Appsterdam talk “Chips: The Engine Beneath Your Apps”

Today during lunch, I gave a talk at Appsterdam where I spoke about what’s inside your phone. We start with an overview of the semiconductor industry, and take a deeper look at what makes your phone do all the things it can do: the chips inside.  I made the slides available through slideshare, and Erik Romijn did a quick writeup which you can find on his website.

Rain Man

[after Ray spills a box of toothpicks on the floor]

Raymond: 82, 82, 82.
Charlie: 82 what?
Raymond: Toothpicks.
Charlie: There’s a lot more than 82 toothpicks, Ray.
Raymond: 246 total.
Charlie: How many?
Sally Dibbs: 250.
Charlie: Pretty close.
Sally Dibbs: There’s four left in the box.

The idea behind this famous Rain Man scene actually comes from the true story “The Twins,” told in the fascinating book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. In that story, a box with 111 matches falls on the floor, and the twins instantly notice that what they’re seeing in front of them is three times the prime number 37. Sacks confirms the number by counting the matches by hand. In the movie, the directors probably wanted to leave out the counting from the scene, and solved this by leaving a few toothpicks in the unused box. Unfortunately, they missed the fact that the twins were primarily interested in prime numbers, which clearly 82 and 246 are not.

For all those software and hardware developers who can’t recognize multiples of prime numbers in a pile of matches at the blink of an eye, there are models, which operate at higher levels of abstraction. Abstraction, you see, is a wonderful weapon against complexity.

These days, even small software and hardware systems consist of millions of lines of code. In my pocket, I typically carry about 30 million lines of code, by means of an Android phone. On my desk there’s a PC, which includes roughly 50 million lines of code as part of Windows, and another 50 million lines of code by means of an Ubuntu installation that runs under a virtual machine. That’s just the base configuration. I’m not counting any of the applications that run on top of this machine. I’m not counting all the code that’s just a split second away from my fingers, by means of running a Google search.

But complexity doesn’t necessarily scale with the number of lines of code. It can be incredibly difficult to find a bug in a snippet of code that’s only 20 lines. Now image trying to find a bug in 100 million+ lines of code. Or being assigned to optimize an application that consists of 1 million lines of code.

One remedy to control such huge complexity is to split the system into modules, and to keep the code within each module as simple, readable, and understandable as possible. Another remedy is, for those sections of the design that allow it, to raise them to a higher level of abstraction. The nice thing about hardware and software is that these  high-level models can be automatically translated to an implementation. And, since this translation is fully automated and follows rules that are proven to be correct, the implementation is often guaranteed to be accurate to the model.

Using a model, one can briefly describe what is otherwise too longwinded or complex when stated using a programming language. This keeps the complexity manageable for the designer. As the complexity of systems increases, the use of models should also increase. We’re not all Rain Man, after all, who always sees the trees for the forest.

This item was previously published in the Dutch magazine Bits&Chips, in their model-based-design issue. Thanks for translating Dutch-American Translations.

Five similarities between Lego and Apple

The other day it was my youngest child’s 5th birthday. I was very happy that his big wish was to get a lot of Lego. I have fond memories of building stuff out of these little bricks, and I believe it stimulates creativity and problem solving. So we spent a few hours putting the models together, which is when it struck me how similar Lego is to Apple. Here are five traits that stood out to me.

1. Quality is everything

Lego’s motto is “det bedste er ikke for godt” which means roughly “only the best is the best,” or more literally “the best is never too good.” Ole Kirk Christiansen, Lego’s founder,  encouraged his employees never to skimp on quality, a value he believed in strongly. Steve Jobs said, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” Just like Lego, Apple is known for its high-quality products, especially from a design and mechanical perspective.

2. The unboxing experience counts

The unpacking is important. Do you know any other toy makers that clearly number their bags in the order you need to put the model together? In addition, the plastic bags that contain the bricks can easily be ripped and have a high-quality feel to them. The booklets are extremely clear in their instructions and the drawings couldn’t be better. Before Apple, retail packaging of consumer electronics was often a simple cardboard box simply there to protect the device, and sometimes had a sheet of clear plastic so that you could see the product inside. I’m sure you’ve all unboxed an Apple device before; the way they pack and wrap things raised the bar for everyone in consumer electronics.

3. The more you have, the greater the value

iTunes, iCloud, FaceTime, Airplay, iPad, iPhone, Mac: all of Apple’s products tie into each other. Once you have acquired your first Apple device, you’re likely to buy another. And once you have two devices, it makes a lot more sense to buy another one. Once you’re in their ecosystem, it’s hard to get out. Everything locks into each other; the more you have, the more valuable the products become. This is exactly what Lego does. When you have one box, you can build a couple of models, but after you’ve bought another box, you can combine the parts and build new things that weren’t possible before. Lego thought about this right from the beginning. Rule 8 from their Guide to Success is “The more Lego, the greater the value.”

4. Theme parks enhance the brand

The Apple stores are basically Apple’s theme parks. The interior design is amazing, the layouts are excellent, and the stores aren’t cluttered by displaying too many products. And although Apple is trying to sell its products, it’s just fine with customers coming in to look around and play. In contrast to other retail stores, Apple doesn’t have to be afraid you’ll go home and order online at a lower price. Lego has seven theme parks, and three more are under construction. And even though they mainly focus on rides, everything seems to be made out of Lego, and they all include large Lego stores.

5. Ship a lot of product

This focus on quality, user experience, and the ecosystem has resulted in corporate success. The Lego Group estimates that in the course of five decades it has produced some 400 billion Lego blocks. Production runs at 1140 bricks per second. According to an article in BusinessWeek, Lego could be considered the world’s no. 1 tire manufacturer; they produce 306 million tiny rubber tires a year. has excellent graphs on Apple volumes. In 2012, Apple shipped 218M iOS devices, and in January 2013, Apple announced that there have been over 40 billion apps downloaded from their App Store.

There you have it. Lego and Apple. Two stories of great execution, with a lot of similarities. Two companies that have changed the world and turned it into a better place. Mostly.

Valve & Facebook’s unique corporate culture (and they’re making >$1M revenue per employee with it)

Here are two great reads on corporate culture at two companies that are making well over $1M revenue per employee. And since they’re both in the software business, with very little to no production cost, and close to 100% margins, that’s a nice revenue number per employee to have.

Inside Facebook’s Internal Innovation Culture

Valve’s handbook for new employees

Besides their very flat corporate structure, the following two similarities stood out to me:

1. Learn by making


We’re very much a build and prototype culture. Ideas presented on slides just don’t “stick.” It can be hard to judge something if you’re not part of the process of making it.


Everyone is a designer. Everyone can question each other’s work. Anyone can recruit someone onto his or her project. Everyone has to function as a “strategist,” which really means figuring out how to do what’s right for our customers. We all engage in analysis, measurement, predictions, evaluations.

The Lean Startup approach is similar, where the first step is to figure out the problem that needs to be solved and then develop a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible.

2. Move around


Teams at Facebook often physically move around their desks and furniture to focus on hatching fresh ideas by joining new groups. The new office space we’re building will have moveable walls and furniture so workers can feel nimble and ready to switch gears, building on the current Facebook practice of reconfiguring desks and chairs.


You’ll notice people moving frequently; often whole teams will move their desks to be closer to each other. There is no organizational structure keeping you from being in close proximity to the people who you’d help or be helped by most.

And that just makes a lot of sense.

Marco’s Mobile World Congress 2013 trip report

Last week I again attended the largest mobile show of the year, Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress. Each year, it’s the show I look forward to most, since it’s a great time to catch up with old friends and colleagues who fly in from Europe, the US, and Asia. In addition, the mobile industry is interesting because it’s clearly leading the whole consumer electronics world, and even making a big impact on society and culture in general. Finally, I like the show because it’s in Barcelona, which is a great city altogether, albeit pretty cold this year (5-10C or 40-50F). If you’re ever in Barcelona, make sure you see the roof of the prettiest church in the world. My four-year-old asked if he could just lie on the floor and stare at it while we were there last summer.

About the new venue

Instead of being held at the Fira Montjuic, where MWC was from 2007-2012, it was held this year at the Fira Gran Via, about 4km away from its previous location.

The old venue, especially at night, had lots of charm:

Fira Montjuic MWC

While the new venue lost most of the charm, it doubled the floor space.

mwc fira gran via

What I liked about the new venue:

  • Floor space has become cheaper. Most of the stands (CEVA, Tensilica, Imagination Tech, etc.) were about 1.5x bigger than last year’s. I don’t think their marketing budgets grew by 50%, so the price per square meter must have dropped considerably. I asked several people, but no one could tell me. The big companies (Samsung, Sony, etc.) had even much bigger booths than last year, perhaps 2-3x the size. Small booths should also be cheaper than before. For a small stand at a shared country booth, I heard prices of €1200-2000, which isn’t too bad. The drop in pricing means exhibitors can show more for the same money, so there’s more to see.
  • There are many areas where you can sit down for a coffee or simple lunch. Most of these areas are outside (they call them gardens), are quickly accessible, and had a nice feel to them.
  • Once you get the hang of the layout, you can find things pretty quickly. There’s a central axis throughout the venue, with airport-like walkways, and even though the venue is twice the size, it doesn’t take much longer to get from hall to hall.
  • The entrance is bigger, with many more counters, so it’s much quicker to get into the venue. Hardly any waiting at the door.
  • They had more people on staff outside the venue, in the subway stations, directing you toward shuttle buses, metro stations, trains, etc.
  • Everyone gets a free subway and train pass. No need to worry about public transit tickets.

What I didn’t like so much:

  • The location is less convenient to reach from most hotels. It’s easier to get to the venue from the airport, since they had a shuttle bus that was free, ran often (or maybe I was lucky) and was pretty quick. But from your hotel room in the city, it’s most likely a metro ride and then a train. The trains run often and were a bit full, but it was still pretty quick to get to the venue for me, around 30 minutes, and I stayed close to the famous La Rambla in downtown Barcelona.
  • They need more cloakrooms. While I was able to store my stuff, the lines were sometimes long, and some cloakrooms were full. With a bit of shelving, the cloakrooms should be able to hold twice as much.
  • Wifi access was supposedly better than before, and I got a signal a few times, but pretty much everyone I spoke to had trouble connecting. Wifi still doesn’t scale well for these types of events, unfortunately. It’s ironic that at the biggest mobile wireless show of the year, they can’t get wireless right.
  • The booth numbering inside the halls was pretty bad. You’d expect a chessboard-like A-Z/1-100 naming scheme, but at MWC the letter-number combinations were all over the place.
  • Some of the character of the old venue is gone. The fountains, the view of the palace, the cobblestones, and the meeting rooms that are mostly stowed away in the tower are gone.

Major trends at the show
Maybe I missed it, but there weren’t many big announcements that everyone spoke about. Apple hasn’t attended Mobile World Congress for years, although rumor has it there are quite a few Apple employees on the show floor. Samsung had a huge presence, but just like Apple, they’ll announce their new flagship model at a separate event, this year on March 14. Most of the announcements centered around faster, smaller, bigger, and more of this or that, which isn’t really revolutionary. Here’s a quick video overview from the MWC organization that gives a nice impression of the atmosphere at the conference.

Nevertheless, here are some of the trends I saw:

Hooking up the next billion people

One big focus was on hooking up “the next billion people” to the Internet through low-cost smartphones. There are still a few billion people who don’t have access to the Internet or a phone. Firefox OS targets this space with a lightweight, very open OS that has been picked up by several low-cost models. Nokia presented the very lightweight 301 mobile smartphone. Retailing at €65, it targets people in developing countries and gives them access to a browser, e-mail, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. Deloitte found a direct impact from phone and Internet availability on GDP growth, so this is a very good thing. Everyone in the world should have access to the Internet.

Waterproof phones

Waterproofing simply makes a lot of sense to me. Sony did it in 1984 with the first waterproof Walkman cassette player, and now they’re doing it again with their Xperia Z phone. Plaxo’s study found that nearly 20% of us drop our phones into the toilet. Quite a few more folks find their phones in the washing machine, I’m sure. Waterproofing helps there. In addition, I’m looking forward to reading news on my phone in the shower. Watches have pretty much all become waterproof; let’s do the same for phones.

Full HD displays

It’s been only two years since Apple’s iPhone 4 introduced the retina display to the world. At 960×640 resolution, the iPhone 4 has less than 30% of the pixels of the 1920×1080 phones that Asus, Sony, HTC, LG and ZTE announced, so we’ve come a long way in two years. Even the iPhone 5 at 1136×640 only has about 35% of the pixels of Full HD. It’s only been a couple of years since I traded in my 1366×768 pixel TV to a 1920×1080 Full HD one. And since I’m on a standard cable TV package, I can’t even watch Full HD resolution content on my TV. Soon I will be able to on my phone. It’s another example of how the mobile industry is pushing the whole consumer electronics industry forward.

Computer vision and imaging

At least two hardware companies (CEVA and Tensilica) and a bunch of software companies were showing their computer vision processors and techniques for mobile applications. I’m a firm believer in computer vision, and in the next decade it will turn our mobile phones into extremely powerful information devices. Just point the phone’s camera at an object, and the phone will start showing more info. Think Siri for the camera, or Google Analytics for video. Contact me if you’d like to talk about this; I’m quite involved with this technology and would be very interested to discuss and explore further.

Operator commoditization

For many years, mobile operators made their money on voice, text messages, financing your phone, and data services. Since voice and text messaging are quickly going away as a source of income thanks to WhatsApp, Skype, Google+, e-mail, etc., the operators are afraid they’re turning into commoditized dumb-data-pipe providers. As a result, they’re trying to control the experience of the phone much more, and they’re all trying to find new revenue sources. They’re scrambling. One example is Vodafone, Telefónica and Telecom Italia’s urge for regulators to allow consolidation in the industry. “Mobile operators in most markets are suffering from too much competition.” I don’t think competition is the problem; commoditization is.

Wrapping up

Another novelty is that getting a room through Airbnb instead of at a hotel is gaining traction. Using Airbnb, it was easy to find an affordable apartment (€60/night) in a pretty central location (close to La Rambla). A friend of mine even paid €25/night and was happy with the room. Hotel rooms on average ran €250-300/night. Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but I’ve found Airbnb to be a good alternative to hotels.

The MWC Android app was pretty horrible. In order to get a map of the show floor with its exhibitors, you needed to be online, which means mobile phone costs.

That wraps up my show report. It was great to catch up with you all, and we’ll see you again next year. I’ll be there for sure.

Mobile phones hit 3GHz

I’m very happy with my Macbook Air. It’s fast, small, stable, and looks great. The processor inside is a 1.8GHz Intel Core i5. Now, I’m of the generation that still vividly remembers replacing a 4MHz Intel 8086 with an 8MHz equivalent NEC part, so 1.8GHz is fast. I know, clock speed isn’t everything, and it’s just as important how much work the processor does per clock tick, but still. It’s similar with cars. The power-to-weight ratio says more about performance than the number of horses under the hood. But everyone still wants to know how many horses are there, and it says a lot about the performance of the car.

And now ST-Ericsson tells the world that they’ll be showing their latest mobile phone processor at the Mobile World Congress next week running at 3GHz. That’s quite a bit faster than my laptop! And it’s got a quadcore processor inside. And an LTE modem! And it’s a part that will spend most of it’s life inside the pockets of my pants running off a small battery. I’ve been saying it for quite some time, mobile phones are more powerful than laptops. Some things my mobile phone has that my laptop doesn’t: a high-quality camera, 2 actually, an always-on data connection, and GPS navigation.

ST-Ericsson has been struggling over the last few years, are they back now?


Mobile World Congress 2013

It’s that time of the year again, only a couple of weeks to go until the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona kicks off. I’ll be meeting many of my friends and old colleagues there, it will be great to catch up with everyone.

Some of the things I’m looking forward to:

  • Last year Nokia introduced their 41Mpixel camera phone. What’s new in camera land this year?
  • Huawei about doubled their presence each year, what did they do this time?
  • The Dutch Mobile Networking Event – the Dutch party to be at, run by Caroline Spek
  • What’s new in accessories? Will we see new wrist accessories? What’s next, a bluetooth ring?
  • How many new phones will be waterproof like Sony’s?
  • What’s up with the latest displays? Can we bend them? Will we go higher than full HD for mobile? Anything new that lowers the power consumption or increases the quality?
  • Is anyone able to challenge ARM? They’re pretty much a monopolist in mobile.
  • Will Imagination Tech position their recently acquired MIPS products for mobile?
  • How is mobile app development evolving?

Looking forward to see you there. Please don’t hesitate to contact me in case you’d like to meet.



File this under “neat ideas”: a single faucet that wets and dries your hands.

“Vacuum cleaning: fun!” I tell my youngest. He’s happy to try, and he likes it for a while, but not for very long. That’s about as far as I get with vacuuming and vacuum brands. But Dyson,  which I only knew for its bagless machines, has now dreamt up something that I think is simply cool. They’ve built a faucet that not only wets your hands, but also dries them! Dyson integrated an air blower right into the faucet. They’ll show up at airports in New York, Miami and Seattle first. Now Quooker and Dyson, please team up and build a faucet that spews boiling, hot, cold and  warm water, and dries your hands.

They’ve done it again: video files again lost half their weight.

Some of you probably remember video discs (which used MPEG-1/H.261 for video compression), then there were DVDs (MPEG-2/H.262), then Blu-rays (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264). Between DVD and Blu-ray there was another video coding standard, the original MPEG-4, which didn’t make it onto optical discs, but was used quite a bit also. Each time, a bag of new algorithmic tricks meant that the video could be compressed twice as much.

Loosing weight is hard. In video compression, it’s quite the same. Just when you thought video can’t be compressed any further, there’s a new standard that’s done it again: HEVC compresses video at twice the rate of the preceeding standard. This means double the hours of video that can be stored on your disc, drive, stick or card. Double the number of channels broadcast over the air. Or half the download time. Or half the data usage on your phone plan. We’re clearly in anorexic territory here, and for once, I like it.


Super cameras out of a spray can

Researchers from the Technische Universität München have developed a new generation of image sensors that are 3x more sensitive to light than the conventional CMOS versions, with the added bonus of being simple and cheap to produce. These sensors can be manufactured without the expensive post-processing step typically required for CMOS sensors, which involves for example applying micro-lenses to increase the amount of captured light. Instead, every part of every single pixel, including the electronics, is sprayed with a liquid polymer solution, giving a surface that is 100 percent light-sensitive. Changing the chemical compound turns the sensor into an infrared sensor for night vision.

In short, better and cheaper cameras that also work at night. Me want.

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