Thursday, June 30, 2011

Give Me Back My Command Line

PC-DOS was an early OS for personal computers ...
From a marketing perspective this BLOG is a disaster. I know this. Ideally It would be narrowly focused and I'd post consistently within established boundaries topic wise. If I were really ambitious I'd even try to figure out some under serviced topic area and focus there; that would be good marketing. Instead I'm all over the place. I'll talk about very esoteric and technical topics sometimes while delving into business or strategy at other times. Realistically the only person who would ever want to read this BLOG regularly is me. I don't think I'm going to change though. The real unifying theme behind all my posts is that I'm interested in and often passionate about the topics I explore. It's also the case that I've been writing in one form or another since my early teens. It's in my blood and I get itchy if I don't do it regularly so on with the show.

Most of us can remember MS-DOS. In case anyone reading this is too young to have lived through those days I'll very briefly explain what it is/was. Back before Windows Microsoft sold another operating system called DOS. Microsoft is the MS in MS-DOS. Since I said this would be a brief explanation I'll skip delving into the origins of DOS and simply say that there were no pretty icons or docks, just a screen with a prompt that you used to navigate around in your folders and launch applications. DOS is an example of a command line interface. Linux is a more modern/current one.

At this point I'll step back and say that the title of this entry is meant to be a metaphor. It's also an exaggeration. I'm really not interested in a return to the days before Graphical User Interfaces (GUI's) became common. What I do want to do is discuss the downsides of abstractions. GUI's like Windows and MacOS are good in that they hide some of the underlying details of what is going on which makes for a reduced learning curve. That's good because it helped bring computing to the masses and facilitated the creation of the world we live in today. But these abstractions do have a downside.

To use an analogy, it's kind of like the whole dark and light side of the force thing that Obi-Wan warned Luke about. The dark side is easier but it comes at a cost and I see that cost fairly frequently when I interact with tech savvy people in their early twenties and younger. They seldom seem to have the kind of grasp of the foundational technologies that my friends and I had at that age. We weren't smarter of course, we just lived in a world where you operated a lot closer to the bare metal. Given a choice most of us would have taken an easier path if it existed.

From a trouble shooting perspective having had that exposure to less refined technologies can be a real advantage at times since the point at which things become "magic" is much further down the rabbit hole for technical people of my generation.

To be fair, I've met and worked with a lot of really brilliant and capable people who are a decade or two younger than me. I'm not saying I'm inherently better because I have a bit of gray in my beard or I remember a time when FPU's were exotic and expensive add ons. I do think it gives me a bit of an advantage if I keep up with what is going on today and I think this is true of anyone who has both experience and up to date skills.

I suspect that thirty years ago somebody about the age I am now made a post similar to this one to a BBS talking about how high level languages like C were ruining young people and how knowing assembly language and being able to design and build your own logic boards was really useful and important. Technology may change rapidly, but people not so much so.

Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Google Plus(+) (Short Take)

This is icon for social networking website. Th...
Google's latest entry in the social networking space is a pretty good indication of just how important social networking has become to a companies bottom line. It remains to be seen how effective it will be. "Google Wave" and "Google Buzz" were their previous attempts. Wave is no longer under development from what I can tell and the site looked a lot like a ghost town when I poked around just now. Buzz is part of GMail but gets no buzz and only occasional use in the circles I run in.

Its safe to say that Google hasn't had very much luck in the social networking realm.

If I'm understanding things correctly the initial rollout of Plus essentially began when the +1 button got added to Google search results a month or so back? I have to be honest here, I hadn't even noticed that option until just now and hadn't heard anything about it. I'm generally reasonably well plugged into the technology and social networking scenes so I'm not sure how that happened. Part of the issue may be that the +1 buttons are small and ghosted out unless you're hovering over a search result. I'm generally in a hurry when doing a search so little details like that are going to escape me and a lot of other people probably.

Using the +1 is a lot like Facebook's "Like". That's pretty much all I know about it. It apparently ties into the Plus service but until I get access I won't have a good understanding of how. Like a lot of other people I've applied to be part of the Beta. Hopefully I'll get in soon.

One thing I really like about Plus is the concept that our "friends" aren't all equal. The argument goes that we have different kinds of friends, some closer than others. Facebook does allow for some granularity in sharing but the mechanism they provide is cumbersome and complex to manage. I pretty much have two groups in Facebook, one I share everything with and one I share nothing with. I'm hoping Plus gets this right.

Some people are claiming that Google has a lot more than just pride at stake here, that the web is increasingly about applications (The cloud) and social interaction (Facebook, etc.). This is an interesting vision but not one I put a lot of credence in. Yes, the web is tending to consolidate. Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, NetFlix and a handful of other sites account for a substantial percentage of the traffic but many of those sites are dealing with data that is either ephemeral (How many of you have looked back a year on Facebook, can you even do that?), highly specialized or essentially aggregated.  Microsoft wouldn't be working so hard to gain marketshare if being the worlds search engine was about to become pointless. If Google is looking for growth then yes, the social networking space is important. I don't see them having anything to worry about on the search front for now other than continued competition from Microsoft and others.

If anyone out there has an invite to the beta please let me know, I'd love to take a look and start kicking the tires.

Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Empire Avenue (The Game)

This image is an example of a blocking cluster...
I've been on Empire Avenue for a bit over a week now. Here are some early impressions.

Empire Avenue is one part game, one part social network and one part social network influence ranking. I'm still going back and forth as to whether this is a brilliant or misguided approach. This time out I'm going to talk a bit about the game aspect of the site

The game portion of the site is based on the concept that you can use virtual currency to buy and sell stock in the social networking engagement of people and companies. You make "money" by selling this stock or collecting dividends that are based on that person or companies activities on the various social networking sites that Empire Avenue ranks. Currently this is Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, FlikR and Empire Avenue itself. Here's my up to the minute price.

Prices start at ten "Eaves" and go up or down from there based on how much of your stock is being bought or sold and how active you are. As of this writing I'm doing well but from what I can tell it's fairly hard to reach the elite ranks if you don't want to devote your entire life to an obsessive pursuit of posting, commenting, page views and random social drive-by's.

The game itself is kind of fun and useful if it encourages good social networking interactions. It also has the potential to amplify peoples inner narcissist. This isn't unique to Empire Avenue of course. Narcissism is the dark underbelly of any site that deals with social networking.

A lot of my stock sold when I initially signed up because I was cheap and reasonably active. I also made an effort to publicize myself. My sales fell off steadily as I progressed through the first week. I'm not entirely sure why this happened but I suspect it is a combination of my share price increasing, not being a mega contributor and a general desire by most players to get in on the ground floor rather than risking buying high and losing money.

Overall I've increased my social network engagement a bit over the past week plus because of the game. I'm trying very hard not to lower the quality of my contributions to increase the quantity. I think I'm doing an OK job but am going to continue to monitor that closely. I'm in this for the long haul. I've had a nice steady upward trend in page hits over the past several months and I don't want to jeopardize that for a game.

On the flip side, I really do love to read, learn and write which means I'm constantly generating content. I'm starting to think I need to add a couple more BLOG's. :-)

So, in summary the game is fun but arguably a bit dangerous in that it can encourage bad behavior. Empire Avenue has apparently been tweaking things over time to try to mitigate that but it's likely always going to be an issue. One place where this has a noticeable impact is on the social network portion of Empire Avenue. I'll talk more about that in a future entry.

Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, June 27, 2011

Wither (Non Social) Networking?

10 gigabit router
There are a lot of threads in play right now in the networking space. From an infrastructure perspective networks are the foundation of information technology. When people talk about the cloud they think about huge data centers storing information and providing applications and other services to people everywhere and at any time. To make that dream work you need sophisticated and complicated networks. In some ways networks should be thought of as utilities, at least from the perspective that any business should assume that the physical plant is in place to service their employees needs, but from an architectural and maintenance perspective care and feeding is increasingly important and difficult.

There is a theory that states that networking is rapidly becoming a mature market. A mature market is one in which innovation is relatively slow, product cycles are measured in many years and thus industry revenues are relatively stagnant. Think Refrigerators for instance or washers and dryers. The problem with mature markets is that they don't have much opportunity for growth. Investors aren't real excited by mature markets. While they can be good sources of cash in the form of dividends stock prices tend to be stagnant and the excitement factor low.

Personally I think we're at least a decade away from having to worry about networking falling into this category. I have two reasons for thinking this way.

The first is the shift to "The cloud", or highly centralized model for IT. The cloud is really just a new label for an old concept. In IT everything old is new again about every twenty years. We're essentially shifting back from a highly decentralized model to one where pretty much everything lives in the data center. This shift back to a more centralized model has a number of implications in the network world, not the least of which is network design. Data centers, already bandwidth hogs become even bigger consumers of network resources.

Locality plays a part as well. If you're a big company you're going to have your own data center(s). In the past you could more or less get away with just building bigger and bigger pipes as your needs increased. Now you need not only bandwidth but sophisticated resource management as well. Virtualization and resource management don't happen in a vacuum, they depend very heavily on and need support from the network and impact the network architecture.

Data center consolidation will not be cheap and network equipment and service vendors are going to be picking up a significant chunk of the money being invested here.

If you're a small to medium sized business you may outsource your data center all together. The networking infrastructure you had on your edge that was previously adequate no longer is at this point. You'll need a lot more bad width and a much higher level of reliability. If you connection to the Internet goes down in the cloud based world you're not just inconvenienced, your dead in the water. This scenario is mitigated somewhat by smartphones and cellular wireless hotspots but there is only so much bandwidth available in those scenarios. Distributed work forces don't have to worry so much about this but I think we're going to see a fair amount of investment in network edges as companies come to realize that getting rid of their data centers may save them money but only if they make the right strategic investments to assure that their employees have a high probability of being able to get their work done. Perimeter routers and security devices figure prominently into this equation.

The other area I see for growth is at the campus level. Specifically in the need to move from IP and weak identity based security management to strong identity based authentication and access.  Both computers and users can be grated access based on security mechanisms such as smart cards and 802.1x. The thing about these technologies, particularly 802.1x is that they can't easily be done with existing access layer switches. This means a substantial investment needs to be made to get into the game. Initially not everyone is going to need or want 802.1x, but given the sophistication of attackers and highly mobile work forces I don't think there will be many companies that can afford to take the risk of not going this route.

Another issue with access layer switches is management. Managing switch infrastructure is complicated and messy. Currently the majority of switch configuration lives on each switch. This means changes can only be made by connecting to a switch and issuing commands. This isn't a big deal if you only have a handful of devices but for campus networks that often include hundreds of switches it is infeasible. What is really needed is an architecture that requires just enough configuration information on each switch so that it can phone home on boot up and get its configuration from a central server or controller. This is already done in the wireless world.

Of course service providers aren't immune. Data has to get from point A to point B and they provide the pathways that allow this to happen. Bandwidth requirements will continue to increase while the need to minimize latency is increasingly important all of which means continued investment in new equipment.

One way of looking at all this is that for large companies IT spend on desktops and departmental IT is likely going to decline but at least some of that money is going to need to be invested in the network. For small to medium sized companies the story is slightly different but the punchline is the same. we'll likely be seeing less money spent on data centers and personal computers but again there will need to be a larger investment in network infrastructure to support this shift to the cloud.

So basically what I'm saying is that the shift to cloud computing in conjunction with ever increasing security needs combine to actually increase the need to invest in network infrastructure and thus networking is unlikely to become a mature market for several more years at the very least.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Technology, Many Threads To Follow

I'm not sure it's good or bad that I've been making close to daily posts recently. I have a lot of different interests and my mind is constantly churning so it isn't that hard for me to do at least a "drive by" or short take every day with the occasional longer form posting. If I didn't have a day job I could do more than that. Given what BLOGING pays (close to zero if anyone was wondering) odds are I won't be upping my output anytime soon.

For a combination of reasons I've been working my way through several different technology areas recently.

I used to be very deeply into high performance computing. I'd gotten way behind the past few years and want to catch up. There are a lot of very interesting things going on in this space with Intel, NVidia and AMD all lining up to duke it out for supremacy in the race to exaflop computing. Each is taking a different approach so it's going to be interesting and complicated to follow and handicap this race. I'm sure I'll be writing more about this in the coming months.

The recent announcements in the area of light field cameras has gotten me very curious about the science and technology that makes such wonders possible. Once I feel like I have a decent grasp on that I want to explore a little bit where things might be heading. I've seen the announcement of Lytro's emergence from stealth mode in all sorts of places so it's clear this technology has captured a lot of peoples imagination. Interestingly the concepts aren't exactly new, but putting them together into an affordable consumer product seems to be an impressive feat, particularly if the initial product lives up to the hype.

The whole HTML5/Javascript debate in regards to Microsoft and various other companies is also taking up a few cycles as I try to get up to speed on what is going on below the covers of these technologies. When the entire industry seems to be converging on a particular combination of technologies it's important to understand why, and where that might lead.

Social network influence sites have also been a bit of an obsession recently. I've been spending a fair amount of time on Empire Avenue trying to figure out what they are doing and how likely it is to succeed along with continuing to monitor Klout and Peer Index. Luckily I have no plans for world dominance because given my numbers any such aspiration would be clearly in jeopardy at this point.

Finally, I'm scheduled to take the Cisco CCNP switch exam on a few weeks so I'm getting to spend some time delving into the subtleties of layer 2 and layer 3 switching and related technologies.

Throw in my wood working and Luthiery aspirations and my plate is fairly full. It's good not to be bored.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, June 24, 2011

Disconnected/The Zombie Apocalypse

Nature preservationist John Muir with US Presi...
For better or worse we're almost always online these days. I'm old enough to clearly remember a time when this wasn't true so when I end up in a remote place where Internet and sometimes even cell access are not available it isn't a completely alien feeling. I wonder how younger people feel/deal with that though?
Publish Post
If there is ever a zombie apocalypse I suspect the younger survivors will be more concerned about the lack of texting and Internet service than the shambling undead.

When my wife and I went on a short vacation recently we drove over some very rural roads at times.  She gets car sick and likes to drive so I always get to be the passenger on road trips. Before we got our first navigation system I had copilot duties but now I mostly spend time on my laptop working on stuff like this BLOG. Google's blogger service is an example of a cloud application. If you have the page loaded when you lose your Internet connection you can still enter text but it isn't going to be saved. This makes it easy to lose a whole lot of work. Thankfully that didn't happen to me but the fact that it could is one reason I'm a fan of solutions that are either stand alone or hybrid.

I've sometimes jokingly refer to myself as input addicted. Between work and leisure on a typical day  I probably spend an average of twelve hours or more on line. During that time I'm researching, generating reports, writing, programming, occasionally playing games and participating in various social networking sites. I almost never watch TV because it isn't interactive and the sound to noise ratio is very low. After two or three commercials I'm ready to go find something better to do. In my case input is only good when I perceive the quality to be high.

There have been many books written about both the good and the bad sides of the information technology revolution. The thing  people who come down on the bad side miss is that more often than not change is neither good nor bad, it just is. How we react to change says a lot about our own biases, background and insecurities.

I'd be lying if I said I totally enjoyed the experience of being offline for large chunks of time while we were on vacation. It made me realize just how much of my life I spend on line. Much like change I view this as neither good nor bad but it did get me to thinking.  We were driving through Yosemite for a lot of our downtime. That area is a beautiful normally and with the heavy snows we had this past winter it was even better than normal thanks to all the runoff. In spite of that I'm fairly sure I would have chosen to miss seeing the sites after the first couple of hours of not being able to tether.

The Internet is the rope that holds so many things together these days. I know we once lived without it but it's not an easy thing to imagine even though I lived through it. I'm sure I'd learn to live in that world again if I had to but I tend to think I'd hate the detox period.

This is change. Is it good or bad? I'm OK with it but I can see why some people might not be.

As for me, I'll probably be staring blank eyed at my computer screen waiting for the Internet to come back when the Zombies come to get me.

Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lytro/Photography/Wow (Short Take)

I love technology. I love innovation. I love cool consumer products. Based on the limited information currently available on the forthcoming Lytro camera I think I've found an example of all three of those loves nicely combined into one package.

What is it?  Check out the following picture...

I believe you'll need to have flash installed to see it. The flowers on the left are blurry, right?  Go ahead and click on one of them. Notice how the point of focus changed? Now everything in the background is blurry. What Lytro appears to do is capture the entire scene. This means you have no need to focus when taking the picture. All the information is there, so after the fact you can choose the focal point and you can change it at any time. Double click anywhere in the image and it zooms in. Double click again and you'll zoom back out.

No, it's not April first though I'm tempted to go look at my calendar to be sure.

Go to their website for more information

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The Transition To Data (Verizon/AT&T/Etc)

Cell phone tower cleverly disguised to look li...
Voice over IP technologies like Skype and Google Voice are rapidly making the traditional concept of what a cell phone is obsolete, assuming of course you have a smart phone.

Right now phone companies like Verizon and AT&T make a lot of their money by charging for text and phone plans but increasingly they are going to be moving to charging for data since that is where the action is going to be. This trend has already started. If you're a light to moderate user of data you may actually see your bill drop. If on the other hand you like to stream video than you may be in for a very rude awakening.

AT&T actually made this move a year or so ago here in the US and Verizon is supposedly going to follow suite soon.

This isn't surprising at all if you follow the trends in networking. It used to be that companies had separate data and voice networks but this is increasingly no longer the case. Voice, video, data and any other service you'd care to name are pretty much all capable of running over the same cable these days. This is a good thing as it lowers costs but it does add some complexities on the network management side as you need to be sure that all the services that are flying around on your network are getting their appropriate share of resources. People get grumpy when the quality of the audio on their phone calls is sub par.

From an entrepreneurial perspective this is all very cool as it means that in most cases we no longer need to invent all new devices and delivery mechanisms to get our service or in some cases product out to consumers. TCP/IP, the technology that underlies most Internet communication is a rich and highly mature set of protocols that give the ability to do everything from audio to video. This functionality in conjunction with increasingly powerful mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets means that businesses and consumers have a tremendous amount of opportunity to create and/or interact.

All of which leaves the traditional carriers kind of out in the cold. This is particularly true if you consider how little success most of them have had with setting up their own Application stores. They have increasingly gone from being service providers to only providing the infrastructure. There are still profits to be made at that level of the value chain but they tend to be a lot smaller and harder to come by.

The big mistake these carriers made was in going down the path of vendor lock in. By trying to box their customers in they also boxed themselves in. By this I mean that they created services and products that were only available to their own subscribers rather than everyone. If I were in senior management at one of these companies I'd be thinking very seriously about what kinds of services I could create that would appeal to all customers and shift away from trying to build a wall around my existing ones. The world is changing and there is little they can do to fight this. Adapt or die are their only choices.

In poorer parts of the world traditional cell/mobile service is going to be around for many more years. Companies operating there have the opportunity to be more proactive in adapting.

Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, June 20, 2011

Klout/I Am Now A Dabbler? (Short Take)

The addition of LinkedIn to Klout's scoring has gotten me promoted to "Dabbler". The text for this Klout "Style" follows...

You might just be starting out with the social web or maybe you're not that into it. If you want to grow your influence, try engaging with your audience and sharing more content.

This is more accurate than their initial categorization of me as an "Observer" but it's still fairly far off the mark if we're talking about my overall on line presence. In fact this is off even limiting things to Klout's current scope of Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn. I post original content to all three of these sites multiple times per week. I do make an effort to keep my sound to noise ratio high though so my volume is probably lower than a lot of people who tweet in a stream of consciousness kind of way. I'm not criticizing that approach, it can be entertaining and informative if done right but that's not my style.

Klout is still in Beta and I've moved them ahead of PeerIndex on my personal list of social influence ranking sites but they still have a long way to go at this point in terms of giving useful information if my experience is any indication.

Image by thriveoutdoors via Flickr
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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Klout & PeerIndex Followup/Empire Avenue

A social network diagram
Th last time I discussed PeerIndex & Klout I picked PeerIndex as the winner in the race between these two social network influence measurement services. It's only been a week or so since that posting but I've had a bit more time to think about this topic and now have more experience with Klout so I wanted to make a few more comments/observations.

First, I'm increasingly doubtful as to the validity of the scores these services publish. I don't have any issue with the concept that you can come up with a score for a single service as there seems to be reasonably good science/math behind that. Where I become doubtful is when those scores get combined. If I bowl, play baseball and play poker is it reasonable to expect that anyone could combine my results in those three different activities into some sort of score that would be comparable to other people who also participated in those three activities? What if there was somebody who didn't care about bowling or poker but was a great baseball player. How would they compare to me if I were mediocre in all three? There are a lot of reasons to want to think that somebodies on line social networking influence could be measured by a single number but at this point I don't believe that is true. That doesn't mean these sites aren't going to be successful even if I'm right. Valid data isn't a requirement for success. Ironically enough, if they are viewed as influential they will be.

Klout was apparently in the process of including LinkedIn to their score when I signed up a couple of weeks ago. LinkedIn was listed but not part of my score as a few days back I got a three point boost after getting an email from Klout informing me that LinkedIn scoring was imminent. Ignoring for the  moment my distrust of these numbers I liked the way Klout went back and recalculated my past several days information so that I didn't suddenly have a big change on the day LinkedIn was added. That made for a  much less jarring experience. I really like the fact that Klout has a strong trending/history component built in.

PeerIndex on the other hand has no history/trending so far as I've been able to tell. I'll just login one day and find my score has jumped or dropped twenty points. These changes are no doubt a result of tweaks to their algorithm but they are very disconcerting. This lack of history isn't surprising since PeerIndex seldom seems to update their data. I'm getting increasingly disillusioned with this. It seems doubtful that Klout is faking this and if they can be as timely as they appear to be than PeerIndex needs to be as well. I'm starting to think I should have given Klout first place when I ranked these two.

There is a third player in this space called EmpireAvenue that I plan on checking out. I'll hopefully have enough information on them in a week or two to comment. Speaking of Empire Avenue, please ignore the following bit of gibberish. It's part of the registration process for their site.


Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, June 18, 2011


Illustration of Facebook mobile interface
There has been a fair amount of press recently about Facebook's plans to challenge the whole app store paradigm with a new HTML5/Javascript development platform that would be capable of bypassing Apple all together. It's an interesting concept, but not a new one if true.

When Netscape originally came out with their browser back in the 1990's there was a lot of talk about how the browser would replace applications and eliminate Microsoft's domination. "The browser is the computer" was kind of the battle cry. Here we are nearly twenty years later and while browser based applications are orders of magnitude more powerful than they were back then we still haven't reached that supposed state of Nirvana. HTML5 and Javascript are in theory the roads to that promised land.

I really question the concept that applications that run in the browser somehow magically eliminate the need for app stores or stand alone applications. The whole world is not connected 24/7 to the Internet and there are a lot of gray areas where you can be connected but only at a significant cost. Coverage is constantly improving but there are likely always going to be places where the economics do not support the Internet being available at a price that most people would consider reasonable. The good news is that so long as you have sufficient local storage you don't need to load browser based apps from a remote server. They'll run just fine when loaded from local storage assuming they don't require remote resources.

So, what do we know about Facebook's new technology? We're told it's called "Project Spartan" but beyond that details are sketchy. It's supposedly going to debut on iOS based devices with support for Android and other platforms assumed to happen at a later date. Since  the HTML5/Javascript combo are reported to be at the heart of this project that seems like a fairly reasonable scenario.

The theory is that Facebook can muscle in on some of the revenues that Google and Apple are collecting from their app stores. It's not a bad idea in theory, though Facebook does have a potential channel conflict here. Right now they depend on those app stores to get their client out. Going to a web browser based client would side step that issue but Facebook would generate a lot of bad feelings which could translate into all sort of subtly obstructionist moves by Apple and Google.

There have already been signs that the relationship between Apple and Facebook is strained. Take for instance the absence of an iPad specific Facebook client more than a year after Apple debuted their wonder tablet. Yes, you can run the iPhone client but frankly it looks cockroach ugly when expanded 2x to fill the screen. Another sign is the fact that Apple chose to incorporate Twitter into iOS 5.0, not Facebook. There are now rumors that the iPad Facebook app will be out in the next few weeks but there is no way this should have taken as long as it did.

Facebook has been showing sings of plateauing in recent months, particularly in the US. They apparently want to do an IPO early next year and values of one hundred billion dollars are being bandied about. They are going to have to come up with a pretty good story as to who they will continue to see excellent revenue growth over the next several years if they want to pull that off. Project Spartan may play a significant part in that effort.

In researching this topic one thing that interested me is the assumption that web browser based apps are essentially a return to client/server computing. This doesn't have to be true. So long as you have access to the local file system and other resources there is no reason you can't write stand alone applications. There are potential resource issues, particularly on constrained mobile devices if the underlying technologies are not efficient enough but that is a separate issue. Also, many "thick clients" are highly dependent on remote servers in order to function. Try using Google's navigation app with your phone in airplane mode and see how functional it is.

Image via Wikipedia
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The Windows family tree.
A lot of the big news in technology recently seems to center on the HTML5/JavaScript combination. There is much consternation in the Microsoft developers community over the recent news that Microsoft will apparently be moving away from the mature development that has evolved over the past several years to move towards a development environment that they are both unfamiliar with and unprepared for. Microsoft has been pushing them in the direction of .net, silverlight and other Microsoft specific technologies for decades and suddenly they are supposed to do a complete 180 and embrace open standards? It's no doubt a difficult pill to swallow.

The question however is do they really have a choice? Most technology prognosticators seem to be firmly of the opinion that the web is the future and that mobile computing platforms are going to play a big part in that future. Microsoft's current platform is Windows specific. Yes, they have made an effort to make many of their API's available across multiple Microsoft platforms but increasingly it isn't a primarily Microsoft world. Linux in the form of Android and Apple are both significant and growing players.

If I were a Microsoft developer I'd initially be upset by this move but then I'd start thinking about the possibilities. If my applications are written in HTML5/Javascript I suddenly have access to almost any Internet capable device. Of course it isn't quite that simple since different devices have different capabilities but I'd no longer be tied exclusively to one vendor.

I'd also be very surprised if Microsoft isn't well on the way to supporting HTML5/Javascript in their various development tools. In fact the latest version of Visual Studio is reported to have enhanced capabilities in this area. So the learning curve may not be quite as steep as some are thinking.

There are advantages for Microsoft as well. Their share of the total computing market (smart phones, tablets, desktops, laptops, etc.) has been shrinking for awhile now. By moving to open standards they significantly increase their potential customer base. To be clear, I don't see their developer tools running on anything other than Windows any time soon, but if those development tools are good, and can be used to develop code for non Microsoft products then non Microsoft developers just might buy and use them.

In the case of Microsoft's office productivity and other applications the picture would be even rosier since those apps would in theory be capable of running anywhere. Microsoft invests a substantial amount of money right now on the Apple specific version of their Office suite. That cost could be greatly reduced by this move.

For a long time Microsoft's business strategy has been predicated on locking people into their dominant OS platform. Those who have been around for awhile will recall the battle Microsoft fought against TCP/IP (AKA, the Internet) back in the early 1990's. It seems absurd now but Microsoft seemed to think that they could do their own proprietary protocols (that didn't even route well from what I recall) and ignore the whole Internet thing. One day Bill Gates apparently woke up and realized they weren't going to be able to win that battle and almost overnight Microsoft embraced the Internet and were thus able to maintain their dominant position for nearly twenty more years. That was what is referred to as an inflection point and Microsoft chose well. The question is, are we at another inflection point and is Microsoft choosing well?

In my opinion the answer to both of those questions is yes. It's easy to see why others would feel otherwise though, particularly parties with a strong vested interest in the way things have been going up until now. I'd wager a fair amount of money that there is some very spirited debate going on inside Microsoft right now about whether this is the right move to make. It's at times like this that CEO's and senior management earn (or not) their pay.

Image via Wikipedia

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Online Social Networking History (Short Take)

Description: Social Networking Source: own wor...
It's kind of odd to me that so many people seem to assume that online social networking is somehow a new thing. I'll admit that the scope has grown over the years but the general concept has existed at least since the first email message was sent.

My first online experience was a brief stint on Compuserve when I was still in my early teens. Why was Compuserve interesting? Because there were other people who hung out there with similar interests to my own. In other words I could socialize and network.

Later I was a regular on BBS's and eventually ran my own board. I meet many of the people I "chatted" with in those BBS's and I'm still in touch with some of them.

Usenet was another early form of social networking. It allowed people from all over the planet to asynchronously chat about thousands of different topics that were organized hierarchically. Usenet was the first place I recall encountering SPAM. This was a sure sign that the barbarians were at the gates and it wasn't just techno savvy people who were socializing and networking on line.

The big difference between then and now is that almost everyone has a presence on Facebook. Does that make online social networking somehow new and exciting? Apparently the answer is yes given how much money LinkedIn made in their IPO.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Maybe it's that innovation isn't always about doing something totally new. Sometimes there are things out there that have seen a lot of use that just need a little twist or refinement to be taken to the next level.

Image via Wikipedia
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Commodore 128

HI-RES photo of a Commodore 128
I recently talked a bit about my early tech geek love affair with Commodore. Now I'm feeling nostalgic. I'll probably write one or two more Commodore themed entries over the next few weeks.

The second computer I bought was the Commodore 128. The 128 actually had three different modes of operation. In order of importance these were...
  1. Commodore 64 (A nearly perfect emulation of the classic Commodore 64)
  2. CP/M (The grand daddy of all personal computer operating systems and the basis for DOS 1.0, which helped launch Microsoft's long period of dominance)
  3. Commodore 128 (The Commodore 64 multiplied by two and with a much nicer Basic programming language than the 64)
The concept of putting two different general purpose processors in one computing device (the 8502 for the Commodore modes and the Zilog Z80 for CP/M) was an interesting one but since both were eight bit processors in a world that was rapidly transitioning to sixteen bit processors such as the Motorola 68000 the Commodore 128 was a bit of a throw back. The decision to build and sell a machine like this one probably goes a long way towards explaining why the original Commodore went broke. It essentially tried to be everything to everybody while not being very good at pleasing any of the audiences it was trying to appeal to. Obviously that isn't a winning strategy.

The thing that the Commodore 128 did reasonably well was pretend to be a Commodore 64. The only problem was it cost a lot more than a Commodore 64 to make which translated into a higher price. It was a mediocre at best CP/M machine since it ran at about half the speed of contemporary CP/M systems. Add in the fact that CP/M was also on its last legs by that time and it's unclear if a better CP/M mode would have helped.  The Commodore 128 mode ended up being largely useless since very little software was created for it though GEOS was kind of fun.

Commodore had a lot of success in the late 70's building their PET line of business computers. The 128 seems like the bastard step child of a C-64 and a SuperPet 9000 with a bit of Altair somehow mixed in. The Commodore Amiga was an external acquisition. If I were to guess I'd say the 128 was the dying gasp of the "old" Commodore and one that took time and money away from the Amiga line which was the companies future.

So lets summarize, more expensive than the C-64 with additional functionality that almost nobody cared about. Not a good combination. I've also read that the 128 cost about as much to make as the Amiga 500 but had to be priced much lower to make the differentiation between the two clear.

To be fair, I really enjoyed my time with the Commodore 128. I hardly used the CP/M mode but I did play around with the enhanced capabilities of the 128 mode a fair amount and that helped me progress down the techno geek path.

Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Klout & PeerIndex (Social Network Influence)

A segment of a social network
There is apparently a growing interest in measuring peoples social networking influence. This is neither surprising nor alarming but the results of the early attempts are mixed if my experience is any indication. To be fair both the sites I'm going to talk about here are listed as being in Beta so there is still time for each to improve before they finalize on their initial releases.

One short coming both appear to have is that they focus very heavily on new forms of communication such as Twitter and Facebook either to the exclusion of older forms such as this BLOG (Klout) or they pay at best superficial attention (PeerIndex). You could argue that BLOG's aren't social networking but I'd disagree. Online social networking isn't really new, it's been around in one form or another for the better part of a half century starting with early email lists and progressing right up until today with sites such as Facebook and Twitter. BLOG's are still a viable way of sharing information and building influence and should be part of any score that purports to measure peoples online social capital.

Another short coming is the fact that both these services try to combine a bunch of similar but different services immediately into one all encompassing score. What I'd prefer to see is individual scores for each site they include in their rankings and then a composite score that took into account the individual scores.

I'm also confused as to why both these sites include Facebook. Maybe I'm unusual but I view and use Facebook very differently from the way I use sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn. It feels like trying to include Facebook is mixing two very different use cases to me and I don't think you can get credible results by doing that. It also makes me very uncomfortable to be asked to give an outside application such as these access to my Facebook feed. I take my privacy very seriously and it feels somewhat disrespectful to the people on my friends list that I'm doing this. It's optional of course to grant these applications that access but I wanted to get the best possible picture of their capabilities so I gritted my teeth and added them. I immediately tightened things down as much as I could security wise while still enabling them to (in theory) do their jobs.

Thinking about it I believe the problem is that there are two basic use cases for Facebook. Famous people and companies who use it as a means to keep in touch with and influence their fans and customers and private individuals who just want a place where they can keep in touch with their extended friends and family. While it makes sense to track the first case, I don't see much value in tracking the second.

I've been following PeerIndex for several months now and my score has been all over the map as they've developed and refined their algorithms. In general I think they've been moving in the right direction though I do have some criticisms.

The graphic to the left shows my PeerIndex "Topic Fingerprint". I understand the skew towards Technology and Business but the fact that "Arts, Media and Entertainment" is stronger confuses me. I do have another BLOG I update occasionally that focuses on my aspirations to someday be a competent builder of acoustic guitars but I don't think that can account for this.

Another issue I've noticed is that PeerIndex has something they call a "mozRank" which is supposed to be a value between one and ten that in some way reflects the relative popularity of your BLOG's. This value has steadfastly stayed at zero for both my BLOG's since it showed up in my profile. Even more confusing is the fact that it shows as last having been updated two months ago.

Timeliness of data has been an ongoing problem with PeerIndex. It took weeks for my initial score to show up when I first registered and if I have to manually tell it to update its read on my Twitter feed if I want up to date information. There is more on this topic below in the wrap up section.

My experience with Klout is much more limited. I've only been following them closely for a week or so now. My main complaint is that they appear to only incorporate three sites into their score. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. This is probably why they classify me as an "Observer", or somebody who doesn't share much in spite of the fact that I've averaged more than two posts a week for the year plus that this BLOG has existed and a couple of posts a month over the multi-year existence of my other BLOG. It seems like the fact that I create and share several thousand words of text a month along with the occasional graphic or chart should qualify me to be categorized as something more indicative of participation than "Observer".

Wrap Up
Both PeerIndex and Klout are trying to establish rankings for everyone on line which means they need to read millions of profiles and sites. It's a daunting task, and one that has the potential to seriously impact the resources of Twitter and other sites that are included in the composite scores these companies are trying to create. Thinking about it, that is likely the biggest impediment to services like these. What do Twitter, FaceBook, etc gain from them besides significant bandwidth and processor hogs that thus incur significant costs while impacting the "paying" customers? You could argue that social network influence rankings encourage the use of social network sites but at this point FaceBook, Twitter and the other players getting coverage don't seem to be having any trouble attracting new users. I suspect the primary reason Klout and PeerIndex haven't been shut off is the desire by these companies to avoid the negative press that such a move would create. Maybe I'm wrong about the economics of the situation though.

If I'm not wrong about the economics then these companies are going to have to find some way to not only monetize their services but to also compensate in some tangible way the social networking companies they are dependent on.

So far as I can tell there are three main customers for the information these companies provide.
  1. Companies that are trying to understand how to best utilize their limited resources in responding to what is being said about them and their products on line. Knowing how influential a particular person is helps them do this
  2. People like me who are trying to measure what if any progress they are making in building their online presence and influence. As an aside, I'm not very comfortable with the concept that I might be influencing people. I'd much rather inform. In some ways that is a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.
  3. People who are trying to get a better idea of who is worth listening to. I'm not sure this is a good thing.
One issue with all of these cases is the fact that they tend to imply that a high score reflects broad influence. Justin Bieber has a PeerIndex score of 91. I'd guess that the bulk of his influence is with females under the age of twenty five. For anyone over the age of forty that score should likely be much lower.

Right now the clear winner in my mind is PeerIndex. It'll be interesting to see how these two companies and others doing more or less the same thing do over the next few years.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Being Non Partisan (Short Take)

An Amiga 500, with 1084S RGB monitor and A1010...
I'm not completely nonpartisan when it comes to technologies and technology companies but I try to be as neutral and even handed as I can be. I've learned along the way that getting too fond of a particular company is going to end in disappointment eventually.

My first love was Commodore. The C64 is still a legend having sold more units than any other computer model and the Amiga was a great followup. In the end though Commodore went broke and while I wish the recently resurrected company the best I'm not holding my breath for them to make a serious run at Apple or any of the other big players.

My second love was Sun Microsystems. I spent ridiculous amounts of money relative to my wages at the time to acquire used sun workstations for use at home. This wasn't a bad investment from a career perspective but I eventually became disillusioned with their inability to effectively monetize all the great products they kept coming up with and with their managements many other short comings.

On the flip side there was a time when I was anything but a fan of Microsoft and IBM. I viewed IBM as big and clueless and arguably they were at the time. They've become a much leaner and smarter company over the past fifteen years or so.  Microsoft is no longer the evil empire in my mind because Apple is increasingly dominant and Microsoft is finally doing a credible job of not trying to unfairly leverage their OS dominance to conquer the world. Also for the first time in the history of the company they are starting to put out some products that I consider to be innovative.

My point? The technology world is constantly changing place and getting too emotional about any particular company is bound to lead to disappointment eventually and that disappointment is going to take place sooner rather than later if you make even a minimal attempt to be objective.

I'm not saying that I don't get enthusiastic about companies and technologies, but I do work hard to do so in as nonpartisan a way as possible.

Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Android 2.3 & My Droid X

Android robot logo.
I've owned my Motorola Droid X Android phone for just under a year now. In that time I've had three different versions of Android with the latest being 2.3 which arrived a week or so back. It's been like getting a new phone with each upgrade. Based on the age of the phone and Google's assertion that all Android devices must be supported with new OS releases for at least 18 months I should get at least one more update. The Droid X isn't state of the art at this point but it does have a 1GHz processor and a reasonably powerful GPU plus a half gig of RAM so it is still a very capable platform.

The upgrade from 2.2 to 2.3 was relatively painless and quick, though a few settings were lost along the way. For instance I had to login to Amazon again and my wireless hot spot settings needed to be reentered.

The overall look and feel of the GUI is more refined and at least as peppy as previous releases. I've noticed many little changes like the addition of profiles which I haven't actually used yet. Profiles apparently allow you to have up to three (and possibly more) different icon arrangements.

The built in camera support has been enhanced. Panorama assist used to require the user to enter left to right or right to left. Now it just figures it out based on the motion of the camera.

It's hard to judge battery life since my battery has been showing signs that it needs to be replaced recently so I have a new one on the way.

The biggest thing I've noticed though is the improvements in the wireless hot spot function. Prior to the 2.3 update I've never been very happy with the reliability of this feature. I've frequently had to power cycle my phone to get it to work and dropped connections were common. In limited testing with 2.3 I've had none of those problems. Hopefully I didn't just get lucky in my initial testing but I don't think that is the case. I've used the wireless hot spot regularly and never had as good an experience before. It's also nice that I had the option of telling the phone to never warn me again about the dangers of enabling the hot spot function.

As much as I like Android, prior to 2.3 Apple's iOS was a more refined experience. Google has made impressive strides with this release and at this point I don't feel like there is a significant gap. Having Apple and Google do their best to out innovate the other is going to be good for consumers and that really is becoming a two way street as the new notifications functionality in iOS 5 looks a lot like the one Android has had for awhile now.

Application stability has been good though I did notice one or two minor glitches right after the update. Downloading the latest releases of my apps seems to have resolved those. Overall phone stability has been as good or better than prior releases. I don't see any reason to delay in doing this update. The UI tweaks are subtle enough that there really isn't any noticeable learning curve in my experience.

Overall this phone has held up well. I've dropped it a few times along the way and even without a case it's survived. The screen has some minor scratches but nothing I notice normally. I'm kind of tough on phones so this is an impressive track record.

I don't feel any urge to upgrade to the second generation Droid X but I'll certainly take a very serious look at the third generation if Motorola produces one.

Image via Wikipedia
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