Technology Thoughts

The end of the era of complex machines ?

A week ago today I stood nearly ten miles away from the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis, on its way to the International Space Station. Despite the distance I “felt” the launch in a number of ways. Unless you have experienced a launch it’s hard to describe the physical impact of such power, shaking the ground, vibrating every molecule around you, imagine a continuous clap of thunder lasting for more than a minute is the closest way I can attempt to describe it.

But the launch also effected be emotionally, I felt the same way watching the last three Concordes landing back at Heathrow together when they were retired from service.

As a child growing up in the seventies I expected my adult life to involve jumping on and off supersonic aircraft, perhaps flying to a spaceport somewhere to fly into orbit, instead I got the 8:20 South West Trains Service to Waterloo.

Perhaps it was always science fiction, but as a boy growing up watching Thunderbirds and Tomorrows World, if you had told me that society would develop and then lose supersonic transport and that by 2011 NASA would no longer be able to put Americans into low earth orbit I would not have believed you.

My hypothesis to this rather sad state of affairs for a geek, is that we allowed ourselves to over engineer solutions producing an era of machines that are so complex that economically they are unsustainable.

For example to launch Atlantis required tens of thousands of people to work at facilities all across the United States for four months to service the shuttle following it’s previous mission. This means that each shuttle missions in pure operational expenses costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Concorde was also a “hanger queen” requiring far more maintenance than conventional airliners.

Both Concorde and the Shuttle will not be directly replaced, instead in many ways less capable and simpler systems have and will take their place.

In the field of geospatial technology will we see the same trend ? Complex highly engineered solutions replaced by less capable and simpler systems, there is some evidence to suggest that trend, on the other hand Arc/Info in it’s various forms is only a year younger than the space shuttle programme and looks like it will outlive it with ease…

Is Google to ESRI as Scaled Composites and SpaceX are to NASA? I’m not sure but the old guys can always learn new tricks, while for the new guys there is wisdom to appreciate.

Written and submitted from home (51.425N, 0.331W)

6 replies on “The end of the era of complex machines ?”

I don’t buy it. NASA is full of unfirable jobsworths and I have that from people I know within NASA. All that’s happening is moving from the government running ground to orbit to private companies, which will be be an order of magnitude more efficient. Undoubtedly killing the shuttle hasn’t meant any meaningful loss in capability, we probably just don’t know what the other capabilities are – witness the Boeing X-37 flight this month.

Concorde was just another government disaster, over budget and no buyers. I wouldn’t call a 777 ‘simpler’ than concorde. Slower, yes. But easily comparable in complexity. Incredibly evolved to sit in ‘coffin corner’ (see wikipedia) but still you have to fly one (well, a A330) through a tropical thunderstorm to make it drop out of the sky.

Is Google to ESRI as Scaled Composites and SpaceX are to NASA? No, Google is an advertising company throwing a lot of money at geospatial solutions at the bottom (and new) end of the market whilst throwing all the data they can in for free. All very laudable but still a piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle itself. You need things like geocommons, openstreetmap, GeoRSS and lots of others to piece together something sustainable.

And as you note, Jack isn’t stupid. The real question, and I’m not being pithy, is as Google arrays everyone against itself simply by letting all those cool 20% time projects rise faster and broader than it’s competitors can cope with – what will be the backlash? I’m genuinely astonished at the staged Google I/O attitude to Apple. Perhaps that direction was chosen months or years ago and this is just the fallout, but to do that in public is quite something. It’s now a very hard set of bets to make: I can’t say I’d want Jobs hell bent on destroying my company.

So if Google kills TA… who cares? But trying to kill Apple, Microsoft, ESRI… a battle worth worth watching!

I don’t think that the metaphor works. As much as I would like for SpaceX to do all the things NASA does I can say that they aren’t there yet (and won’t be for some time). I don’t think that Google is going to make a web based GIS (feel free to correct me if you know otherwise).

As for the complex machine angle the problem isn’t that there is something wrong with a complex machine- people need the machine that meets their needs. Excel is arguably a very complex machine but it is also a rather useful machine. The space shuttle was a compromised design determined as much by politics as by engineering (look up the history of segmented SRBs). If people can use Google APIs and meet their needs then fine. If they need a machine with more functionality then they will look elsewhere.

As for Google vs The World, I guess it will be interesting to see how it all works out. Of course if Google wins does that mean an immediate anti-trust suit?

I would choose to measure complexity by the potential of a machine to solve problems and configure itself. That would make the Shuttle relatively dumb next to the first DNA copy. That’s not to say I don’t miss the romance of machines as we enter an era of soup and boxes.

Oh you grumpy old men, overanalysing everything and missing the point. I do actually agree with Ed here. You don’t achieve greatness or awesomeness by being sensible. You need a cold war or something similar to make you throw all the in the world money at it. Concorde v2.0, fly to Mars… bring it on! Instead, we bail out the banks. FFS!

…Is Shape File to GML as Scaled Composites and SpaceX are to NASA? In terms of broad day to day usage levels, the simple formats have held onto their lead for a long long time and show no signs of letting go. But the complex formats do have their niches. I guess there are still F18s flying at supersonic speeds, they just don’t carry a lot of passengers…

I think the missing piece is complexity for the purpose of being more proprietary. Dale mentioned shapefiles, and ESRI tries everyday to stop people from using them. The marketing machine keeps pushing for .lyr packages and FGDB. Data formats that can only be opened by ESRI tools. Pushing “web services” which can only be published by ArcGIS servers. Take the recently launched – the only formats supported are those that can be used exclusively by ESRI tools. All formats created with as much complexity as possible, so they can’t be utilized by any other technology. Just try figuring out the byzantine format behind a .lyr package.

Why all this complexity 1) keep competitors out 2) keep GIS professionals that use their tools indispensable. A perfectly reasonable strategy for desktops but crippling for the Web. What allows Google to continually do well, too many folks chagrin, is their ability to see the Web as an ecosystem not a walled garden. This is where Steve is spot on. It is not Google’s simplicity vs. ESRI’s complexity, but the Web’s ecosystem vs. ESRI’s walled garden. Rinse and repeat with Apple and MSFT.

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