Wii and Old People = Fun

Here’s a cute article about just how much Nintendo has redefined the gamer market.

Wii is now the latest rage at the Sedgebrook retirement community in Lincolnshire, where the average age is 77. … “I’ve never been into video games, but this is addictive,” said 72-year-old Flora Dierbach. “They come in after dinner and play. Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons, their grandkids come play with them … A lot of grandparents are being taught by their grandkids. But, now, some grandparents are instead teaching their grandkids.”

🙂

I’m impressed. Props to Nintendo on this one.

In Search of "Reality Has Become a Commodity"

So I saw a clip of Colbert jabbing fun at Wikipedia again. In it, he makes up a new word called Wikilobby. He defines it as changing paying to have a particular definition changed on Wikipedia, thereby effecting reality. He also challenged his viewers to change the definition of reality to:

Reality has become a commodity.

I went to look at the post, I encountered this (I’ve highlighted the part of interest):

irony.

I thought that was both ironic, yet strangely relevant at the same time.

If you’re curious, here’s the video. And no, wikilobby is not on Wikipedia.

What’s Going to Beat XP? BudgetXP on the Way.

I just saw a funny posting on GetACoder.com. In it, a seller requested:

Hi,

So I’m posting for a rather large project. I need someone to program me a new OS (Operasting System) that looks different than Ms Windows XP etc. but has the same style. It does not need to run on a mac but all the other PCs. It’s supposed to have a stylish look with clear edges etc. And ITS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE JUST A REDESIGNED WINDOWS as I’m going to sell that operating system later on. It’s going to be called BlueOrb.

These are some important points :

It should have ALL THE FEATURES that Windows Xp Professional has.
ALL the files that run on Windows XP ust also run on the BlueOrb OS.
It must have a very user-friendly interface (like MS WINDOWS XP)
When it gets Installed, the user needs to insert a serial number.
It HAS to be HACKER SAFE!
It must be quick and good looking.

Note that I only accept quality work and do not want any quickly done BS.

greetz,

M.Reinhardt

So, how much would you pay to have the source code of something that is exactly like Windows XP Professional, but “HACKER SAFE” and be more stylish?

Budget: $1000-3000

This guy’s naivete reminds me of many people I’ve met in my life. Sure, he could be ignorant towards programming, but that doesn’t excuse his desperately lacking business research:

  • Lack of marketing research: His awesome product name is already heavily in use. Including the dot com. That’s like giving money away.
  • Lack of competitor research: He is aiming to match, not beat, Microsoft’s old and aging operating system on the eve of Windows Vista. Note: many of Vista’s applications will not be compatible with XP, and, thus, his operating system.
  • Lack of market research: Windows has a monopoly due to OEM tie-ins. Macs sell because of the unique hardware and stability granted from UNIX. Linux “sells” because it is cost effective and proven. What chance does a new player with a shoe string budget and no history have?
  • Lack of cost analysis: $3000 is no less than 1/100th of what it would cost just to emulate Windows XP on a superficial level. And what about support costs?
  • Lack of product understanding: Which features does he mean when he says “all.” Literally all? Because Windows XP comes tied in with many applications including Outlook, an automatic update, Windows Media Player, a remote desktop client/server, a firewall, chat, foreign language support, DirectX, drivers for thousands upon thousands of appliances, and the ability to reskin the look and feel. All of these features too? Then you’d need 20 translators, a data center to host update, cd key validation, and chat services, and 10 graphical and audio designers. Oh, and are we emulating IE6 or IE7? Because IE7 uses a anti-phishing technology that communicates with a central server, and what technology will that server be running on?
  • Lack of consumer trend analysis: Due to declining demand and increasing competition, the industry is moving away from shrink-wrapped software to software as a service (over the web).
  • Poor Budgeting: Even if he recognizes all of the above points and plans to address them by spending a ton of money on marketing, domain acquisition, securing OEM vendors, and hiring support staff, he has horribly misplaced his resources. His primary cost should be the development of the product, and thus should be where he puts all of his eggs. No respectable software company in the world outsources their lifeline to strangers in other countries.

It is amazing to me that this guy is literally ready to burn money without doing the most basic business research. This may be an extreme case, but plenty of people do this sort of thing (albiet less visibly) every day. If somebody isn’t sure what a particular business may cost, the very first thing they should do is find out what the “hidden” costs are. I put hidden in quotes because these costs aren’t exactly hidden. I’m referring to costs that regular Joe never knew existed, but everybody else in the industry loathes. Every industry has them, especially the ones that look like they have so few.

Oh, and as a closing note, someone replied to his request with this gem:

Hi. I can do this for you next week, when I plan on taking a break from a nonotech based / atomic fission driven search engine thats going to make larry page wet his pants. 6 days to code, 1 to rest. It will be written from scratch and completely original in design, so don’t worry about copyright bs. I plan to write the entire OS in C, and blindfolded, if its all the same to you. 100% secure will not be a problem either…In fact the OS will be designed to leverage jedi mind tricks to kill anyone that even thinks about breaking in. (i was thinking maybe make them chop off their feet and jump up and down until their empty would be fair). Anyways, I’m gonna smoke some more crack, maybe you should do the same. Thanks!

6 Predictions of 2007 – More Spam, Less Paper, Bigger Google

I thought it would be cool to look back on this post in 2008 and see how I did. These are 6 predictions I believe may come true by the end of this year.

Google will grow 20% to $600 a share.

I’ve already explained this in depth. In short, Google Checkout, the radio ad agency they purchased, YouTube, and an entry into the CPA ad market will fuel this growth. Of course, this growth won’t be until the end of the year when they report their Q3 and Q4 earnings. Q1 earnings may disappoint due to the new costs of running YouTube. But these costs will be offset with the sponsorship of YouTube by various content owners in the remaining quarters.

The single biggest stock spike will come when Google formally begins public CPA ad network trials.

Ruby remains the new Python and does not surpass either ASP, VB, C, C++, C#, or PHP, and does not enter the enterprise market in any significant way.

Sure, a few startups such as Digg may start out on Ruby and make it, but I predict now that no major entrenched corporation that goes online, nor one that is already online, will switch to Ruby. The only enterprise Ruby applications that will exist will be small startups that grew large. Ruby will replace Python as PHP replaced Perl (in the mind share sense).

Ruby on Rails made headway while there was no competition, but now there is plenty in .NET, Java, and PHP. When the Rails hype dies down, people will have to compare Apples to Apples again — Ruby as a language compared to others. While many have discussed its beauty and elegance, comments like that certainly didn’t help Python much either.

Dell rebounds, Apple grows more, Microsoft grows for once, and Vista makes it to laptops.

Now that there is a new operating system out, we will see some renewed spending on computers. Pay particular attention to Q4 where Dell should report large earnings on its laptops, right around when Microsoft gets out its first service pack. Microsoft’s Zune will continue to flounder while its operating system will make major inroads — on laptops. Luckily for them, the Xbox division will do finally turn in some profits, offsetting the cost of the Zune. The corporate desktop scene will hardly change at all this year for Microsoft as nobody can justify the huge costs of getting top of the line hardware for a new operating system when you can buy great XP machines from Dell for $300.

Meanwhile, Apple will release a major new product in the next three months. One will be “iTV”, and the other will be a new top of the line iPod. This may be the “iPhone” or just a new video iPod. Either way, this will continue to boost Apple’s stellar iPod sales, keeping its revenue strong and the halo effect stronger. We should see continued growth in the Apple market share as new people decide to give Apple a try.

Electronic paper will see its first true mainstream applications in the US, but it won’t catch on for another year.

Why a prediction about electronic paper? Because I think it will become hugely prevalent within the decade, creeping into virtually everything that touches electricity.

There is one product that could appear this year that will make e-paper big (and invalidate half my prediction): e-photo frames. Right now, there are those annoying “plug-in” photo frames. An e-paper version would mean the photo could sit without a power source, only requiring it during uploading. Since so many photos are digital these days, this would be a huge plus for people looking for an easy way to frame their photos themselves.

Otherwise, e-paper made an appearance in India late last year on a cell phone, and I think we’ll see production here in the US. But, it probably won’t sell very well due to an over-emphasis of the feature. I further predict that it will NOT appear in the old-media publishing industry (newspapers) because of its new-technology-averse nature and large trial cost (distributing readers). I give it a 50/50 chance that the credit industry picks this technology up this year in select trial markets. There is a small chance that a portable music player maker picks this technology up – but it won’t be Apple.

I think there is a very high likelihood that we will see a product that will allow someone to copy pages into a digital “handout” used in presentations (with a next button). Again, this product will probably languish in obscurity because photocopying just isn’t that inconvenient. E-paper’s real power will come when they have large scale production in swing, allowing for e-billboards and e-whiteboards (with pressure sensitive e-writing). That, and, of course, reading tablets. But these won’t hit the mainstream market for another year or two.

IE will still be #1, but monopoly abuse, no more.

That’s right, Internet Explorer 7 will continue to dominate. However, the share will soon look the iPod’s market share: 75% internationally (including IE6, that is). The prediction I am making here is that the downward spiral of IE will slow and even stop in some markets. Part of why is because Microsoft will try to make a new IE-only client-side application framework. IE7 just isn’t that bad, and Firefox’s growth is slowing down now that all willing early-adopters (and their friends) are tapped. That said, 2007 will still see a continued decline for IE.

Overall, IE will be weakest in Europe while Firefox will continue to gain share until Firefox averages about 25% there (IE gets 70%). In the US, Firefox will rise to 20% while IE will lose another 5% to end up at 75%, thanks to the continuing security leaks being reported. But don’t be mistaken — Microsoft is not going to be losing the browser war anytime soon. They just won’t be given a free ride anymore.

Microsoft will try to re-exert its monopoly power to make client-side IE-only web applications. This means the first IE-only Microsoft desktop web applications will show up late this year – complete with a new .NET libraries – and they will do well because they will center around Office. Most other software development businesses will not follow Microsoft and ignore 20% of the market, although some will. Firefox and friends won’t have a formal answer to the new technology until 2008, although portions of it will be emulated in Flash based implementations such as Flex.

IP technology will hit our homes, but not our living rooms.

While IP phones are making real progress in replacing conventional lines, IP TV will not replace the television set. While YouTube will grow in prominence, it will remain “just” a website until 2008 when mobile broadband technology (in the US) is mature enough to allow handheld streaming. While major content producers will sign up for YouTube, they won’t get on board with their arms wide open for at least a year due to the potential disruptive effect the medium will have on the traditional cash cow: prime time TV ad spots.

None of this will ever become main stream until regular TV viewing takes a dip, which won’t happen until a vast portion of the population becomes more comfortable with streaming videos online over watching commercial breaks on the TV sets. TiVo will have its day too, just not until near the end of the year when cable providers and networks realize they will be screwed out of the TV pie if they don’t react quickly. TV may eventually become a second monitor used only for media viewing, but if this does happen in a big way this year, it will either happen with Apple’s “iTV,” or not at all.

At the very least, I predict that YouTube will host a big event, such as the Super Bowl, a live news broadcast, or anything else that is live (or very close to live) and thus can be streamed with commercials and be *just like regular TV* in that it will be shown in a parallel time slot with the TV counterpart. I know they did a New Years thing this year (just online), but I’m thinking bigger and less anti-social sounding.

    And those are my predictions for 2007.

    Nintendo’s Marketing Team Got SO LUCKY

    Today is news that the Wii is kicking ass. I find two things interesting about this article.

    First, only Nintendo-brand products saw an increase in volume in the last notch in the graph. That is probably more of a hiccup than anything, but you could also attribute the growth to the halo effect on the DS and mass shifting of consumer attention to the Wii.

    The second point follows up on my earlier post about how lucky Nintendo got. In short, I wrote that Nintendo messed up their pre-launch marketing (at least in the US), causing a less-than-solid demand. Well, the proof arrives today in that graph.

    Everybody is busy staring at that huge spike on the end, but my eye focuses on the line before it spikes. That’s right, the Wii was the lowest item on that graph only weeks ago! In fact, on its launch day (Nov 19), it was still the lowest ranked search item among all other consoles listed on that graph.

    Yes, Nintendo got lucky that their product is kicking ass due to second-wave word of mouth. This is because unlike Sony or Microsoft, a slow start for the Wii, coupled with its irregular control scheme, would have doomed the console because nobody would want to port games to the “gimmick” console.

    Most importantly, Nintendo got lucky because consumers, as they had only hoped, darted for the “novel” control scheme over the bigger and better graphics. In hindsight, most people would claim, “Of course consumers would!” But staring at this decision two years ago — well, Nintendo has very some brave managers. And without knowing how sales were going to turn out until long after launch, and looking at the early consumer interest on the Wii (especially launch day), it must have been a scary ride.

    I say “lucky,” but let’s not confuse the fact that it was still an ingenious product. The marketing department, however, deserves little credit for its wild success.

    Piracy Losses Exceed $700 Billion a Year

    As I mentioned in a previous post, I kept a satire blog a while back that I plan on retiring. Here is another post from that blog that I really enjoyed writing.

    A recent study conducted by the MPAA found that movie piracy (theft) caused $6.1 billion in annual lost revenue for the movie industry, a notable 75% increase over previous estimates. Today, we released the results of a new study that investigated the effects of movie piracy (theft) and indicates that losses to piracy (theft) are greater by two or three orders of magnitude of the MPAA’s most conservative estimates.

    Our study concluded that piracy (theft) accounted for $704 billion of annual lost revenue for the movie industry and is only increasing. The study looked into who commits this terrible crime, the reasons for file-sharing (theft), and how much of an economic impact it causes.

    As a general trend observed in the study, piracy (theft) was found most rampant among college students that were:

    • Male
    • Cheap
    • Sexually dissatisfied
    • Justifiably stupid
    • Attended the University of Southern California (USC)

    In the study, several strict scientific surveys were conducted to determine why thieves were so inclined to steal from the movie studios. Below is a sample of one of the surveys that addressed the motivation behind stealing:

    From the choices below, pick the top reason you steal high-quality movies from the innocent and helpless motion picture industry:

    • 75.34% chose:
      I am a conscientious person, but there’s just not enough laws that indicate if file “sharing” (stealing) is illegal. Perhaps the DMCA should be revised to make this clearer. I would welcome clearer laws on file-sharing.
    • 24.5% chose:
      The problem is that there is too much technology that makes it easy for thieves to come over and steal the excellent Hollywood movies from my computer. Unfortunately, my immoral younger sibling keeps installing the file-sharing programs while I’m at work. I would never share movies if illegal applications like BitTorrent were erased from the Internet forever.
    • 0.16% chose:
      Movie tickets are expensive and the quality of films are decreasing. I am a reckless, violent thief, and I steal from the benevolent studios. I hate black people.

    It is assumed the survey had a margin of error of +0.16%.

    The results of this question very clearly show the need for stricter laws against file-sharing and the obvious need to criminalize file-sharing programs. The results also indicate consumer support for such legislation, and also dispelled the notion that the quality or price of the films have anything to due with declining box office sales.

    File-sharing over networks such as BitTorrent and Kazaa accounted for most of the losses. The studios lost an estimated $7340 per file sharer. This loss was estimated using the following breakdown:

    • $12 movie ticket for the thief.
    • $12 movie ticket of the thief’s date.
    • $384 in movie ticket sales of the thief’s friends because the thief will share the file instead of recommending them to pay for the movie.
    • $204 in movie rentals for each person mentioned above.
    • $1190 in DVD sales from each person mentioned above.
    • $5538 legal costs to prosecute the thief.

    Note: The study did not take take into consideration the further economic damage the thief causes by clogging up the legal system and further crowding jails.

    Since it is commonly known that Kazaa had users in the tens of millions, after complex statistical and economic analysis, it was determined that losses from file-sharing easily exceeded $100 billion. The final losses of $704 billion (in 2005 alone) were calculated by adjusting for inflation, adding interest, accounting for the growing number of households with Internet access, and applying the most probable and most widely assumed growth pattern for piracy — an exponential growth function.

    The study predicted that losses due to piracy will easily exceed $2.5 trillion in 2006, and, if not quickly contained through prosecution of thieves and passing amendments to the DMCA, losses will spiral out of control in 10 years and will likely surpass the GDP.

    The study recommends that to fight piracy, the following steps are made:

    • Create a new secret law enforcement arm to deal specifically with copyright violators
    • Create news laws to allow movie studios to monitor Internet traffic of suspected copyright thieves
    • Further develop DRM technology to be even more secure and restrictive
    • Launch a more aggressive anti-pirating campaign that helps label it as “uncool” (see the anti-smoking ads of the 90’s)
    • Set jail time for file-sharing to 25 years to life
    • File even more lawsuits against file-sharing thieves and demand even higher settlement payments

    Due to potential revenue lost to piracy, most details and methodologies used in the study are confidential. This study is available at $7340 for a 14-day limited license. Each copy will be passworded, infused with DRM technology, and contain digital watermarks that will later be used to track and prosecute customers who violate the license by sharing the contents of this study with others. A new study on the effects of such types of piracy is currently under way.

    Windows is too Confusing

    I kept a IT satire blog for a short time before starting this one. The following is a post from that blog.

    I remember back in the days when things were simple. If you wanted to do something on your computer, you just did it. There wasn’t this bullshit about logging in or editing registry keys. In fact, there wasn’t even a registry. Or screen savers. It was awesome. Sure, we didn’t have cool things like “desktop wallpapers” and “8 bit color” but who uses that stuff anyway.

    You see, as an avid user of the UNIX operating systems, I have grown fond of its simple and straight-forward user-interface. Let’s compare.

    Windows:

    Now what the hell is this stuff about “Shut Down.” Seriously. If I want to turn off my toaster, I unplug it. Imagine if your TV required you to hit a button and select “Turn the $%@# off” every time you wanted to go to sleep — and then spent 20 seconds “saving your settings.” You know what I say to that button?! Screw it. I just unplug my computer when I’m done. It’s done when I say it’s done.

    See all those icons everywhere? “Network Places?” “My Computer?” “Control Panel?” How are these not all the same thing? Who the hell knows what they are? How do you pipe the application output?? Why doesn’t man work? Where is Vi??

    And if I decide to entertain Windows and start clicking around, I find that it takes me three clicks just to get to my C drive. Let’s compare this to good old DOS:

    That’s right. I start off looking at my C drive. There is NO clicking in DOS or Linux. Do you see the simplicity? Do you see the beauty?

    Now let’s compare functionality. Let’s say you want to delete a file. Check out the cool hoops Windows makes you jump through: 

    I’m sorry, but when I hit the “DEL” key, I expect the computer to delete the file! You don’t see confirmation dialogs that ask you:

     

    And don’t even get me started on the Recycle Bin. If I hit the â€śDEL” key, hit “YES” on your dumb question, and yet the file still isn’t gone, you’ve officially made me mad. I like Linux because it treats me like the competent computer expert that I am. Notice how deleting a few files is clean, simple, and without any confirmation crap:

    Or let’s say I want to install some software on Windows.

    Do you know how ridiculous that process is? It’s full of all these strange looking choices that have all these buttons and words on them that you actually have to read.

    Whereas in, for example, Linux, I could install Apache by simply typing in one line and then sitting back and relaxing:

    cd /usr/local/download; tar xzf php-3.0.12.tar.gz -C ../etc; cd /usr/local/etc; ln -s php-3.0.12 php; ./configure –with-apache=../httpd –with-config-file-path=/www/conf –enable-track-vars; make; make install; cd ../httpd; cat config.status; ./config.status –activate-module=src/modules/php3/libphp3.a; make; bin/apachectl stop; make install; bin/apachectl start

    No confusing choices to make. No strange check boxes and drop down menus you don’t really understand. No “Do you agree to sell me your soul” terms that you have to click “agree” to continue.

    And then there’s Linux.

    I swear, Windows is 10 years behind the Linux. If only Windows would learn a thing or two from the talented Linux GUI developers.

    Co-workers and Wii

    So I took my Wii to work (that doesn’t sound totally innocent, does it?).

    Instant hit. Everybody was clamoring to play it, and one person walked out intending to buy it. This has, without fail, happened every single time I have shown it to a group of people: someone has always left saying they would buy it. Each time, the people who were “converted” were people that originally had no intention of owning a Wii.

    Oh, and my boss explicitly asked me to bring it back next Friday.

    What other console generates that kind of enthusiasm? That’s marketing you can’t buy.

    My Experience with the Wii

    Nintendo, in terms of marketing, failed to generate sufficient hype among the general consumer for their new flagship product prior to launch. And yet a few weeks later, word of mouth has generated a buzz that is causing an increasing growth in demand. While this was what Nintendo was banking on, I believe they got lucky since all companies, including Sony and Microsoft, hope for word of mouth sales. Nintendo, in a generic sense, failed at marketing their console when compared to Sony. All parents knew about PS3, and knew it was a “hot item” when it came out. Wii was perceived as a gimmick for kids that was for the “budget gamer,” which isn’t flattering. There was tons of Internet buzz, but the general market seemed relatively oblivious to the Wii, evident from lagging (albeit sold out) launch day sales (see below).

    Luckily, this has in no way hurt Nintendo since everything sold out. Sony, on the other hand, dominated the marketing competition. Unfortunately, they lost the post-launch hype fight due to:

    1. Tons of negative press due to violence on launch days. Negative association hurts.
    2. Impossible shortages caused word of mouth to become difficult due to too few starting nodes existing (people who can show their friends). For example, I know nobody who owns a PS3, but I do know a few people who expressed an interest in getting one.

    On the other hand, Nintendo gained some serious momentum due to:

    1. The console itself is totally novel, making people who see it in person want to try it.
    2. Enough supply to allow word of mouth to thrive, but not enough that the market is saturated and buzz is killed.

    In short, Nintendo got lucky where Sony got really unlucky. The lesson here is that if you have something truly novel, it may sell itself (if you are lucky). On the other hand, if all you’re selling is an upgrade to something that already exists, you have to sell it hard and fast while demand is at its peak. That is because consumers are generally happy with the status quo (the PS2 that they already own), which means each time they visit the store, you have to convince them the upgrade is worth it. For example, if you convinced a consumer four times, and each time they visit the store, they can’t buy your product, they’re eventually going to either:

    1. Give up and forget about upgrading.
    2. Still want the upgraded experience, and thus buy the competitor (XBox).
    3. Take the best “deal” since they’re already at the store (Wii/PS2).

    The third point explains why PS2 sales are still kicking strong. And the second point is the most important. It explains why Microsoft has seen a pretty big jump in sales this quarter — Sony convinced consumers for them (aside from their own marketing, of course)! By pushing the “next gen,” without providing a product people can readily buy, Sony created a strong interest for something “new” without providing their own answer to the problem. Enter Microsoft and Nintendo. Good job, Sony.

    What’s really interesting about the Wii is that its demand is steadily growing even while supplies continue to increase. This is evident from my friend going to Best Buy on launch day and seeing tons of Wii’s sitting around. They were reportedly available until mid-day on launch day at many locations around the nation. I remember hearing on the radio, on launch day, that Wii’s were still not sold out at 1PM at some Best Buys.

    Anyway, I bought a Wii last week. It has lived up to my expectations.

    Now that it’s been out for two weeks, getting a Wii requires getting in line at 6AM on a Sunday morning. From speaking to people at Toys R Us and Target, those two locations had lines surpassing 60 people long before 7AM. I got lucky with mine because it seems many people didn’t think to visit Circuit City to get a Wii. =) I asked a rep. at the counter and he told me that each day, more and more people are asking about the Wii.

    Have you seen the prices on Ebay? The prices continue to increase even when shipments from 60 to 100 Wii’s hit major electronics chains each week.

    It was also interesting seeing the demographics of people in line. You’d think the line would be filled with teenage geeks playing with their DS. Wrong. Virtually everybody in the line was between 20 and 30. Very few teenagers, and very few kids in general. There were some older folks pushing 40 as well. When speaking to people, many of them had seen it first hand during Thanksgiving from family who had bought it the week prior.

    Anyway, since getting one, I’ve let a few of my friends play it and they’ve all viewed it very positively. Granted, this whole Wii experience is relatively novel, but it is still interesting to note. It is definitely a social system. Getting a Wii to play all by yourself is moronic. Most of the games are geared towards playing with friends in a relaxed environment.

    I’m bringing it to work tomorrow. Let’s see if I can sell my co-workers.

    Voting Machine Software

    So I’m sure you’ve read a thing or two about all those crazy electronic voting machines being inaccurate. One thing I find slightly perplexing is why the misrepresented votes seem to always be in favor of the Republican party. I don’t get it. It’s not like the voting machine companies would be so blatant or stupid to try to rig an election so outright. Especially in a world that is already so suspicious of electronic machines. But if it were purely a bug, wouldn’t it be equally likely that Democrats benefit? Of course this could always be explained by the fact that perhaps there is a procedure in place for inputting candidates and Republicans and Democrats get placed into the system in a specific order (such as Democrats being added in first). Who knows.

    So with the constant attention those digital voting machines get, a lot of people ask, “WHAT is so difficult about writing software that tallies votes?” Now I’m not one to study the Diebold machines, but I thought it would be interesting to pick at the problem.

    Database Issues

    First of all, the votes must be logged. But not just any log. It must be secure and immune from tampering. And when I say “tamper,” I am talking about from everybody. That includes the developers, the database administrators, the voters, and the polling staff. I can only begin to imagine that they use a bunch of one way hardware encryption and md5 checksums.

    The votes would need to be isolated from each other from the data integrity perspective: if vote #35252 breaks the system, all prior votes (#1 through #35251) must remain unscathed. Although most modern databases use transactions to ensure data integrity, I would imagine there is no fool proof means without creating a replica of the vote on a second or third physical location.

    Of course, such data replication causes problems in the event data is inconsistent. What happens if the primary fails and the vote was only recorded on one of the two slaves. Do you count that half vote? What if a replication error had occurred where one slave copied something differently from the primary? Which is right? These things happen (database corruption) and they usually tend to clump up together to result in catastrophic failures.

    Purposeful Fraud Issues

    Let’s attack this from another angle. The main culprit to election day problems will probably be human “error.” An electronic machine must protect against this. Unlike a punch card that the actual human physically pokes, a digital machine does the card punching for you (on its hard drive), which is almost like telling someone to punch in your vote as you specify.

    There’s been instances of a programmer placing bugs in slot machines that gave them jackpots if they bet in a certain order. There have been cases of system administrators leaving back doors into the servers. There’s a huge list of historical events that show that no system, no matter how hard a company tries, is secure from malicious employees. But that is exactly what this system must be designed to fight. How would you ensure it is safe? Peer code reviews? Multi-part passwords that require three separate people with three separate passwords to authenticate? Physical keys, like the one you see in movies, where both people have to have different keys turned at the same time to open a machine? Okay, so let’s say you somehow secure your employees. The problem doesn’t stop there.

    I’m setting up the machines. “Let’s see,” I say to myself with a grin, “Kerry is going to be candidate 1, and Bush will be candidate 2… for now. At the end of the night, I go back and say, “Oops, I meant 1 equates to Bush and 2 equates to Kerry!” With any regular database, this is entirely possible, and everybody’s votes just got reversed. Of course a smart voting machine would never let you change around the names for a created record. But then again, hackers don’t need to worry about that.

    So the voting machine company decides that you “can’t” change the name of a candidate after it’s been put into the system. What happens if I were to put in a second “Bush” to dilute his votes between his mystical twin? Or what happens if I create a new candidate half way through the election under his name? Well, in some instances, the software might just show him twice (this is good) or in others, it would show him once (this is very bad). In crappier software, that of course means voters would be voting for one OR the other “Bush,” but nobody would know exactly which.

    Of course the voting company would protect us from ourselves by ensuring candidates can’t be added in after the machine is shipped out. But therein lies another problem.

    Synchronizing Issues

    Let’s say you’re running the voting company that is running an election across a few dozen districts. Of course, all the votes must be tallied. A “Bush” vote in one county must group up with a “Bush” vote in another. But how? The human answer is to use the name, but realistically, we know that another “Bush” might be running under a different position in some counties. You can’t just use the name as the qualifier because it is not unique. So you would use IDs, I presume.

    But of course this means every machine must use an ID that is not internal to it. You would say, “All 1’s are Kerry’s and all 2’s are for Bush!” Now that this is decided, you would have shipped out all of the machines to only accept votes for Kerry = 1 and Bush = 2. And when the machine gets back, you would save it into the main system as 1 = Kerry and 2 = Bush.

    But where’s the sanity check? Who knows what happened while that box was out there in the wild. How do you know that 1 is indeed still representing Kerry for that box? How do you know that everybody that voted “Kerry” on that box got saved in as a “1”? This is even more of a problem if you do the counting right in the same place that the voting is taking place.

    And even if you did use names, despite it being a horrible idea, how do you know that a “Kerry” vote got saved as “Kerry?” For all you know, there is a bug, and all Kerry votes are getting saved as “Bush” and all Bush votes are getting saved as “Nadar” because someone forgot that array indices start at 0, not 1 (theoretical technical explanation for how these bugs could arise).

    So of course, that means you would write a binary log of all activities that box experienced. But what is this log for? Auditing? Shouldn’t auditing be happening at every step of the way regardless? If anything, problems are much harder to catch in the digital version of voting so this audit trail would rarely if ever be used except in the most extreme cases. Okay, so I’ve convinced you that it should be used all the time, right? Okay, but then what?

    Is it being replicated? Is it safe from incomplete transactions? Will a corrupted insert break the entire file? What happens if the power cuts out right as it is writing a record? Is the whole file toast? Suddenly you realize the log file must also use a database to ensure its integrity. Possibly on a separate process to ensure it is isolated from the main vote records.

    But what the hell is the point of all this? If there is going to be a discrepancy, shouldn’t it have been caught during testing? Why go through all this trouble double logging and replicating all of this data?

    Conclusion

    The last point is the most important. You’ll notice that through simple logic, we suddenly had to have tons of auditing overhead to do something so simple. And despite your best testing efforts, things that should be absolutely positively without error are still being audited to ensure their integrity. So what happens when you overlook one of these “no-brainer” assumptions?

    You get voter fraud.

    This only covers some theoretical problems that I might face when trying to put together a voting machine. I would assume a well-funded corporation would generate a list or problems 10x this length. While tallying votes may be simple in concept, if your application must be 200% bug free and hacker proof, developing the application becomes immensely difficult.

    This still doesn’t explain my original thought about the Republican vote bias though.