Subject: Re: New member intro and questions
From: Crispin Cowan <>
Date: Mon, 06 Dec 1999 07:01:07 +0000

Lynn Winebarger wrote:

> On Sat, 4 Dec 1999, Crispin Cowan wrote:
> > Lynn Winebarger wrote:
> > "mathematics".  That may be the source of some confusion.  In contrast to
> > mathematics, computer science research is very applied.  It is not uncommon for
> > faculty to take off and start a company that productizes their research.  Some
> > famous examples:
>    I'm not a particularly big fan of taking open and public research and
> then closing it up.  I want a different avenue, one that both allows some
> measure of profit and allows the research to benefit everyone.  Perhaps
> impossible, but still worth trying to find a solution.

So now you're proposing yet another astonishing feat: making enough money to survive
without proprietary intellectual property, when your primary business is intellectual
property.  Yes, this is what Red Hat is achieving, but it's a fairly astonishing and
novel feat.

I also suspect that the "all free software" business model is a big-money game:  it
a service industry, and service works best when scaled.  Thus the one with the biggest
pool of capital wins in the competative service business.  It is also fundamentally
incompatible with your business model of developing new algorithms.  If what you do
develop new algorithms, then you must license them in some form.  It is *far* too easy
for your competitors to adopt your algorithms and incorporate them into their greater
software systems without paying you a dime.

Playing the "open source" card won't help you here, either.  Imagine Red Hat adopting
your algorithms.  Even if they completely GPL all the code that uses your algorithms,
why should a customer buy anything from you, if they can get superior integrated
software and services from Red Hat than from your tiny company?

As a result, you'd be stuck providing customization services to particular customers,
like the Cygnus business model.  But even here you're in trouble:  Red Hat now owns
Cygnus, so they can probably provide customization better than you can.

So now you're restricted to "algorithms made to order."  Good luck making money in that
business :-)

When you go to achieve some new great thing, it is really helpful to only try to
achieve *one* amazing thing at a time.  If you try to do two or three, then the product
of narrow probabilities bites you in the ass, and your chances of success dwindle to

> > Basically, I'm asking you to consider that becoming a professor may well be the
> > easiest way for you to accomplish your goals.
>    Well, it's certainly a well-established path, but I don't know if I'd
> call it easy.

"easiest", not easy :-)

>  It might be the easiest among the possible choices at the
> moment, but that doesn't mean it has to remain that way

Sure:  you do the hard work of blazing a new trail, and your new way may be easier for
those that follow you.  But trailblazing is *hard*, and fraugght with failure.

> (actually, I'd
> allow that it is the easiest way, except it doesn't necessarily encourage
> the kind of work I'm interested in, at least in math dept.s).

Academia does, however, give the individual faculty far more freedom than most other
professions.  In essence, academia "encourages" your goals by allowing you to try weird
new things.

> What I'm
> interested in is using the current and future research in statistical
> modelling/harmonic analysis (which can be looked at as finding algebraic
> structure in infinite data and how to usably look at only finite portions
> of it) to bear in problems such as codecs and pattern recognition
> (including speech and video) - which is already being done, but finding
> new codecs requires a certain amount of mathematical research; developing
> methods for cleanly separating different kinds of information from a
> single signal

This actually sounds like a *very* active area of investigation.  Look to the
literature in Multimedia research, such as the IEEE Symposium on Multimedia, the
ACM Multimedia Symposium, and the NOSSDAV Workshop (Network & Operating System Support
for Digital Audio and Video).  Newer & better forms of audio & video digital encoding
compression are being heavily investigated by well-funded organizations.

Actually, this does bring us back to your concern about open source.  A major problem
in this area is the conflict between intellectual property and network standards.  What
happens when someone owns a patent on an algorithm critical to a network standard? 
instance, the popular MP3 audio format is actually an encoding of an audio compression
method that uses statistical sampling of the audio signal so as to preserve only those
portions of the signal that humans are sensitive to.  The owner of the patent has made
use of the patent freely available for *decoders*, but not *encoders*.  This is a
problem, because now one *cannot* produce a network encoder without paying license
fees, making open source encoders effectively illegal.

> > >    I was thinking something along the lines of (1) and (2) (or actually 2,
> > > since Cygnus sells consulting services), as well as writing
> > > books/seminars/etc.  Patrons would definitely be helpful, but I don't know
> > > how difficult it would be to convince companies to not be free riders.
> > > It's the old prisoner's dilemma problem.
> >
> > The primary motive for going this way is greed.
>    I don't think this is quite accurate.  It's more about control.

You get maximum control in academia.  Period.  There is no contest.  In private
industry, whoever paid for the work wants to own the intellectual property.  In
academia, you can get grants to persue pure research, and then the investigator co-owns
the intellectual property with the academic institute.  Quite often, the institute will
share ownership with the investigator under quite generous terms.  This varies by
institute, so choose your school carefully.

> > [comments about overhead rates in common academic research institutes]
>    Are there any books on this subject?

Not that I know of.  This is just stuff that I learned in going from grad student ->
postdoc -> faculty -> entrepreneur.

>  Keeping in mind that I'm not
> talking about one of these huge research centers - rather, I'm thinking
> something structured more like a partnership, where the company would be
> led by the researchers.

What I'm trying to tell you is that research is most often so unprofitable that it
rarely exists in small companies.  The ones that do exist have far less control than
university research labs.  They exist hand-to-mouth responding to government and
corporate solicitations for research.  You don't get to work on what you want, you get
to work on what the solicitation requests.

> > There will be relatively few people interested in weird new things of any kind.
> > Combine two weird new things (your research idea being one, and your business
> > model being another) and the cross-product gives you a very small pool of people
> > to choose from.
>    That's probably as it should be.  I don't think the faint of heart
> would do very well at such a firm.

I think it's far too selective.  It is silly to characterize researchers as "faint of
heart"; it takes some pretty heavy hubris to undertake research, i.e. to invent new
things that no one has ever thought of before.  Such people have a wealth of
opportunities, and so your enterprise has to look more attractive than a host of other
opportunities.  Get too weird & speculative in your business model, and you stop
looking attractive.

So I think you have to choose:

   * Do you want to break ground in your research field, using conventional means such
     as academic or corporate research institutes?  Really, it doesn't suck that much
   * Or do you want to break ground in research business models?  In which case, you
     will necessarily be persuing a conservative research agenda to reduce your risk
     factors from astronomical to merely difficult.

Crispin Cowan, CTO, WireX Communications, Inc.
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