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Electronic Commerce Guide: The Cold War Bits -- Part II

May 28, 2000, 18:19 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Don Sussis)

By Don Sussis, Electronic Commerce Guide

Security is another issue where open source handily beats closed systems. Since thousand of developers have access to the Linux source code, it can be reasonably assumed that the level and amount of information collected and disbursed to "third parties" will be limited at the OS level. In closed systems, how do you know what is being sent back? You really don't.

Incidentally, the source code for Sun Microsystem's Solaris OS is published on a "read only basis." It cannot be modified. This leaves it inside the closed system box because developers cannot readily "enhance, modify and contribute to changes."

This brings me to Interval Research. On Good Friday, 2000, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen announced that he was closing Interval Research, his private institute for "genius innovations." Interval opened its doors nearly ten years ago and has burned more than $100 million dollars. No tangible products were ever produced. John Markoff, writing in the New York Times put it this way: "An ambitious Silicon Valley effort to create computer industry breakthroughs ended in failure today... Interval's inability to publicly demonstrate technology breakthroughs has been an issue that has plagued the research center in recent years."

The model for Interval was Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (P.A.R.C.), where innovations, such as the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and the mouse (rather than complex typed text commands) were first invented. P.AR.C. flourished because it was an open system where creative minds collaborated to achieve greatness. On the other hand, Interval had a culture of secrecy and, almost, paranoia. According to Markoff, "Interval Research was known in the Valley for its obsession with secrecy, and analysts said that it worked against the research group." Paul Saffo, head of the Institute for the Future said, "They were done in by secrecy which isolated them." A classic case of a Cold War, Closed Systems approach. Not too unlike Microsoft, the open source for Mr. Allen's money and the obvious model for closed project development.

What is so remarkable about this is that, in a way, Interval was set up as an "incubator." A precursor to CMGI, ICGE and IdeaLab!. Interval was created just before the Internet went commercial and tech millionaires supplanted movies stars on the covers of national magazines and newspapers.

I saw Interval up close and personal -- well, almost. In 1995 I enrolled in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, a two-year, full time effort to understand and explore the possibilities of human-computer interaction. One of the hottest courses was "Interval." Each term a select group of individuals competed against one another for the privilege of bringing a project to Interval in sunny Palo Alto, CA. Winning this competition was a very high honor. Ambitious students constructed battle plans just to gain admittance to the class. Students auditioned; they submitted bios and plans; they conspired with faculty, fellow students and staff to "be put on the list." Frankly, the course frightened me. But, then, I was twice the average age of almost every student in the department. I had already run several significant companies, completed two Ph.D. programs, and had spent nearly seven years on the faculty of the City University of New York -- including four years as the Director of Multi-Media Development.

Doing what it took to get admitted to and ultimately taking the Interval class seemed like hazing to me. I was always amazed at the deportment of students who went through "Interval". Each class was broken up into five or six teams, each of which had five or six members. Once these work groups were established, they were indestructible--you were in them until "the end." This was frustrating in itself.

In addition, teams were in competition with each other and they were forbidden to discuss their projects with members of any other group. This not only created a fierce rivalry, but it cut off helpful insight and exchanges that class members might have had with one another. Off course, they could discuss administrative details, such as scheduling.

Another "rule" was that members of the Interval class couldn't discuss their projects with other students in the larger Interactive Telecommunications Program. This further separated them from everyone else as well as eliminated valuable sharing, collaboration, feedback and interaction. I often was incredulous about this approach because it seemed so contrary to everything that I knew about learning. It was a classic Closed System, Cold War approach. People won awards for their work just like Soviet era Generals won medals for their uniforms.

Fast forward to the present.

At the same time that Interval Research was being closed by its founder, United States Federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft was a monopoly and that a break-up of the company would be considered as a remedy.

Within this context, things made a little more sense. Interval was a manifestation of the secretive, closed systems approach taken by Microsoft. The company's defiance in the light of the court's "findings of fact" showed how badly closed systems eventually perform-just like the old Soviet Union and the countries they controlled as part of the Eastern Bloc. Secrecy did them in, too.

Yes, they were prosperous at first-and mighty.

But the outcome can be seen in the eventual poverty of the East compared to the richness of the West (not just in terms of money but in terms of better physical health and quality of life). So, just as the Berlin Wall came down, so too will companies (like Microsoft) that champion closed systems. That's why I favor Linux. Besides all this theory, hasn't the Internet demonstrated that open systems work best because they are the freest to grow?

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