Archive for October, 1995

3D APIs: They’re Not Just Software – They’re An Attitude

Tuesday, October 24th, 1995

(This column first appeared in the October 24, 1995 issue of PC Graphics Report)

In researching some of the material for each PC Graphics Report, in particular the growing breed of 3-D software, I’ve been discovering that most mainstream application and  utility companies still feel that a homebrew 3-D rendering library is preferable to commercially available ones.

One particularly poignant quote I received was from Mark Walton at 3D/EYE, when I asked him what their new package, TriSpectives (see FYI item a few pages back) uses for  rendering: “We use our own renderer called SmartRender. The issue with the commercially available engines is one of image quality — they’re so tuned towards games that they use ‘shortcuts’ to keep performance up. The exception is OpenGL which requires hardware acceleration for any interactivity at all and is not currently supported on Windows 95.”

Further, according to Mark, “SmartRender provides the best of both worlds by dynamically managing the balance between image quality and interactivity – it senses a rapid motion and automatically drops the image quality to keep the image interactive. Then it uses multiple threads to increase quality in the background. It has many other  advantages: selective ray tracing (it only ray traces reflective and refractive objects so it’s really fast); it has fast soft shadows; pixel shading and anti-aliasing are also really fast. We wanted to provide true WYSIWYG for 3D — that means you always work on the high quality image as opposed to seeing it in a ‘preview’ window like most 3DR,  Renderware implementations (we liken it to Word for Windows as opposed to WordPerfect 5 with that preview window).”

Mark closed by stating that SmartRender notwithstanding, his company was committed to supporting “true standards” as they appear, assuming they provide a superior solution.

Now, we can certainly see his point – the 3-D API market, for all that it has a large number of competitors offering a wide range of features, is still a rather immature market. Part of the immaturity is related to a nasty Catch-22 cycle. There’s a lack of real 3-D API standardization because not enough software uses available 3-D APIs, and not enough software uses 3-D APIs because of a lack of real 3-D API standardization.

It doesn’t help that the only real free 3-D API standard, OpenGL, is painful to use (both from developers’ and users’ perspectives), and gives people the wrong impression about what’s really possible on a PC with minimal hardware assistance (“OpenGL” currently gets translated “slow unless you spend lots of money on expensive graphics hardware”). It also doesn’t help that the other purportedly free 3-D API, RealityLab, still hasn’t shipped even a Beta since Microsoft took it over.

On top of that, while the other players in the 3-D API market have working and shipping product, they seem to have a varying commitment to providing the best possible throughput. Case in point: Intel and its much unpublicized 3DR. Intel will not be shipping a DDK for 3DR, focusing instead on using whatever APIs Microsoft releases, such as  DCI, DirectDraw, and Direct3D, which means that applications will ultimately have to deal with throughput limited by whatever Direct3D finally becomes when it’s released. At least one of the other API vendors has been making similar noises.

Speaking of Intel and 3DR, I finally managed to track down an official response on the future of 3DR. In the last month, Intel’s Architecture Labs (IAL) shipped their quarterly CD-ROM, containing 3DR v2.1. Intel remains strongly committed to 3DR, and in fact has open hiring reqs for that group. They also have an interesting Web page (see http://www.intel.com), where updates will be posted as they become available. Currently, 3DR sits on top of DCI under Windows 3.1, and uses WinG equivalents under Windows 95 and Windows NT. Once DCI, DirectDraw, and/or Direct3D are available, Intel will update 3DR to support those interfaces for better performance. With 3DR (and possibly other APIs) ultimately slated to sit on top of 3DR, the relative benefit of using these APIs over RealityLab, which is supposedly a superset of Direct3D, becomes questionable. Of course, a hardware abstraction layer unification is a boon to hardware developers, as it means that they need to spend less since they don’t need to support a multitude of display driver interfaces.

So, what does this all mean? Basically, don’t hold your breath for a plethora of mainstream 3-D hardware acceleration enabled PC software applications and utilities. Perhaps once RealityLab formally ships this will change, but not likely before then.

And Now For Something Completely Different…
A couple of weeks ago, in my quest for interesting news tidbits, I stumbled across an item from Japan. Sega has apparently unveiled a Web Browser add-on for Sega game consoles that allows users to access the World Wide Web, and will be available early next year, retailing for less than 30,000 yen (around $300).

My personal belief is that distributed computing is the future (see my column about software licensing from the summer), and I find something like Sega’s $300 add-on (for a total system cost of around $450-600) really exciting, and scary, both at the same time.

It’s exciting because it put the Internet into hands of every consumer, and makes it THE new communications medium of the decade (plus it forces people into greater literacy, among other things). Also, this type of product could force rapid price decreases in comparable PC technology, making PCs more affordable for the masses.

The whole situation is also scary for the same reasons. Sharply decreased PC prices (and margins) can have a devastating effect on the entire market, and in terms of the masses being on-line, I predict sheer written chaos on the Net.

Nonetheless, I think it’s great that the requirements for a given type of system CPU become less important, and having portable software gains in significance. Adding Sun’s Java specification, which allows for portable Internet applications to be downloaded and executed on people’s systems, you end up with true application portability. Then, instead of only marketing to 50 million users, software companies can conceivably market their products to billions. Staggering.

Taking Issue With Bugs In Software

Tuesday, October 24th, 1995

(This column first appeared in the October 24, 1995 issue of PC Graphics Report)

Among the many hats I still wear, even after departing Panacea, is the one of Chairman of the New Hampshire Software President’s Forum, a monthly dinner gathering of software company CEOs, COOs, and me (now that I’m not either). During a recent meeting, the issue of liability insurance for software companies came up, and the universal attitude among all attendees was “don’t bother with it because everyone (unfortunately) is used to buggy software, and no one would waste their time suing a company because  of typical bugs.” The last time someone tried to sue a software company for bugs, according to our collective recollection, was when a construction company in Florida took Lotus Development Corp. to court because a number in a spreadsheet didn’t come out right. The case was later dropped, without a settlement.

Well, our attitude was just proven wrong. According to Newsbytes, an on-line news feed with international computing news, a Pennsylvania man, Jeffrey Fishbein, is now suing Corel Corp. for problems he claims to have had with their landmark package, CorelDraw. And, to make matters worse, a Philadelphia law firm is trying to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit. Of course, as would be expected, Corel denies the claims, and calls the action “ambulance chasing”.

Mr. Fishbein first filed the suit this past June, and has recently expanded the scope of the suit to cover the new CorelDraw 6.0. The suit claims that CorelDraw 4 and 5 were not properly tested before they were released to the public, and were therefore released in a defective condition, were unmerchantable and unable to pass as suitable in the trade, and failed to load or execute properly.

An amazingly broad claim, especially when you pause to consider that millions of copies of CorelDraw of both versions have been sold, and the products have won around 200 awards from magazines. This certainly doesn’t pass as unmerchantable in my dictionary, and while I have personally had problems with CorelDraw 5 loading, a call to their technical support quickly set me straight (I neglected to read the installation directions thoroughly – imagine that).

A Corel spokesperson has indicated that the company has been told that some of its customers have been approached by the Philadelphia law firm representing Mr. Fishbein to join in the case. The spokesperson also said the law firm is “mounting a pretty aggressive campaign on-line” to recruit further plaintiffs. While buggy application software is a pain in the butt to deal with, it’s an accepted part of a computer user’s life. This is not necessarily a good thing. It smacks of complacency on both the parts of users and developers.

As a former software developer, I can attest to the fact that no amount of testing will ever make software truly bug free. A developer may be completely confident that no really serious bugs exist, but then something will be done in a weird sequence and things break. For all of you who have your own software development groups, I’m sure you’ve gone through this as well.

However, there are now several movements under way to make software developers more responsible for the problems in their software. The lawsuit by Mr. Fishbein is an extreme, to be sure, but a large number of InfoWorld readers have been pounding the InfoWorld Gripe-Line with suggestions on how to make software developers more accountable for their products. Among the most popular is the idea of requiring software companies, under the UCC (the Uniform Commerce Code), to maintain and publish a list of known bugs in the software, to accompany the software. While some people may equate this to waving one’s dirty laundry out in the open for all to see, it would be a useful exercise for many who hit the same bugs as already documented.

Albeit, the proposition is also a scary one for neophytes, and it makes a great weapon for competitors (assuming their software is clean). Some may argue, of course, that one person’s bugs are another person’s features, but that attitude can only be taken so far.

To put this into context for a majority of PCGR readers, imagine putting your most current driver bugs on-line for the world to see. After all, drivers are software too. With lawsuits like the one launched against Corel, this may be the only way to preempt such attacks – the software equivalent of the pharmaceutical industry’s warnings and disclaimers. I imagine the one for Windows 95 would kill several trees if printed out. Of course, the other options is to ship bug free software…

Starting Over

Sunday, October 1st, 1995

(First published in the CAD++ Newsletter in late 1995)

A curious thing happened to me while I was on my way to write my next Garage Entrepreneur column… I suddenly gained the freedom to start a new career.

As some of you may recall, the company I started back in 1988 was acquired by another company earlier this year. (I’m leaving company names out of this column to save everyone on my end some grief.) As time went on, it became apparent that there were increasingly greater philosophical differences between myself and the new management on how to manage the company. Well, after a couple months of wrangling, we came to a mutual agreement, part of which involved my leaving the employment of both the company I had founded, and the new parent company, and becoming a short-term consultant to them to help smoothly transition things over.

Freedom is a Mixed Blessing
Now, after over 7 years of building a company, and being involved in day to day corporate operations, managing around a dozen employees, I’m a free man. It’s kind of a weird feeling – a little sad, like something’s missing, and a little happy because countless opportunities await.

For years I’ve been giving out free advice on being entrepreneurial, and now I have a chance to take new advantage of my own advice, and start a new entrepreneurial venture. I should point out that I’ve chosen the route of entrepreneurialism instead of looking for a “real job” because one thing has become eminently clear to me in the last few months: I make a lousy employee. I need to be my own boss, and control my own destiny.

The Garage Entrepreneur Revisited
Most of my previous columns have assumed that readers have already started their own businesses, either on a full time or part time basis. My recent emancipation makes it clear to me that many of you may not have taken the big step yet, and so, the next few columns I write will try to cover the basics of starting a business from scratch, much as I and my wife are doing now, again.

For those of you who already have businesses established, some of what I’ll be writing about may be old news, but I’m willing to bet that I will bring up new aspects of old things you never considered (or knew about), so stay tuned.

Why Start A Business?
There are several possible reasons that someone might want to start a new business. Here are the ones I’ve seen:

Opportunity. They think they see or have a great new opportunity and want to pursue it.

Self-Management. They don’t like working at someone else’s beck and call, and think that running their own business will give them the freedom to do what they want, when they want.

Emancipation. They have lost their job for one reason or another, possibly having quite a nice severance package, and think “What the heck, let’s try something new.”

Pride. They want to prove to a particular person or group of people that they can be successful on their own.

Naivete. “If he/she/it can create a successful business, how hard can it be?”

Wealth. They think that it’s a great way to get rich quickly.

Adventure. They are sick of doing what they are currently doing, and want to try something new.

As you should be able to tell, some of these reasons imply that the person doing the reasoning may not quite grasp reality. However, most entrepreneurs I know usually combine a few of the reasons above to give them their drive and determination to succeed.

For example, when I started my previous company, Opportunity, Self-Management, Pride, and Wealth were my basis for venturing forth on my own. I thought I saw a great market opportunity (consulting/programming for high end PC graphics boards). The market existed, but after about 9 months, I realized that I wasn’t going to achieve Wealth by just consulting, and hence we (I had hired someone by then) determined that we’d need products to sell to make more money on a regular basis. Self-management and pride provided determination, but would have been useless without Opportunity.

Self-Management soon proved to be a misnomer. I worked longer, harder hours, with less freedom from responsibility, in the company I had started than I had as an employee. So, keep in mind, unless properly executed (virtually impossible unless you can afford not to spend all your free time working), Self-Management is a trap.

For my new company, Emancipation is the dominant one (I don’t have a job anymore), with Self-Management being a driving force behind it (I don’t want to be employed by anyone, and I can afford to take it a little easy, so it’s not a trap, I hope). In my particular case, I’m fortunate, in that I have time to try to figure out what my Opportunity is, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone normally go out and start a new business without some Opportunity being present.

Next Month
That’s about all the space I have this month. Next month, I’ll cover the necessary traits an individual must have to survive as an entrepreneur, as well as safe ways to start a business without a whole lot of risk or exposure.

New Hampshire, the Software State

Sunday, October 1st, 1995

(This column first appeared in the New Hampshire Business Review during the Fall, 1995)

One day, New Hampshire could truly become the Software State, providing we realize both the importance of software to our state’s economy and how we can capitalize on software industry growth here in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire started its business existence as a manufacturing state, and the mill buildings in Manchester and Nashua provide a constant reminder of this. However, in recent years, traditional manufacturing in New Hampshire has seen a drastic downturn. This could perhaps be attributed to a number of economic factors, including the  recession we’ve all experienced, greater competition from off-shore manufacturing facilities, not to mention the demise of major high technology companies who were too slow to adapt to today’s PC market and post-Cold War era.

Instead of fighting these changes, it’s better to try and use State resources to build new industries and markets which will take New Hampshire successfully into the 21st century.

Why Software?
Simply said, software development has consistently been one of the fastest growing industries. The biggest differentiator from other industries is that software developers are portable. Software developers don’t have major infrastructures, manufacturing overhead, heavy equipment, etc. At the simplest level, a software developer needs just a phone  and a computer. This means that software developers, if given enough incentive, can pack up and move to a better location.

One might ask why it’s important to get software developers to move somewhere else. Software developers, while not necessarily manufacturers themselves, often require sizeable external support structures, which don’t necessarily have to be local, but if they are, the community in which the software developer resides benefits. These support structures include services like diskette sales and duplication, computer stores, legal services (contracts and intellectual property), marketing, printing, utilities (phone, water, electric), office space, take out food, travel, and more. Obviously, the local community also benefits from taxes that software companies pay.

And, if enough software companies are located in a given area, new services, such as conventions, trade shows, and conferences will start appearing there as well, leading to increased community revenues from travel and tourism.

On the flip side, software development requires very little direct community support, other than a decent local educational system (actually a benefit). A software developer’s greatest expense tends to be research and development. Plus, software is perhaps one of the most environmentally friendly industries there is.

Eco-conciousness, along with the fierce independence which allows software developers to survive, seem to be a good fit with what I would call the “New Hampshire way”.

Software Company Incentives
We’re not going to be able to incentivize software organizations to move to the state and operate from here without a number of enhancements to our current business and academic environments, however.

There are several areas where the state needs improvement in order to attract software companies, including education, communications, financing, sales assistance, software services, and networking. But, at the same time, it’s important to strike a balance between government and the private sector in terms of contributions to making New Hampshire attractive for the software industry. After all, we don’t want to add to government bureaucracy and turn out like our neighbor to the south.

Let’s look at each of the major categories of possible enhancement.

Education
The software industry needs people trained and skilled in the use of the same technology that it uses, and such training starts in the classrooms. I’m encouraged when I see the latest course circulars from area colleges and universities, but I think more needs to be done to modernize the whole computer educational process. Many of today’s collegiate course should be taught in grade schools and high schools. Also, these courses should be taught on personal computers and not on antiquated minicomputers and mainframes. PCs have revolutionized the entire world, and are at the point where virtually everyone can afford one (and many families have at least one), but very few people really know how to program them and adapt them to a variety of tasks.

As a start, among the courses I’d like to see offered more broadly are: “C” Programming, Object Oriented Programming (separate from C programming), Database programming, Using CASE and RAD tools, Windows Application programming, Multimedia Development, Graphics Programming, Problem Solving and Debugging, Network Programming, Multi- threaded Software Implementation, Software Design Theory and Practice, Product Development Cycles, and Software Quality Control.

Granted, some of these topics are rather heady, and there are many more detailed course I didn’t list, but we have an opportunity here to bring our computer-related educational offerings into the next century, before the next century.

To achieve this next level of computer education, private industry needs to help out, by contributing both software and hardware to classrooms, and skilled individuals need to share their time to help teach these classes.

Somewhat related to education of our residents is the education of visitors to our State. At this time, New Hampshire has no large convention/conference facility in which we could host events which would attract the attention of national or international attendees. It would be wonderful if we could hold a conference like Software Development here. But, in order to accomplish that, we’d need the necessary facilities and accommodations to deal with 20,000+ visitors. Some may consider an influx of people in this quantity to a single city to be undesirable for the state and our general way of life, and they may be right. However, if it help put New Hampshire on the technological map…

Communications
Communications, especially electronic communications, are vital to growth in the software business. At my company, for example, over 70% of on-going customer communication is performed via electronic mail. Bluntly put, we can’t live without e-mail. While New Hampshire’s phone systems generally provide reasonable service in terms of voice and FAX usage, New Hampshire is still behind the times when it comes to electronic communication.

ISDN service (affordable high- speed digital lines) needs to be available throughout the state and not just in some of the cities. Some cities are also bound by unreasonable toll rates to virtually any other neighboring town, preventing affordable use of public data access numbers for nationwide systems like CompuServe. Internet access should be available throughout the state without having to sacrifice live savings (ironically, a small private provider seems to be doing a much better job of this than large companies like NYNEX – the New Hampshire way?).

Here’s where a little governmental pressure on our state’s phone companies to get their technological and pricing acts into line with the requirements of the future.

Financial Considerations
As with any new company, software start-ups need financing. Because software is a low-overhead business, the amount of such financing is not great, but necessary nonetheless.

Normally, businesses get funding from their founders (it’s what second mortgages are for, right?), the Small Business Administration (SBA), bank loans, private placements, or even venture capital. For SBA and bank loans, normal companies can leverage inventory and hard assets. A software company’s inventory consists of diskettes and manuals, and hard assets might include PCs. Neither are considered valid collateral by the SBA or banks, putting software businesses at a serious disadvantage, even though they have something potentially more valuable, namely intellectual property.

Intellectual property (IP) includes ideas, software, trademarks, patents, and more, and none of it is worth diddly to a lending institution because these institutions have no expertise or policy to deal with IP valuation. This is not necessarily something we can fix only at the state level – it’s a nationwide malady, but we can raise awareness of this lack of support for the industry of the future.

Other ways we can help out is by publishing lists of local venture capital firms and “angels”, or if that’s too much of an invasion, at least setting up regional “funding clubs” to review business plans and provide funding assistance.

On the positive side of financial considerations, New Hampshire does offer an almost taxless existence. I would add, though, that for New Hampshire based software corporations, a state R&D credit would be a useful tax incentive.

Sales Assistance
There’s perhaps only one area that the State itself might need to commit actual financial resources, and that’s in the area of sales assistance. Software companies, especially small ones who don’t have deep pockets, are always in need of help when it comes to selling their product, even more so when it comes to having an international presence.  Currently, the state a few establishes trade missions to other states and countries, but the cost of entry for these missions is still quite high from the perspective of a small company. One way to reduce costs is to leverage volume, in this case the large number of New Hampshire software developers.

Suggested venues would include New Hampshire booths or pavilions at various domestic and international tradeshows pertinent to software developers, including Software Development, PC Expo, COMDEX, and CeBIT. Both of these latter shows currently offer regional pavilions, where a company can get a smaller, less expensive booth space, partially subsidized by the region representing them. California and Maryland are among the states I’ve seen do this at CeBIT in Germany, while Hawaii has a booth block at COMDEX in Las Vegas every year. These regional booth blocks help promote the state as well as the companies located in the state, which in turn may be a way to attract more companies to do business here. Costs can be reduced for this sort of effort by negotiating preferred air fares and hotel rates for attending companies. Remember, volume reduces costs.

This concept could be extended to actually having a business development office in Europe, where New Hampshire companies could build their European sales channels from. Another thing that would be enormously helpful would be better access to our country’s biggest customer, and New Hampshire neighbor, Canada. There’s a certain irony in the  fact that while we abut Canada, you can’t get a commercial flight to Montreal or Toronto from our largest airport. Finally, we need to make the world aware of New Hampshire’s natural software resources. Every software package developed in New Hampshire should carry some sort of state-developed “Made in New Hampshire” logo. We shouldn’t even limit the logo to just software either. Put the logo on all New Hampshire goods. Maybe this will get the rest of the U.S. population to stop asking “What state is New Hampshire in?”. And, to add to the promotional benefit of a state logo, we could publish a “Made in New Hampshire” catalog (possibly broken up by various categories of product: Software, hardware, tools, etc.).

Software Services
Just as I think we should have a “Made in New Hampshire” campaign, I believe we need a “Buy in New Hampshire” effort. Software companies shouldn’t have to go out of state to buy components they need, like diskettes, development tools, and hardware, or find services like color printing, diskette and CD-ROM duplication, advertising layout,  production, software fulfillment, legal services, testing and quality assurance, etc. Sometimes the necessary products and services are just not available here, and sometimes they are, but are too expensive.

There’s no reason this should be the case. Again, I think that volume is the answer. By leveraging the volume of software development and publishing this state is capable of, we should be able to use a software consortium to buy the necessary goods and services we need at a reasonable price, while paying New Hampshire companies instead of out of state organizations.

We could even go a step further and offer tax incentives to New Hampshire companies which help out other New Hampshire companies. For example, Peterborough hosts a wide range of international computer publications. What about an advertising discount through these companies?

In any event, reducing the cost of doing business for New Hampshire companies while increasing revenues to local support businesses makes our entire State more competitive. The possibilities here are wide open, and depend primarily on cooperation. Perhaps this could be an area where the newly formed Software Association of New Hampshire could provide a valuable service.

Networking
Most businesses are built on relationships. In the ’90s we’ve termed the establishing of relationships to be “networking”. The software industry is no different. Networking is one area where we’ve done very well, with organizations such as the Greater Nashua Software Entrepreneur’s Group (GNSEG), the New Hampshire High Technology Council (NHHTC), the new Software Association of New Hampshire (SwANH). All three of these organizations, as well as a few other smaller regional groups, provide a forum for meeting peers, as well as learning from them. I’ve been involved with all three organizations in the last couple of years, and have discovered many new people and approaches to running my software company.

At the same time, working with these various groups has brought to my attention how much more New Hampshire could possibly offer to the software industry, and in turn, how much the future of New Hampshire could be affected if it ignores the potential of growing a local software industry.

Conclusion
New Hampshire has a lot to offer in terms of scenery and environment, ranging from numerous ski areas, ocean front activities, a general lack of taxes, a well run State government, and friendly natives. Proximity to Boston is a benefit as well, especially for those who occasionally need to visit a large city in order to realize how great a State we live in.

New Hampshire has the potential of being the premiere State for Software Developers, but if it wants to accomplish that goal in order to secure its financial future, a lot has to be done. Other states, including Hawaii and Alaska are in the process of implementing programs to attract high technology companies to their states, which adds pressure to have New Hampshire move quickly to solidify its offerings to software companies.