Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
Search I,Cringely:

The Pulpit
The Pulpit

<< [ IT Wars ]   |  Nolo Contendere  |   [ It's the Platform, Stupid ] >>

Weekly Column

Nolo Contendere: Team Cringely makes a course correction on its way to the Moon.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (122)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Readers have been asking -- demanding even -- an update on Team Cringely, my plan to win the Google Lunar X Prize and give my kids an inheritance worth fighting over. So this week I have to announce that, alas, Team Cringely is no longer in competition for the Google Prize. But we're still going to the Moon.

Huh?

The idea behind the Google Lunar X Prize was irresistible to me from the start. It was so audacious to think that private citizens could do what few governments had been able to do before -- to fly to the Moon, land there, launch a rover, drive around, and send pictures, video, and other data back to Earth. Yet the closer I looked the more feasible it seemed to be, especially with the impetus of that $20 million first prize. It would be the ultimate expression of Moore's Law as my team applied miniaturization to the task of lunar exploration.

So I boldly announced my intention to form a team, win the prize, and -- here's the kicker -- actually make a profit on the deal. Readers and their friends flocked to my cause and, almost before I knew it, I had the nucleus of exactly the sort of lean-and-mean organization I felt would be required to win the prize at a profit. Understand here that of the 15 announced teams, only two have said they can win the $20 million while spending less than $20 million, with the average team budget more on the order of $50-$75 million.

Then reality began to set in. This reality had nothing to do with the actual engineering exercise of going to the Moon: that was contained and calculable. This reality had to do with politics and economics. Economic reality said that all 15 teams were looking for a total of up to $1 billion -- a LOT of money. Even more sobering, most teams were approaching for support exactly the same potential investors, who probably wouldn't choose to invest in multiple teams. Charles Simonyi from Microsoft is a typical example, having been approached by at least three teams almost immediately because, of course, he had spent $20 million to visit the International Space Station, thus qualifying as both a Space Nut and a Space Nut with Money. But Charles, to my knowledge, hasn't yet invested in ANY Google Lunar X Prize team, nor have many other Space Nuts with Money.

With government funding limited by the rules to no more than 10 percent of any budget, I concluded that it is very doubtful that many teams will come anywhere near their funding goals. This means most of the 15 announced teams will never fly. Some will disappear while many will merge, but every merger brings with it inefficiencies as duplicated services that have already been paid for are jettisoned, technologies abandoned, team members scattered. It is going to get ugly.

These money issues had little effect on Team Cringely, however, simply because our $5 million budget was so low. I could find a couple investors, a couple corporate sponsors, and then -- as a TV guy -- cut a media deal or two and put together the $5 million budget with little or no pain to any participating parties. No children would have to miss their prom so Team Cringely could reach the Moon.

But I hadn't counted on the X Prize Foundation, which has done an extremely effective job of administering the contest to make it harder and harder to win.

This baffles me and, frankly, baffles everyone I have spoken to about it. It is hard enough to land on the Moon and drive around without someone setting additional administrative obstacles in the way. The X Prize Foundation should WANT a winner for this prize, but they don't act that way.

Here are a few examples of the obstacles. For one, while the X Prize Foundation released early on preliminary rules for the competition, they said the final rules wouldn't be cast in stone for another 20 months. For Team Cringely, with our very aggressive development schedule, this meant that we'd be landing on the Moon before the rules were finalized. We could win the contest only to find out that we were disqualified from receiving the prize. That's a hard one to explain to potential investors or sponsors. It still isn't clear why the X Prize Foundation feels the need to wait so long to finalize the rules, but they seem firm on this issue, which negates completely one of the strategic advantages of Team Cringely, which is essentially time to market.

The X Prize Foundation also required that rovers carry an "instrument package" weighing no more than 500 grams. We at Team Cringely came to call this the "bowling trophy," which we'd need to super glue to our one-kilogram rover. A pound of bowling trophy might mean very little to Carnegie Mellon University with its 500 lb. rover (and $100 million budget), but to Team Cringely it was a deal killer. More recently the rules have softened a bit to require that the bowling trophy be no more than a certain percentage of the vehicle weight, but we could never figure out why it was required at all. Couldn't we just paint X Prize logos on our rovers and be done with it? No explanation.

But the biggest obstacle of all for Team Cringely was the X Prize Foundation's insistence that only it could come to agreement for commercial media coverage of the contest. Team Cringely couldn't cut its own TV deal, nor could it even make its own TV show if that was intended to be done for substantial revenue. That would be handled by the X Prize Foundation on behalf of all teams with coverage and revenue equally shared. While that position sounds egalitarian, it isn't. The X Prize Foundation has no significant experience in media licensing -- certainly they have less than we have at Team Cringely where we've sold TV shows over many years to more than 50 countries. And by treating all teams equally it means the easiest (and only sure way) to make money from the Google Lunar X Prize is to pay the $10,000 registration fee then do nothing more, just waiting for that check to arrive for an equal share of the media dollars.

As the first team to launch, Team Cringely believed that we would provide most of the media coverage for the first two years of the five-year contest. Sharing that equally with teams that never got beyond fund-raising seemed terribly unfair.

We had some back and forth with the X Prize Foundation over these issues. When the preliminary rules were released 48 questions were submitted, 36 of those coming from Team Cringely. If a foundation could have an ass I'm sure the X Prize Foundation would have considered Team Cringely to be a pain in theirs. But we felt passionately about these issues and hoped for a positive resolution.

We even reached out to Google, which appeared to be aware of the issues and uncomfortable with the performance of the X Prize Foundation, but friendships were involved and Google is not a fast-moving organization anyway, so we got no help there.

To this point Team Cringely was still an unregistered entrant in the contest. We hadn't signed the entry form and hadn't paid our $10,000 entry fee simply because doing so would have tied us into these very rules that we found both intolerable and unnecessary.

Then earlier this month the Google Lunar X Prize teams met for two days in Strasbourg, France. And where we hoped the situation would improve, it hadn't. Here is the new X Prize Foundation position on media rights, for example:

"The X PRIZE Foundation is in the best position to generate, aggregate and distribute Competition content. The X PRIZE Foundation will produce television, digital media, et cetera that covers the context, issues and all the Teams efforts in their race to the Moon. ...The Foundation will also have considerable costs to stage ramp up events to stimulate and sustain interest, develop and distribute educational programs and materials, and package the content into meaningful programs and platforms to reach the public. The Foundation's planned mix of promotion, publicity, television programming, and online content is essential to the competition...

"Although some may feel that this takes some potential revenue streams away from teams, that is not the intention of the PRIZE. Allowing each Team to separately package their own programming and mission coverage is not practical or beneficial to the overall competition. Imagine if Olympic teams each went out and tried to make their own television deals: it would not result in the best telling of the entire story, and there would be chaos in the marketplace...

"The X PRIZE Foundation is hiring a major international agency to represent its competitions in the packaging and sale of television and other media rights.... Rather than allowing each Team to negotiate deals separately... the responsibility will be borne by our world-class representative, with long time experience in selling media packages. ..."

Sounds pretty defensive, eh?

The problem with the Olympics analogy is that it doesn't hold up. There isn't one media deal for the Olympics, there is one media deal PER COMPETING COUNTRY -- PER TEAM. NBC doesn't buy the rights to broadcast the Olympics in Japan. And NBC's coverage is biased toward its own market, which means mainly covering the U.S. team, just as a Japanese broadcaster would have its own Olympic contract and would bias its coverage toward the Japanese team.

And the X Prize Foundation bureaucracy, which made so little sense in the first place, seems only to have increased. Here are typical comments I gleaned from a public forum after the Strasbourg meeting:

"The Team Summit's Guidelines workshop showed that the more bureaucratic part of the mission has begun," wrote a poster from one team. "While on a personal level, I liked each of the leaders there from XPF, and enjoyed interacting with them, I was puzzled at the somewhat cavalier way they seemed to dismiss some of the teams' concerns. For example, we were very proud of the fact that our team had managed to get some surplus company fuel tanks; when I asked about it, without much thought I was told 'you'll have to get a ruling on that.' Also, when I asked something about our camera design (a design we had worked very hard on), I was told that the way we were doing it would not be allowed. HUH? Do they know how hard we have worked on this?"

Here's another: "I inwardly cringed at their responses to some of the other team's concerns. ... They all had concerns regarding the media aspects of the rules that I did not feel were adequately addressed, and maybe even more important -- even adequately appreciated. The cumulative effect coming from the XPF leadership was one of discouragement, rather than encouragement."

So what's a poor team leader to do? The answer came to me a couple weeks ago during an engineering colloquium I gave at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, DC. This was my second such colloquium at Goddard, the first being 14 years earlier. "Why yes, Virginia, I AM a rocket scientist."

I was embarrassed to tell the engineers and scientists at Goddard that Team Cringely, being a pirate operation, really had no scientific basis for its mission. Other than simply proving that it was possible to send a small rover (or in our case 24 small rovers) to the Moon for $5 million, we weren't inventing anything or answering any scientific questions. But with the help of the very friendly NASA folks that day I came up with a scientific purpose for our mission -- a purpose I'll detail in some later column. Suddenly it was about more than making money and I was much happier as a result.

But what about the X Prize Foundation, the crazy rules, micromanagement, the absence of adult supervision from Google, and the continuing media rights problem?

I said, "Screw it."

So Team Cringely is no longer intending to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize. Nor will we make ANY further comment about the contest, any participants, or the X Prize Foundation. We wish them all well, but life is too short for bickering, so we're moving on to the next stage of Team Cringely's existence.

Which still involves going to the Moon. The idea was too good to let die. We are moving forward aggressively on our new scientific mission, which I hope will be conducted jointly with Goddard, though with little or no NASA money involved. We'll still send our 24 little rovers to the Moon and we'll still do it on an aggressive schedule because I get bored too easily. We just won't be expecting that big payday at the end. What we WILL get, however, are some scientific answers of great value, control over our own technology, and hopefully a very fine little media deal to pay some of the bills.

To the Moon!

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (122)

When can we expect to see NerdTV?

John | Jun 06, 2008 | 1:21PM

Bob, I love the idea of selling space on onboard "vicarious chips." You get money and grass-roots cred (2 million contributors can't be wrong). We all get the thrill of placing something of ours on the moon & becoming a small part of Team Cringely.

Go team!

Martin Votel | Jun 06, 2008 | 9:59PM

Any chance of a NASCAR tie in for the rovers? That would bring in some extra $$$$. Put Jeff Gorden's name and number (24) on the last rover and maybe have a rover race on the moon.

I know it sounds whacked, but those NASCAR fans really put out the dough. You could even have rover models and toys too. Get the Targets, Wal-Marts, and Toys-R-Us folks paying some bills for you too.

Just a thought.

Chip Phelps | Jun 09, 2008 | 11:26AM