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Technologists and clean slates

April 16, 2009

What is it with technologists and the desire to start from scratch? I spent the last few days at the annual Stanford Affiliates meeting. While a number of the talks were quite interesting (John Ousterhout’s Fiz looked the most intriguing), I have to confess that the workshop on Tuesday (themed around the Programmable Open Mobile Internet, although I didn’t find the day focused that much on mobile) set my teeth on edge.  Why?  It was led by the Stanford Clean Slate project folks.

The Stanford Clean Slate project has the premise, “Let’s look at how we should design the Internet if we could start from scratch.” While that’s an interesting intellectual exercise, I also regard it as a waste of my taxpayer dollars.  Yes, great, if you had to build it over again you could make it better.  Guess what?  You can’t build it over again.  The IPv6 folks have been trying to deploy it for over a decade now (when I was in grad school in the 90s IPv6 was “just a few years away”, and it’s stayed that way ever since), and yet you’re convinced you can get people to give up on the current Internet and start over?  Yeah, good luck with that.

And it wasn’t just the academics; some of the industry speakers were just as guilty.  One of my favorites was the speaker who argued that we should start UI design over again and this time just all agree to use the social graph as the fundamental primitive.  That fails on two counts: it assumes you can start UI design over again and that you can get computer scientists to agree (the latter being even more improbable than the former).

I have a new phrase for technologists to learn: “the inertia of deployed systems”.  Once you have million (and billions) of people using your technology, you can’t just start all over again. It’s great you think you have a better way of doing it.  No one cares unless you also have a great story of how to get there from here.

From → Musings, Research

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