Man wills concord; but nature better knows what is good for the species: she wills discord.
– Immanuel Kant
When two people agree with each other all the time, one is redundant; when they disagree with each other all the time, both are redundant.
Disagreements have always co-existed with progress, not only in social affairs, even in science and technology. In fact, disagreements in science and technology have fueled more progress and have resulted in different valuable perspectives. In this post, I attempt to write about some significant scientific and technological disagreements (some call them wars) that have enriched the world in some way or the other.
- Light – Particles or Waves? In the early days of development of physics, there was a disagreement, nay, a war, of two schools of thought about the nature of Light. While Isaac Newton propounded that Light was made of particles, Christian Huygens put forth the theory that Light was made of waves. Eventually, there was more progress which led to the unified theory that both perspectives were right in their own ways.
- Behavior of matter – Deterministic or Probabilistic? In the early part of the 20th century, the physics community was sharply divided into two factions – one insisting that the behavior of matter was deterministic (remember Einstein’s famous quote: God does not play dice), and the a new faction discovering that that the behavior of matter was probabilistic in nature (this faction was led by physicists like Heisenberg).
- TV formats – NTSC, PAL, SECAM? In the early days of TV broadcast, the world was divided (it still is!) with respect of these formats. Different geographies chose to broadcast in different formats, for apparently no good technical reason!
- Connectors, adaptors, chargers – which ones are better? The world is full of different products, technologies and services, developed independently many times, leading to peripherals like connectors, adaptors, chargers also in varying flavors. I, for one, find this very annoying many times.
- Video distribution – DVD or Blu-ray? I remember those days when several companies swore by one or the other, and a few actually utilized this as an opportunity and came out with products for both.
- Display technologies – LCD? LED? Plasma? This war was in the TV world, but more recently, in the Smartphone world too, there are different approaches. While the iPhone family goes after RGB format, the Galaxy family goes after PenTile format. Both of them claim higher quality by some parameters. Many users still toss a coin to decide which is better.
- Operating Systems – Windows? Linux? Android? iOS? This war has gotten hotter after the advent of smartphones. All of them, as expected and thankfully, have their advantages and USPs.
- Equipment (example: Medical) design – Easy to use? or give lots of options to user? This is a classical design principle and challenge. Leaders in Medical equipment domain like GE, Siemens, Philips differ visibly in this aspect. Some have a USP of “easy to be used by non-IT people like doctors”, some say the exact opposite USP of “give many options to the end users for their convenience”.
- Image formats – JPEG, GIF, PNG, SVG, … and many more covering much more of the English alphabet. For many of them, there are good reasons to exist – for example, JPEG is good for controlled compression, SVG is good for retaining quality upon zoom, etc.
- Machine learning – Artificial Neural Networks? Hidden Markov Models? Areas of intense commercial value like Pattern recognition are trying out these various approaches. While there are already successful products in the market, getting better every day, the jury is still out on which is a better approach.
- Short range communication – WiFi, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee, Z-Wave, … and the confusing state of Wireless USB. Whatever happened to Wireless USB? It seems to have dissolved into the Bluetooth SIG, which shifted focus to the 60GHz.
- Internet of Things – the latest war of network protocols. This is the latest buzz that I will be surprised if you haven’t heard of. The story started decades ago with the development of RFID, the term IoT was not used then. But now, with so many sensors, more data of all flavors, new algorithms for Data analytics, distributed systems, etc. coming up every day, the world is witnessing a new revolution. Even in this business, there are different approaches. One faction, led by companies like Qualcomm, has created the AllJoyn and AllSeen Alliances, started an open source framework, and aim to connect the connected Smart Home to the rest of the world. Another faction, led by companies like GE, has focused on the interoperability of the vast variety of devices from different vendors, and have created the Industrial Internet Consortium. Another faction, led by Intel, has started its own IoT project (IoTivity), and is leading a forum called the Open Interconnect Consortium. There are many more initiatives from companies like Cisco, Samsung, Google, etc. Biggest challenge – interoperability.
The list of actual disagreements is longer – much longer – than this. This list is just indicative of the type of disagreements. Also, the list contains items not necessarily of the same class – some are related to man’s eternal quest for Truth and some are related to representations of data. In that sense, it is just an assorted list.
Analyzing the disagreements at a higher level, one will surely observe that it is rarely about who is correct. It is often about what is the appropriate approach for what purpose. Following are some of the possible premises of disagreements.
- The noble quest for Truth. This is certainly the case in the pure sciences. Like the disagreements about the nature of Light, behavior of matter, etc.
- To reduce costs. For example, when things can be pushed into an SoC (like in the case of Internet of Things – the AllSeen Alliance, led by Qualcomm), it helps cheaper mass production. The costs come down for both the manufacturers as well as the end-users.
- Better User experience. Connected Homes, connected cars, context-awareness, energy management, etc. These result in happier customers.
- Open development. Open source, open API, etc. have always resulted in democratizing innovations and a wide acceptance. A wide variety of ideas get implemented, and fast.
- Compatibility, Interoperability. As newer and newer devices and technologies enter the market every day, the concern for interoperability of devices from different vendors, compatibility with legacy systems, etc. increases.
It is obvious that disagreements are the order of the day, for various reasons (though most will agree on wanting money, market-share, power, etc.). While it is true that we can’t wish them away, I personally feel we should not wish them away. As we have seen, many times disagreements lead to significant value-adds, different perspectives, etc. Also, variety adds to color in life. (I would hate to live in a world where we all speak just one language, wear similar dresses, eat similar foods, sing the same song, etc.) In the exploding world of technological advances, the challenge is to solve interoperability, by supporting variety and not by killing it.
As a concluding remark, it is good if you agree with what I have written here, and it is good even if you have differing views!