Tag Archives: technology

Impressions of “The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution that Swept Virtual Reality,” by Blake Harris

Two years ago I read Console Wars, Blake Harris’ history of the competition between Nintendo and Sega in the 1990s. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Shortly after that book came out the leadership of Oculus VR asked Harris to document their efforts. Console Wars follows the men who lead that effort — Brendan Iribe, Jack McCauley, Michael Abrash, John Carmack, and most of all — Palmer Luckey.

The book begins by following Luckey’s initial work hacking together hardware components to attempt to mimic high-end virtual reality systems. The process is classic disruption, focusing on building a somewhat inferior hardware product at dramatically lower costs. Luckey succeeded at the goal, and had the good fortune to be working at the same time that John Carmack (creator of the DOOM franchise) was building and publicizing a ‘test bed’ to allow easy comparison of VR quality. Carmack heard of Luckey’s efforts, highlighted it during an industry conference, and the buzz began.

The second part of the book focuses on the formation of Luckey’s company, Oculus VR. This seems to have been a happy time. The narrative follows Palmer and Brendan primarily. I would have enjoyed learning more about what Carmack was up to, as well as the manufacturing process, but the perspective of these two are still great. Oculus first achieved fame beyond the gaming or VR circles for an extremely successful kickstarter campaign. The blow-by-blow of the creation of that video, which is later recapitulated during a lawsuit, was really fascinating.

The last part of the book is the acquisition of Facebook, and after. There’s actually a few sub-narratives here: the neutering of Oculus’s competitor, Valve. The lawsuit with ZeniMax/Bethesda. And Palmer Luckey being fired for his political activities.

Console Wars concerned Nintendo’s rise to the top of the Console Market, and then her challenge by Sega. At Sega’s best she controlled half of the home console market. Oculus headed off that possibility early on. What Tim Kalinske (head of Sega America) was to Nintendo, Michael Abrash (head of Valve’s VR effort) was to Oculus — a formidable potential competitor. So three days after Facebook acquired Valve, Facebook hired Michael Abrash, and thus (for one man’s generous compensation package) ended a potential competitor.

Throughout the book the relationship between John Carmack and ZeniMax, the company that bought his previous company “id,” is a source of drama. ZeniMax has a poor reputation in the gaming community. The founder lost control of the company to the current CEO, who is a lawyer and not a developer by background. Unfortunately (for the source of drama) Facebook has both plenty of lawyers and plenty of money, so from a corporate perspective the lawsuit seems to have been more important for honor than practical effects.

A more serious change was what appears to have been political reprisals by Facebook against Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, for donating $10,000 to a Trump-associated campaign group in the 2016 election. Non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements for now keep us from knowing the full truth, but *The Wall Street Journal has a factual analysis of the situation. In case case it seems dangerous to be a conservative in a visible position at Facebook, and Palmer did not last long.

The History of the Future is an enjoyable and fast-paced read about a contemporary corporate history. It’s a worthy follow-up to Console Wars. I read The History of the Future in the Audible edition. An hour long interview with the author on Triangulation is also available.

Impressions of “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future,” by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

Impressions of “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future,” by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, says competition is for losers. Zero to One is an exploration of this goal applied to founding a start-up. It’s based on lectures given at Stanford University, which are available online. (Thiel’s co-author is a student who took notes during class, and seems to have prepared the manuscript.)

Zero to One reads like a combination of three books, Seth Godin’s Linchpin, Jim Collin’s Good to Great, and Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life, but applied at the company level. Lynchpin gave as career advice to do what is good at, passionate for, and can be get paid for. The goal is to become incomparable to other workers or professionals, so that one’s performance cannot be measured by exertion or time on task.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins urges doings this by finding a potential area to become the monopoly supplier of expertise in that is also enjoyable and profitable. Collins calls this the “hedgehog concept“, but this amounts to yoking a potential monopoly with an engine (enjoyment) to get there combined with a pay-off (a profitable market to be a monopoly in).

Thiel ads to this call a ‘greater’ scope — for Thiel the greatness is in the ability to form a company, for Peterson in 12 Rules For Life its in the ability to imitate the Logos. To Peterson “pulling yourself together,” having a more meaningful job, and so on are part of bringing order into chaos. Thiel includes several business guidelines, but I think more important is his view of creation, which mirrors Peterson’s (albeit with tech industry, and not cosmogonic, references):

“Every moment in business happens only once.

The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.

It’s easier to copy a model than to make something new: doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.”
Peter Thiel, 12 Rules for Life

Given the similarity in their writing, and their politics, and Thiel’s role as an early Facebook investor, Peterson’s visit to Zuckerberg now make more sense to me.

Zero to One is a quick read, and includes many interesting anecdotes about life in Silicon Valley, and some about Thiel’s earlier career as a lawyer. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in self-improvement, technology start-ups, or the higher meaning of business.

I read Zero to One in the audible edition.

Impressions of “Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution,” by Fred Vogelstein

Recently I read Dogfight, a history of the shone war between Apple and Google. It is the latest history in the corporate history of the phone market that I have read. Though it benefits from certain perspectives of insiders, its largely duplicative of other books of this era. Yet a short section is vital to understanding the entire era.

From The Victorian Internet to Crystal Fire, the rise of telephony revolutionized society and created the modern tech center of Silicon Valley. Generation after generation of companies, from Bell Labs-Lucent to Alcatel-Lucent and even Blackberry, fell in this arena. As did other firms and platforms that are now almost forgotten, such as Nokia/Windows Phone and Motorola.

Dogfight follows the iOS and Android fight between Apple and Google. The best history of Apple in this period is Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s famed biography, while Inside the Plex is an overview of Google – both written during the hottest part of the Apple-Google phone war. Each of those histories is more complete and provides more context for the actions during the era of the early iPhones and Androids than Dogfight. Unfortunately, much of Dogfight reads like a sportswriter’s play-by-play of a series, rather than the story of either the years dedicated to these projects or the corporate goals they represented.

Yet Dogfight does get one thing right: the importance of corporate politics in both goals. Despite different market positions (Apple was an incumbent) and different organizational structures (Google is organizational while Apple is functional) each company was hampered by internal politics. Apple’s hardware and software divisions fought for resources (such as who should manage the software engineers writing tests for hardware components) which ultimately culminated in the marketing disaster of “antenna-gate.” Google, for its part, was initially focused on porting its apps to a large number of smartphone platforms, and in the early years of Android the Google Apps team treated Google Android as a second-class platform.

I read Dogfight by Fred Vogelstein in the Audible edition.

Review of "iWoz" by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith

iWoz is the sort of book I would have loved ten years ago, and indeed it’s the sort of material that makes for a great radio interview. If written in 1995, it would have been one of my favorite books of all time. As it is, Stephan Wozniak’s autobiography is a fine partial history of the era that saw the rise of the personal computer. It belongs in the same class as High Noon (about Sun Microsystems) and The Second Coming of Steve Jobs (about the Next-Apple transition). A step below true classics like Fire in the Valley, iWoz is quite good.


How He Founded Apple, Invented the Personal Computer, and Had Fun Doing it (, And Afterwards)

iWoz is broken into several large parts. The first section focuses mostly on Wozniak’s electric-logic experience, from earlier science fair experiments to an arpanet terminal that would eventually morph into the Apple I. These include early pranks and feature elements of obsession, sacrifices, humility, and geography that I would find as the basis of creativity in my series on Coming Anarchy. Woz’s systematic exploration of electronic circuitry would finally come together in the Apple II, a product he is quite proud of and truly one of the grandest achievements of the 1980s.

A second, gloomer half documents Steve’s inability to horizontally apply these skills to other aspects of his life. Two marriages fail and after the second he writes painfully of losing his house. Likewise, with grace and modesty Wozniak documents betrayals by Steve Jobs and poor treatment to the news media. Similarly, Wozniak documents the failures of his US Concerts to be either what he intended or profitable, and likewise his shortlived CL9 start-up firm.

In an earlier review of Robert Weisberg’s Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, I criticized that author for his differentiating “horizontal” and “analogical” thinking. While Weisberg’s book retains many problems, this distinction is not one of them. While analogical thinking is the root of all creativity, horizontal thinking is worthless — expertise does not “translate” from one domain to another unless analogies help bridge those domains.

So all in all, iWoz is a very enjoyable book. It’s a fun guided tour of the early days of the Personal Computer, and has some valuable things to say along the way about the nature of creativity.