Hollywood executive who (in this telling) is the most disastrous CEO in corporate history. He may be. Under his watch Yahoo! declined to purchase Google twice, sabotaged his own deal to purchase Facebook, destroyed the Flickr social network, and intentionally abandoned Yahoo’s position as a technology leader. Mayer, once a beacon of hope and now a lightning rod for criticism, is succinctly described by Ring as having taken the reigns too late to do anything other than (unsuccessfully) gamble on high-risk high-upside investments.

We Were Yahoo could have been better organized. I think a great idea for a book would be to chronologically tell the story of these missteps along with the history of the competitors who did survive — in other words to do for the 2000s web what Console War did for 1990s game machines, or The Four did for 2010s software giants. Additionally, some interesting context is lost. For instance, the Disney Interactive enters the narrative twice — once in its predecessor Starwave, a company that Ring worked for, and again as Go.com, a company that Ring greatly admires. But no connection is made between these firms.

Then there’s the bizarre kidnapping plot against the author. It’s as random and irrational as real life can be. It’s not well integrated with the story of Yahoo at all — but maybe it can’t be. It definitely spices things up!

I read We Were Yahoo in the Audible edition.

Review of “Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,” by Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon

Several weeks ago Kevin Mitnick spoke at the research arm of my employer. He is a funny guy, knowledgeable, a great public speaker. He was also hawking his book. During the Q&A Kevin was asked what the most realistic movie about computer hackers was. He replied, “Sneakers,” a 1992 film starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, and Sidney Poitier, which I had remembered watching as a teenager. This answer seemed so bizarre it made me want to know more — hence several hundred pages later, I’ve read Mitnick’s book.

After re-watching Sneakers, I was struck that it did not use the Hollywood trope of a computer whiz sitting down on a keyboard, hitting random buttons, and getting into the system. Or Mission: Impossible high tech wizardly or suspension cables. Instead, in Sneakers access is gained by talking to people, calmly and persuasively lying to them, and getting them to do what you want. This was Mitnick’s method. That was why he liked the film.

Kevin’s story begins as a boy “hacking” the L.A. mass transit system to get free rides, thru getting his mom free long distance, to finally an increasingly complicated web of compromised systems to evade the growing number of enemies who was looking for him. Mitnick’s adventures take him from California to Las Vegas, Seattle, South Dakota, and North Carolina, before finally being arrested.

Kevin’s spoken a lot about his former life. Here’s a 60 minutes report:

And an hour-long talk he gave at Google

Shortly after his release his prison, he was called to testify before a Senate committee headed by Joe Lieberman and Fred Thompson.

If technology, “social engineering” (which Mitnick calls “lying on the telephone”), and security interest you, I strongly recommend Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker. I read Mitnick’s book in the Nook edition. It is also available for Kindle.

Review of “The Difference Engine,” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is a hard book to review. On one hand it is technothriller that asks, “What if Charles Babbage had succeeded in building his programmable computer in the 19th century?” On another it is literary science fiction, with a depth comparable to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. On the third it’s a rumination on word processing.

Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin were contemporaries in early 19th century Britain. Both men made great discoveries, and both were perfectionists. Famously, Darwin only published his theories when he heard that Wallace had independently discovered natural selection and was going to release his own version of the theory. Less famously, Babbage designed the Difference Engine (which has successfully been constructed from his plans in our down day), a mechanical computer, but abandoned work finishing it to attempt the Analytical Engine, a computer that was as advanced as the electronic ENIAC that was finally built more than a century later.

No men, if their careers could have been more successful, might have changed our world more than Archimedes and Charles Babbage.

But what would such a world have looked like? Could an information revolution occur at the same time as an industrial revolution? Who would benefit from such a world? Who would oppose it?

The Difference Engine is composed of several “Iterations” and a final “Modus.” Many characters appear again and again, though often the reader’s view of them differ – a character might simply be standing near an event in one iteration, an antagonist in a second, a helper in a third, and the protagonist in the fourth.

The meaning of the ending of The Difference Engine is disputed, and (in the finest literary tradition) there is no need to take the authors’ remarks as the last word. I’m still unsure what finally happens.

I read The Difference Engine on my Kindle.

Short Review of “Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era,” by Mary Jo Foley

I have mixed impressions of Microsoft 2.0 by Mary Jo Foley. I love Foley’s blog. But not this book.

This book is written by Mary Jo Foley, who maintains a wonderful blog about the software company from Redmond. Mary often receives leaks (seemingly officially) from Microsoft insiders that outline future product directions and organizational changes. For anyone who is interested in what Microsoft is actually up to, Mary’s blog is a must read.

Microsoft 2.0 is basically the same material one would have found on her blog, distilled, and current as of early 2008. As such the book is not a necessary read for anyone, as those “predictions” or “leaks” that are in the book have since been taken over by events. Unlike at the time of writing, Vista is now recognized for the disaster it was, Windows Mobile 7 was killed and replaced by Windows Phone 7, and “software + services” seems to be as important as ever.

If you are interested in this sort of material, then definitely Read the blog. But skip the book.

Review of “Lost: Via Domus”

I celebrated my official assession to Doctoral Candidacy (and some other good news) by finishing LOST: Via Domus, which I began a while ago. Via Domus (translated as “The Way Home” in the game”), is composed of four “episodes” that take place parallel to the main action of LOST: Force Majeure, A New Day, Via Domus, Forty-Two, Hotel Persephone, Whatever It Takes, and Worth a Thousand Words, each with about an hour of gamepplay. The game concerns a character who wakes up shortly after the original airline crash, not knowing his name or why he was onboard.

The island is beautifully rendered, but unfortunately one cannot explore much of it. Like Half-Life 2, there is an invisible rail that guides the player. At all times, there is a right thing to do, and a right place to be. This can be annoying, as alternative solutions that do not fit within the pre-written story are generally impossible to execute. At times this is annoying, such as when your character refuses to take a little detour, and instead has to run away from a smoke monster while carrying dynamite.

However, while gameplay can be limiting, the writing is fantastic. In most games, you play through the protaganist. In via domus, you play as him. The first time I realized this I was perturbed, but then I realized it was an original perspective on gameplay. While the main character decides what he wants, it is your puppeteering that gets him there. This at times raises moral qualms. The ending is more satisfying than most video game endings, as well.

I enjoyed LOST: Via Domus. I recommend it to anyone with an XBOX 360 or a sufficiently powerful PC.

Bill Gates on Technology and Strategy

Over the past few days, I had the great pleasure to savor a 1989 speech by Bill Gates to the Computer Science Club of the University of Waterloo. My previous exposure to Bill Gates’ thought had been rather disappointing — Business @ The Speed of Thought has to be one of the emptiest collections of cliches ever written — so I tuned in mainly for the nostalgia.

Little did I know that I was in for 93 minutes of brilliance.

Bill Gates speech in 1989 reveals two things: he is an expert at technology and an expert at strategy, both theoretical and applied. Except for the parts of his speech which deals with the specific environment of the late 1980s, most of Gates’ technological statements are timeless. Listening him to talk about his vision for programming I kept having to tell myself that .Net wouldn’t be released for another 14 years. Likewise, listening him to how he structures teams at Microsoft, and how he forms goals and sets release schedules, I kept being reminded of Chet Richards’ Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business.

The grand view of Gates’ ability is emphasized through his repitition of a near-disasterous decision. At the time, Microsoft and IBM were collaborating on a new operating system called (with typical IBM finesse) OS/2 (short of Operating System / 2). The relationship would collapse the very next year. IBM and Microsoft have very different operating philosophies, and Microsoft assisting in building and promoting IBM’s “successor” to Windows was in retrospect unimaginably dangerous. It was as if Queen Elizabeth I had supplied timber and workers to build the Spanish Armada.

Of course, like in that war, it didn’t matter.

IBM’s islamic, top-down, one-true-way philosophy was outclassed by Microsoft’s theory of embrace and extend. Just as the British defeated the Armada, not because of luck but because of the Spanish inability to change in respond to changing events, Microsoft defeated IBM because of International Business Machine’s inability to change in respond to changing event. On paper IBM had the advantages

    • Man power
    • Hordes of cash
    • Business Contacts
    • Experience (IBM had previously been outmaneuvred by Microsoft in the release of DOS)

But Microsoft had a unity of purpose, iterative design, and flexibility. IBM had none of these.

Within half a decade, the war was essentially over. IBM released the last commercial version of OS/2 in 1996. The overwhelming power & success of Microsoft Windows, by contrast, needs no elaboration.

Video on 1970s-era Technology Initiatives

I’m unusually sympathetic to a John Robb post as I have a bad cold, as well. So today’s update isn’t politics or gossip — are just two 1970s information reels (one fake, one real).

The DHARMA Initiative (from Purpleslog via TV Squad)


D.H.A.R.M.A.

The ARPANET Initiative (from Digg via Search Marketing)


A.R.P.A.

(Interestingly, they both start out with similar, awful music. Hmmm…)

Short Review of iTunes 7 with Cover Flow

Props to Apple for iTunes 7, the first program with a 3D interface that isn’t terrible.


iTunes 3D: Actually A Good Idea

Generally, 3D is used to increase flashiness and destroy usefulness. From numerous forgetting web browsers to games, such as Half-Life 2 and Warcraft III, designers have labored hard to make programs slower, more sluggish and less user friendly by adding the glitz of the z-axis.

Apple has bucked that trend.

iTunes 7 incorporates a nifty tool that lets you “flip” through albums on your computer, and it will even download album art off of the iTunes store if you do not have it already on your computer. Apple calls this technology “Cover Flow,” and it is an easy, intuitive, and relaxing way of browsing the music you own and what you want to play next.