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Why did IBM fail at PCs?

If you ask why did IBM fail, I assume you mean why did IBM ultimately fail in the personal computer market. IBM is still in business, after all. But its exit from the PC market after 24 years, including a period of dominance in the 1980s, does seem curious. And it raises another question: What does IBM do now?

I experienced IBM’s fall in this market firsthand. I sold computers at retail in 1994 and 1995. IBM’s computers at that time were no worse than anyone else’s, but I had an extremely difficult time selling them. Many consumers didn’t trust IBM and didn’t want to get somehow locked in. There was nothing wrong with those machines, but it sure was a lot easier to just sell them a Compaq.

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How to keep Excel from dropping zeroes after the decimal point

At work part of my job is reporting security metrics along with my colleague, and sometimes we report things like the number of machines running a specific operating system. The problem we run into is that when it comes to operating system versions, OS X versions 10.1 and 10.10 are really not the same. We run into similar issues with versioning for other operating systems too, such as AIX.

To keep Excel from dropping those significant zeroes on your charts, highlight the column containing your version data and switch it from a numeric format to text format. Then switch to the tab that contains your chart, refresh the data, and your charts will show the zeroes properly.

Yes, we need to run vulnerability scans inside the firewall

I got an innocent question last week. We’d been scanning an AIX server with Nexpose, a vulnerability scanner made by Rapid7, and ran into some issues. The system owner then asked a question: The server is behind a firewall and has no direct connection to the Internet and no data itself, it’s just a front-end to two other servers. Is there any reason to scan a server like that?

In my sysadmin days, I asked a similar question. Nobody could give me an answer that was any better than “because reasons.” So I’ll answer the question and give the reasons.

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Release Watson, IBM. Now.

Remember Deep Blue? The computer that beat Gary Kasparov? It seems IBM’s next target might be a Jeopardy-playing computer.

Whether this computer can ever beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy is irrelevant. If it were commercialized, this thing could change everything overnight.The New York Times article goes into it. Here’s the thing. Being good at Jeopardy requires several skills, one of which is being able to retain and cross-reference information. Watson is amazing at that. Better than a human being, right now. Second is being able to understand questions. It might be better at understanding a tricky question than my two-year-old son, but not much. It’s better than any other computer I’ve seen.

When I played the demo hosted at the New York Times, I won, but it came down to the last question. Mostly it came down to the questions that included puns and, let’s face it, misuses and abuses of language.

But in the real world, we don’t ask questions like Alex Trabek does on Jeopardy. At least we don’t if we don’t want our colleagues to hit us with a broom. And in the real world, we don’t mind re-phrasing a question when we have to, if it gets us better answers.

The article in the Times cited a possible application. Feed Watson all available medical journals and textbooks. It could then dispense medical advice. But would a surgeon trust it when seconds count?

I think that’s the wrong question. In trial runs playing Jeopardy, Watson isn’t at its best when seconds count, which is why Ken Jennings will probably beat Watson every single time.

But imagine situations where there’s lots of available time. A patient is describing symptoms. Enter the symptoms into Watson. What does Watson think? But more importantly, why does Watson think that? Watson should spit out the opinion and the articles that led it to that conclusion. Let the doctor read the articles and come to a reasoned conclusion.

What about when seconds count? Run drills through Watson when seconds don’t count, so doctors can practice their imprecise science and get better. Don’t rely on the technology directly when seconds count–rely indirectly instead.

But doctors aren’t the only ones who can benefit from Watson. I once worked someplace that referenced every shred of data it had through a search engine called htdig. It was next to useless. It could give me a list of documents that contained words I was looking for, but had no way to rank them. It was marginally better than connecting to a file server and using FIND or FINDSTR or grep from a command line. Which was something that’s worked since at least 1990, possibly longer.

Today I work someplace that has a Google search appliance. It’s marginally better than htdig. But not much. When a complicated question comes across my desk, I still spend 8 hours digging through semi-relevant documents in search of an answer.

Watson provides a different approach. Ask Watson how far apart two computers have to be in order to avoid TEMPEST, by policy. Because of its ability to link related concepts, it would be able to spit out an answer, and an excerpt from each document that led it to believe that. A question that takes me hours to answer (unless I know it off the top of my head) takes minutes to answer instead.

Even when Watson is wrong, it’s still useful. It got that opinion from somewhere, right? Read those documents. It could be the problem is that the available documents contradict themselves. So Watson could expose holes in policy and/or technical documentation that nobody is aware of.

The problem with the Information Age is that humans now are burdened with information overload. There’s too much useless information out there. A technology like Watson offers the possibility of filtering through all the noise and showing us what’s relevant. And, used creatively, it could tell us what we know but forgot to write down anywhere.

At first the idea of a computer capable of making decisions and beating Ken Jennings at Jeopardy scared me. And it probably should. But that’s not what Watson is. It’s not good enough right now to do either of those things, and, frankly, I think morally we shouldn’t make a machine and put it in charge of making life-or-death decisions for us.

But it’s good enough to change the world right now. So I think it needs to be commercialized, however that looks. One of the problems is cost, since it requires $1 million worth of hardware to run on.

Offer it as a $10 million box for governments and huge companies to use to untangle their mess of documents. The U.S. government should be clamoring to feed all it knows about Pakistan, Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden into it, then ask where Osama bin Laden is, if only to see what answer it gives. It may not be able to answer that question, but I’ll bet it could answer lots of other important ones.

Feed the entire contents of The New York Times into it and charge a subscription to ask it questions. I’m sure Google could find a way to commercialize it by feeding the contents of Google Books into it.

For that matter, IBM could feed the documentation for all of its products into a standalone instance of Watson, and call it a technical support site. In reality it would just be the world’s foremost expert on AIX, DB2, Tivoli, Lotus Domino, and whatever else IBM owns these days. Why would I ever spec a competing product when I could ask IBM any question and get really good answers in seconds?

I hope IBM realizes what it has here. I really hope IBM realizes what it has. But I fear it may not.


That Mac problem again. I snuck up to that Mac server I was referring to earlier this week, you know, the one that was beyond my capability to fix? I continue to maintain that no Mac is beyond any experienced tech’s capability to fix (just like no PC is beyond an experienced tech’s ability to fix). However, a Mac is a high-maintenance machine. Normal, typical use of a Mac will cause numerous filesystem errors to build up over time. I’ve heard of people running the full battery of utilities suites once a week to keep their Macs happy. Once a month is probably adequate for most.

Anyway, on with the story. The whole department was out for a long lunch, which gave me an hour and a half. That’s long enough to run DiskWarrior and TechTool Pro (this machine has seven drives on it, and some of them are in excess of seven years old so it takes a while). They marveled that afternoon about how their problem had corrected itself. Can a PC do that?

Grrr…. Sure it can. Especially if a tech can get some time alone with it.

Ray, Ray, Ray… Why aren’t you running your site on Lotus Domino and Solaris or AIX? I try to connect to, and what do I get?

Error Occurred While Processing Request
Error Diagnostic Information
An error occurred while attempting to establish a connection to the service.

The most likely cause of this problem is that the service is not currently running. You can use the ‘Services’ Control Panel to verify that the service is running and to restart it if necessary.

Windows NT error number 2 occurred.

On the other hand, an up-and-down Web server is a very good indication that people want your product.

Now that I’ve seen some screenshots and read some more interviews to get into Ray Ozzie’s mind a little deeper, I’m starting to get Groove. This isn’t so much warmed-over Notes, I think, as it is instant messaging done right. It’s instant messaging. It’s file transfer. It’s got a sketchpad for drawing ideas for sharing. Of course there’s a Web browser window. It’s infinitely extensible (like Notes). And it’ll let you talk voice if you prefer.

I did finally manage to download it but I haven’t had a chance to install and play with it yet. But I can already think of ways I’d use it. I’d even collaborate with myself. Leave stuff I need frequently in my Groove space on my machines at work. So what if I’m in the wrong building, or worse yet, I’m at home? No problem, connect to myself and get it. (Don’t laugh; if you think instant messaging myself is bad, you’ll love the fact that I sometimes send packages to myself.) For people like me who are called upon to do three peoples’ jobs, this could be a Godsend. And once those other two people get hired, we can still use Groove to work together.

Bigger than Netscape 1.0? I think those predictors have gotten sucked into the Cult of Ray a little too deep. Is it a big deal? Oh yeah. Bigger than Notes? Probably.

As for multiplatform support… Groove opted to support, for now, the 85-90 percent of the market that runs Windows. In interviews, Ray Ozzie has said Linux and Mac OS X ports will appear. Seeing as three years ago, Linux looked poised to become a force in the server arena but not yet on the desktop and the classic Mac OS looked to be replaced any day with what became Mac OS X, it looks to me like the company made a practical decision to go with what they knew would be around and adjust course as needed. Notes eventually appeared on every major platform, which contributed to its success. I have no doubt Groove will probably follow. I’m certainly not going to hold it against him that the only version to have reached beta is Win32.