Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Follow Me Everywhere!

Here's a selection of my social media accounts. Feel free to follow me everywhere!

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

What Was eBay's Route To The Top?

[This article appeared in Forbes.com on 6/3/2014]

I was among the first 100 engineers hired by eBay and held a senior role on the Engineering team until December 2005.

eBay is one of the oldest Internet business, founded in 1995, one of the few which was profitable nearly every quarter since it formed, and one of a very select group of companies that survived the “Dot Com Bubble” in 2001.

eBay’s success is attributed to
(more on Quora)


Friday, March 14, 2014

Re: Chromebook belongs to computing's past, not its future

About the author

Jeff Nelson invented Google's ChromeOS operating system while working at Google in 2006.  Nelson is the author of two books and many magazine articles.  He has over 20 years experience building world class teams in the Internet industry.

Responding to Joe Wilcox's recent blog which often focuses on Chromebook, Joe Wilcox has written a book, 'Chromebook Matters'[http://www.amazon.com/Chromebook-Matters-Joe-Wilcox-ebook/dp/B00HLYTLM6] and several blog posts about Chromebook.

 "Twenty Fourteen isn’t Year of the Chromebook"[http://www.joewilcox.com/2014/01/10/twenty-fourteen-isnt-year-of-the-chromebook/]

 "Why Chromebook is good for students", [http://betanews.com/2014/02/24/why-chromebook-is-good-for-students/]

 "Chromebook belongs to computing's past, not its future"[http://betanews.com/2014/03/10/chromebook-belongs-to-computings-past-not-its-future/]

He raises a number of interesting points that I'd like to respond to.  However, rather than responding to many points in a water-ed down, rambling blog, I'm just going to respond to perhaps the most important point.

Wilcox writes, "Chromebook is an aberration, only made possible by Google’s sync smarts and supporting services platform."

I think you are focusing too much on the specific platform and not enough on the big picture.  The industry has been trending more heavily to a fully connected world and client-server architectures in which data lives on the server.  Further, regardless of whether you are using a smartphone, PC, Mac, or ChromeOS, a large portion of your data is actually residing off your device - on a remote server.  ChromeOS may be the most pure form of that client-server architecture, but I hope you will agree that the trend away from stand-alone architectures toward Internet architectures is only accelerating.

Wilcox goes on, "As voice and touch replace keyboards, devices like smartphones and phablets make more sense."  I don't like to draw hard lines based on hardware configurations.  The physical keyboard does not define what's a Chromebook and what's not a Chromebook, or whether or not the platform will be successful in the market in the long run.  Quite the contrary, you can add a physical keyboard to just about any device.  Visa versa, you can run ChromeOS without a keyboard.  In my view, the OS should be viewed as agnostic to the hardware configuration, particularly when such minor issues as whether or not a keyboard is included in the packaged product.

Arguably, the industry has already seen the market diverge into two or more sub-species of hardware configuration, based primarily on context of how they are being used.  Smartphones are for around town, because they are easily carried.  Tablets are for home-use, because they aren't easily carried.  Laptops and PCs are for 24/7 professionals who need the speed and ergonomics of a full-sized keyboard and monitor.

As for voice, I am entirely convinced, as someone who has tried to rely heavily on voice and has done some work in the voice recognition industry, voice is not suitable for replacing keyboards on a full-time basis.  If you think it might be, I'd encourage you to try it for a week, yourself.  I found after only a few hours, my throat was already noticeably irritated.  After about a week, my voice was starting to give out.  Speaking continuously for hours and days just places too much strain on vocal cords. Further, it's not necessarily faster than a skilled typist at data entry.  Is there a place for voice? Yes. Is it going to replace keyboards for professionals? Not a chance.

I can't say if the specific Chromebook product will be a marketing success in the long run. That is, in fact, entirely out of my hands since I no longer work for Google, but I am confident Chromebook's Internet reliant, client-server architecture is here to stay.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Opinion: DoD doing the wrong job, very well

[Note: Departing from my usual focus on past events in my career as an Internet professional, here's an opinion piece.]

Edward Snowden has been a lightning rod for controversy since July 2013, when he began disclosing what he considers Constitutional violations by various elements in the US Department of Defense, infringing on the rights of US citizens.  As a consequence, some consider Snowden a whistle-blower; others consider him a traitor.

Whatever your opinion of Snowden's actions, many of the revelations must be given careful consideration, because the practices of our government today tend to become the laws of tomorrow. We want our children to have the same freedoms that we enjoyed in the years of the past.  Government can only be held in check by an informed and involved electorate.
Reading over the disclosures, a few points jump out at me.

First, the disclosures have supported the inevitable conclusion that our rights to privacy and unreasonable search under the US Constitution have drastically eroded over the last 12 years. The disclosures reveal a pattern of surveillance of all US citizens, including logging our phone calls, text messages, social media, internet activity, porn viewing habits[0], and even conducting close surveillance, not just of suspects without a warrant or probable cause, but also of their entire social group to the 3rd degree.  If you have a friend of a friend who has a Muslim friend, you have probably been under close surveillance by the US government at some time in the past 12 years.

This is against a backdrop of many other erosions of those same rights under the US Constitution protecting us against unreasonable search.  Until this year, the "Stop and Frisk" policy of the NYPD allowed any person to be searched at any time on the streets of  NYC without probable cause[1].  Federally mandated vehicle GPS tracking systems are now being installed in cars, and many court cases have supported that law enforcement agencies can access this data "at will" and without probable cause[2].  Between 2001 and 2012, the FBI attached physical tracking devices to cars, again without probable cause or a warrant.  The FBI deemed the practice of attaching such a device not intrusive enough to be considered a search.  The Supreme Court disagreed in 2012 case, U.S. v Jones[3].  Some of these practices are eventually overturned as in the NYPD and FBI cases, but not before many years of infringing on the rights of thousands, if not millions, of law-abiding US citizens.  It's difficult to avoid comparison to J Edgar Hoover's FBI, which employed an equally powerful, though human-driven surveillance machine to vacuum up data on any persons deemed by Hoover to be not loyal Americans.  Under Hoover, we now know the FBI used that data, not only for well intentioned evidence-gathering of potential suspects, but for purposes that can only be described as blackmail and extortion[4].

Second, while many laypersons are surprised by the extent and power of the DoD's surveillance system, I suspect many academic security researchers (outside the DoD) are surprised for entirely different reasons.  The academic research community has long suspected that the DoD operated an almost super-human surveillance network, capable of monitoring everything, decrypting everything, and storing everything. To  academic researchers, the DoD has historically taken on an almost mythical, god-like power.  The disclosures actually point to a much more human infrastructure, with significant weaknesses in their data gathering capabilities, and a very human, bureaucratic processes, not usually seen outside of a DMV.  The apparent lack of sophistication in the intelligence gathering apparatus points to an organization which is more analogous to teenage hackers, so-called "script kiddies".  Have we taxpayers funded a multi-hundred billion dollar group of "script kiddies"?

Most surprising to me, though, is the entire focus on exploitation and data gathering.  While they appear very good at what they do, according to the Snowden disclosures, the agency is entirely focused on vacuuming up and archiving data, without regard to the implication that the same practices they are using, could also be used against the United States and against US interests.  The same exploits and hacks that the DoD is abusing nationally and internationally can equally well be employed by foreign adversaries against the DoD, US companies, and US citizens. Yet, the Department of DEFENSE has done little or nothing to defend the nation. This is like a man who openly steals from his neighbors while leaving his own front door, unlocked. Or, in this case, a multi-hundred-billion dollar organization that robs its neighbors while leaving its own front door, unlocked.

The world has experienced, what I consider to be, an unprecedented period of peace for the last 70 years. To be sure, there have been bloody civil wars and proxy wars, but nothing on the scale of the frequent, bloody regional wars that have occurred regularly, throughout human history.

But peace can not last.  At some point, there will be another war.  One of the new battlefronts must be the cyber battlefield.  The opening shots of that cyber war will not be heard, instead the electricity may go out and not come back on.  Vehicles may not start.  Cell, Internet, television, banking, and payment services may all go down throughout the US. 

Who will be there to protect us when that day comes?

Some might say, "Well, that's the job of anti-virus programs and private industry, not the Department of Defense!"  Is it?  Are we trusting the outcome of some future cyber war to Microsoft or Norton Anti-virus?  Or even Kaspersky (a Moscow based company)?  If Microsoft is our only champion in the next war, we are going to lose that war.

When that day comes, as it inevitably must, we can rest assured (in the darkness, with our dead cellphones, internet, and televisions) that we tax payers funded several hundred billion dollars to create a vast Department of Defense organization which has a very thorough record of our porn and phone calls.  But did little or nothing to protect the United States.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Google's latest Chrome OS moves

Google has announced a renewed focus on the Chrome OS operating system.  Many of my readers know that I invented the Chrome OS webtop back in 2006 while working at Google, so I thought I'd answer some questions that people have asked on the web about the first version we built at Google.

Who else contributed early to the Chrome OS project?

It's impossible for me to overstate the importance of the Google Apps team, particularly the Google Docs project.  If it had not been that Google had already completed a huge number of webapps to replace the functionality of a consumer operation system by July 2006, a consumer operating system based on web apps could not have been written.

SVP Jeff Huber provided the initial Executive level support for the project.

The Chrome Team also played a key role later in 2007.  Mike Jazayeri, Director of Chrome and Apps, assisted more than any other single person.  He was heavily involved in organizing and pushing through the project with the Executive Team at Google.  He ran the meetings with Larry Page and the other executives, as well as the meetings with external partners like HP and Asus.

Other members of the Chrome Team did the core work of porting Chrome to Linux and helped me get it running. 

Hundreds of other Google engineers provided testing and feedback for the operating system.

What are your thoughts on Google latest announcement regarding improving Chrome OS' offline capabilities and positioning it as a full fledge operating system?

I always thought the Chrome OS operating system could be marketed as a competitor to Microsoft.  Much of the original reception, back in 2009, was that Chromebook was just a toy for occasionally browsing the web.  I never thought of it that way.

When I came up with the invention, I used it myself every day as my main computer while I was working at Google.  I believe the business buzz word for that is "dogfooding". In my opinion, you should always, always dogfood your product, otherwise its difficult to understand your customers and their needs.

How do you square that with consumers who are used to Windows?

Consumers are used to this OS architecture where you have files and applications, and you carry all your files around with you on a hard disk, and a PC is a CPU, a hard disk, a Wifi, etc.  But there's really no reason it has to remain that way or even that those expectations are the best way to interact with a computer.  That's just what people are used to.

Microsoft, I certainly feel, has stagnated to a huge degree.  Their operating system hasn't significantly changed in the last 20 or so years.  That's unheard of in the PC industry.  You don't have software business that have products that remain identical and unchanging for decades.  If you don't innovate in software, you tend to go out of business, very quickly.

Some people have questioned the RAM-based architecture of the original Chrome OS product you came up with in 2006?

The original version was based on a Linux kernel called PuppyLinux, which I loved, and still love for that matter.  Puppy is an operating system designed from the ground up to boot entirely into RAM, so it was very, very fast.  It was the perfect starting point for a lightweight web-based operating system, when you have the expectations that you aren't going to have applications and data sitting on the same computer. Again, once you get over the hurdle of teaching consumers that their files aren't sitting on the same computer, it becomes kind of natural to expect the OS itself can just boot to RAM.

The main reason is simply speed.  When you look at the BUS architutecture of something like the Samsung Chromebook, its running on an MMC bus plugged into an SSD.  Well, the MMC bus is only 30 Meg/sec, that's crazy slow.  Why would you ever plug an SSD into such a slow BUS?  I opted for a RAM bus architecture instead, because the RAM BUS is generally going to be in the 1000 Gigabit range, thousands of times faster than MMC.  That was a very easy decision.

Your blog mentions HP and ASUS were in talks with Google prior to their webtop product launches in 2008?

Google had some informal talks with HP and Asus about partnering on Chrome OS back in 2007. We demoed the operating system for the companies and showed them a bunch of screenshots and product roadmaps.

I don't have access to any sources inside HP or Asus to get the full details, but it appears from the outside that when the partnership talks with Google broke down in 2008, HP and Asus decided to go their own direction and launched their own webtop offerings without Google.  As of 2013, though, Asus and HP are back as Chrome OS partners.

Why do you think the originally HP and Asus offerings were not more successful as compared to Chrome OS?

Good question. You'd have to do a market study to find out the exact answer to that, regarding how individual customers made their buying decisions.

From a technical and marketing perspective, Google was smart to launch it as an open source operating system, positioned as a cheap, secure, easily administrated alternative to Windows.  I think that message resonated with many businesses and consumers.

So you invented the webtop, not just Chrome OS?

I would offer a qualified yes.  I described the invention process and the work I was doing back in 2006 and 2007 at Google in my first blog post here.  All the products that were launched in 2008 and 2009, by Google, HP and Asus, can all be traced back to my work and the meetings between Google and potential hardware partners that took place in 2007.

However, that is a qualified yes, because the term 'webtop' has become so overloaded - it has many different definitions and has been used to describe many entirely different products.  Motorola even has a smartphone docking station that they call the 'Webtop'.  SCO (a Linux company) originally coined the term 'webtop' to describe a browser plugin.

I invented the idea that you could write an entire fully functional operating system entirely with browser components and web services.  To the extent that is definition of 'webtop' you are referring to, then yes, absolutely.

Did Google pay you a bonus for inventing Chrome OS and filing the patent? 

Google paid me a small bonus, a few weeks before they publicly announced Chrome OS in 2009.  I had not been an employee in well over a year.

Why did you leave Google?

I tend to make decisions like that for many reasons - not just any one single reason.

I suppose one of the issues was that I personally failed to get as much traction with Google management on the Chrome OS project as I felt the project deserved.  We had full-time head count slotted for the project.  We even had some backing from several executives and had demo-ed in front of Larry Page, but I personally still had other responsibilities. (I was programming web services for the Google Apps team, at that time.)  I repeatedly asked to transfer to the project that I had founded, instead.  At some point, it all came to a head, and I found myself walking out the door.

There were other reasons, but I think that if I had received more direct support from Google management at that time, I probably would not have left.
I see on your web site that you also worked at eBay.  What was your favorite company to work for, Google or eBay?

Well, I've worked for many companies, not just Google and eBay.  I was just recalling this the other day, I got my first IT job doing data entry as a temp working for a bank, Arizona Federal Credit Union.  That was 27 years ago.  Yikes.

It's a difficult question to answer, you know.  Each company is different, each culture is different. 

I remember this one tiny company called Shockmarket.  When I was hired, everyone else in the company had PhDs, except for me.  (I dropped out of my PhD program to pursue my first Internet startup back in 1995.) That was a fun company, because we were all super-motivated to make a big hit during the Internet gold rush.  We had people pulling all-nighters on a regular basis, which was cool, because you'd come up with a product idea in the afternoon - and by the next morning, you had a product ready for market.  Someone stayed up all night to write it and make it happen. Good times.

Google was also good in many respects of course.  Google gave me a long leash to experiment and do my own innovation, so in that sense I'd have to say Google.  Google has been able to hire some really outstanding people, also.  It's always nice as an engineer to be working with people who are great at their job and always exceeding expectations. 

We had some great people at eBay, also.  Many people don't know this, but eBay ramped up their hiring just as many Internet startups were failing back in 2001, so we really could pick from the cream of the crop.  We were able to get some real rockstar engineers, who have all gone on to do great things either still at eBay or at their own companies.

Any more questions?  Post them in comments and I'll respond as time permits.


Chrome OS: A Timeline

I just wanted to note down some dates relevant to my invention of Chrome OS.  You can refer to the original Chrome OS patent on the USPTO site.

July 2006.  Initial prototype of Chrome OS created based on PuppyLinux kernel.  Demo for coworkers and immediate management.

May 2007.  Published first version of Chrome OS to a internal Google company wide mailing list.

June 2007.  Executive management approves head count for project.

August 2007.  Informal talks begin with hardware vendors Asus and HP to partner with Google on a webtop operating system.

January 2008.  Jeff Nelson departs Google for other opportunities.  Talks stall between Google and hardware partners, Asus and HP.

September 2008.  HP and Asus announce plans to move forward (without Google) on their own webtop products.

March 2009.  Google files patent on webtops listing Jeff Nelson as inventor.

September 2009. Google announces plan to launch Chrome OS as open source project.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Invention Controversey

My previous blog post has caused some confusion among people who didn't work with me on the "Google OS" project back in 2007.  Here is a brief response:

I am not surprised some people are calling this claim into doubt since its was work done back in 2006 and 2007.  It sounds like many of these questions are being raised by people outside of Google or individuals who joined the project after 2007.  

First, let me reassure you that while I was not able to walk out of Google with my email history or design documents, Google sent me long correspondence about the Chrome OS patent after I left Google.  I do not believe this correspondence is covered by any NDA, since it was sent to me after I left Google, and I have retained all of that correspondence. 

I published the work called "Google OS" on a company wide email list in April May 2007, with subject line "Google OS" "Guppy needs testers", and received hundreds of positive comments from other engineers at that time.  I also held a tech talk on "Google OS" in May 2007.  Anyone at the company in April May 2007 will likely retain a copy of the original "Google OS" email, search for subject line "Google OS" "Guppy needs testers" in April May 2007.

The operating system that I invented, as described in the  April May  007 email on a company wide email list, was a webapp-centric chopped-down Linux with a Chrome browser front-end.  The operating system had almost no applications installed on it, instead all of the functionality came from webapps;  performing any operation on the desktop launched a Chrome window to one of many webapps.  The original  April May  007 version of the operating system that was published on a company wide email list was substantially identical to the publicly released Chromebook product, as was the writeup in the original 2007 email.

Further, back in 2007, I had meetings with Jeff Huber (VP of Google's consumer products group), Larry Page (now CEO), several other directors and managers, and even presented a techtalk - all of these meetings on Chrome OS project. By the end of 2007, I was working with a product manager, and together we were able to convince management to launch the Chrome OS project and assign head count to the project by the end of 2007.  In August 2007, my product manager and I even met with an external hardware vendor to have exploratory talks regarding their interest in distribution a Chrome OS laptop. 

All of this is verifiable both from the email record, such as the  April May 2007 "Google OS" email to a company wide mailing list, and also by those who met with me on Chrome OS in 2007, including Larry Page himself.  Further, I retain the hard copies of the correspondence with Google that was sent to me after I left the company on the subject as well, which I don't believe is covered by any sort of NDA.

I hope this clears up some of the controversy.  Again, I am not surprised that many of you who either worked on Chromebook or joined Google after 2007 have never heard of me.  Once I left Google, there would have been no reason to continuously bring up my name as the original inventor, and I have chosen not to come forward until the patent was finalized and published.  I apologize to those of you who may have been confused by this.

So to summarize:
1. I wrote the original Chrome OS and published it on a company wide email list in  April May 2007.
2. I wrote the patent in 2007, which is now accepted and published by the USPTO as of August 2012 and shows my name as inventor.
3. I convinced management to launch and assign head count to the original Chrome OS project by the end of 2007.