Chase Cringely

Chase Cringely

This is my response to yesterday’s message from Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize director Mark Winter, who said my objections to his contest design were without merit. Let me make a point here: this isn’t about me receiving $10 million. We all know that’s not going to happen. It’s about designing a contest that actually encourages innovation. Please read on as I explain… 

I appreciate your position, Mark, and might have sent the same reply were I standing in your shoes. However I am sure I’ve uncovered exactly the sort of poor contest design that may well doom your effort. As such I will go ahead tomorrow and publish the letter I wrote to Paul Jacobs so my readers can weigh-in on this issue. Certainly it will make your contest more visible.

Bill Joy used to say “not all smart people work at Sun Microsystems,” and by this he meant that there is plenty of useful brainpower outside every organization — brainpower that is likely to see the germ or find the flaw in any strategy. Well not all smart people work at Qualcomm, Nokia, or the X-Prize Foundation, either. And what worries me about this is the inflexibility engendered in your announcement, which actively discourages the participation of prior art. Why would anyone with something well in hand wait 35 months? For that matter, what makes you think that 35 months from now this prize will even have relevance? What if it doesn’t? Do you just cancel it and say “never mind?”

The proper way to have designed this contest was by setting a goal and an overall ending date, not a date six years out to begin evaluation. If anyone accomplishes the contest tasks prior to that date, they should win. Your design assumes every entrant is starting from scratch. It also assumes every entrant is amateur, because no business these days would plan a 35 month R&D effort toward a single product. Ask Nokia and Qualcomm about that one.

Some of this thinking is simply not thinking while some of it is self-serving thought. You make the point that the X-Prize Foundation is in the business of running these contests, which suggests to me that a 6-7 year time frame probably suits the business model of the Foundation much more than it does the pursuit of this type of knowledge. We’ve seen this before from your organization, notably with the Google Lunar X-Prize, which also seems to have been designed to fail.

Note — In the case of the Google Lunar X-Prize, the X-Prize Foundation changed the rules several times including at one point inserting a delay of more than a year before the “final” rules would be set — a year during which entrants were supposed to blindly continue raising budgets of up to $100 million. 

What I read in your message is an unwillingness to consider changing the contest rules. This is ironic given the immense likelihood that over time you will do just that for any number of reasons. This seems to happen on most of the X-Prize competitions at one point or another. This is the ideal time to correct an obvious flaw, so why not do it?

Or do you think that all smart people actually do work at Nokia, Qualcomm, and the X-Prize Foundation?

All the best,

Bob Cringely