Wednesday, August 31, 2011

+1 To Facebook (Short Take)

P8153836
One of the reasons competition is good is that it forces companies to make adjustments based on what the other players in their space are doing. Until the advent of Google Plus Facebook hadn't had any real competition since MySpace crashed and burned. Lack of competition is a lot of business people's fantasy but it's lousy for the consumer in the short to mid term and lousy for companies as well if it goes on for too long. It's easy to get arrogant and foolish in your decision making when there is nobody to chase or outrun in the competitive landscape. Eventually you become fat and lazy and somebody else comes along and takes a big chunk of your pie before you can react.

Facebook has made a number of enhancements to their platform over the past few weeks that are in obvious reaction to Google Plus. As an added bonus Facebook actually made these changes obvious to users and prompted them for their preference. Progress!

I don't know if Google plus will succeed but in the short term it has at least encouraged Facebook to take a smarter and more customer friendly approach to how they do business and that's a good thing for everyone.

Image by ACE Foundation via Flickr
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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moles And Trolls Or Why I Dislike Google's Real Names Push

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 16:  Eric Schmidt, ...
I'd been on the fence about Google's "Real Names" push on Google Plus since it's inception awhile back. There are pros and cons to both sides of the debate and I didn't find myself tipping strongly in either direction until now.

The title of this entry acknowledges that there are two kinds of anonymous posters.  Moles are people who hide their identity out of fear for their safety due to the opinions and beliefs they are expressing. Trolls hide their identity because they want to be jerks without consequences. They can be entertaining in a sick "look at this idiot" kind of way but they don't have any redeeming characteristics. Sadly to protect the first group you have to protect the second as well. I seriously doubt though that these two groups are Google's primary concern.

One of Google's central tenants is in theory "Don't be evil". Evil can come not only from action, but from inaction as well. I will suggest here that their real names push is in fact evil as currently constituted.

This wasn't actually clear to me until Google chairman Eric Schmidt made his "Don't like it, don't use it" statement. His point is basically valid, G+ is in fact optional. Then again so are Facebook and twitter and look at the number of times they've been used and cited in relation to helping coordinate and instigate profound changes in various countries. The ability for people to get on Twitter anonymously and discuss and coordinate has been used for much good and a bit of evil as well in the case of the London riots. Social networking has to be profitable for the companies creating products and services but these services are also providing important avenues for dissidents to be heard and encourage change. Some are willing to do this publicly and others are not. The fact that the first group are not infrequently beaten, tortured and killed explains the second group. Google is essentially saying "If you wan to use our service to promote change, you're going to have to do it in a very public way that might get you killed". That seems kind of evil to me, particularly when we explore the motivations for this approach.

As I've pointed out before, Google has  income already on G+ because of the information they can gather about us based on how we arrange our circles and who we choose to communicate our posts to. The value of those interactions goes up if Google knows more about the people on both ends of the transaction. This is in part why real names are so important to them.

The other reason they are important is that Google wants to build additional services on top of G+ that require verified identities. What Google is failing to acknowledge though is that there will inevitably be differing levels of verified. For instance, right now you don't have to have a credit card registered with Google to be on G+. Many of us do though since with have Android phones and buy stuff from the Android market place. That level of verification is clearly higher than "It looks like a real name and they've been around for awhile" or whatever minimal criteria Google is using right now. I can envision higher levels of verification that involve official ID's being presented, DNA testing, etc. I'm assuming of course that Google's next step will not be to require a credit card to use G+.

I can also envision a very low level of verification that is essentially no verification at all. This is where the anonymous types could and should exist. Clearly they wouldn't have access to many of the neat additional services that Google and their partners will build on top of G+, but that's OK.

For those worried about criminals using such this capability I'll point out that anonymity online only has a limited scope. Your online identity may not be obviously linked to you from a public perspective but there are all sorts of bread crumbs that companies save including IP addresses and email addresses that can be used in many cases to track down the real person if that becomes necessary. Technically sophisticated people can greatly reduce the odds of being tracked down but there is risk to them even in that case.

Of course verified identities or real names are only one half of the equation. Identity theft is relatively easy and common in both the real and electronic world right now. To do this right Google will need to provide some kind of token or smart card  technology to give a reasonable level of assurance that the person who is logged in to G+ is in fact who they claim to be. If this sounds complicated, well it is. A lot of this complexity could actually be hidden from the general public but in one form or another any identity service worth a dang is going to have to have gradated levels of identity and verification.

Currently Twitter provides an outlet for concise anonymous messaging. Google+ has the potential to allow for much richer communications in this arena since it doesn't have a 140 character limit. It may be over stating the case a bit to call Google evil for not allowing these communications but when you throw in the fact that their motivation for this move seems to be solely to support an overly simplistic business model the word evil becomes a bit more credible in my mind.

I'm not anti business. I realize that Google is a publicly traded company with tens of thousands of employees. Given their "Don't be Evil" philosophy though there are certain lines that they should in theory be reluctant to cross. This is one of them. They can in fact be an identity service without disallowing anonymous users. If they want to be a good identity service they'll need to account for varying levels of verification and authentication anyway.

Image by Getty Images via @daylife
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Monday, August 29, 2011

Some Monday Morning Thoughts

Old vs. New: Will internet search engines make...
It struck me again recently when I was reading the latest rumors about the iPhone 5 that Apple gets a lot of credit for being innovative when in fact most of the features you'll find in their products are anything but. There are exceptions of course like the Retina display but that is not the norm. In particular my phone is a year plus old at this point and has an 8 megapixel camera. Rumors are the iPhone 5 will match those specs. It seems likely that the iPhone 5 won't support LTE either. Where Apple wins is in their ability to integrate and create positive user experiences. As much as I love my Motorola Droid X, it does get annoying that I have to pull the battery periodically to hard power cycle it because it has gotten flaky. I have had to power cycle my iPad a few times but it's a fairly rare event.

Sprint employees have been asked to say "No comment" when asked by customers, family and friends about the possibility of the iPhone 5 coming to their network. This strikes me as a semi clever way of getting free advertising. Whether it actually means the iPhone 5 will be available on Sprint is difficult to judge. If it it is we'll see additional pressure on Android in the US. Apple's exclusive deal with AT&T in the beginning gave Google an opportunity to establish a foothold they might not have had otherwise so it makes sense from Apple's perspective to continue to "spread the love".

Dell is apparently the latest company to decide to get into the services side of cloud computing. Given their track record in other areas I'm not very optimistic about their chances. Other companies have been in this space for a lot longer and playing catch up at this point doesn't seem like a winning strategy even if they can execute and I have my doubts that they can.

I recently made my first virtual million on Empire Avenue. This was a cool accomplishment and one I'm kind of proud of. It took a fair amount of effort and a bit of thinking to get their and I've recently hit on a strategy that is giving me very good growth. I don't generally spend a lot of time on games these days but Empire Avenue has turned out to be a good investment in that I've made some great contacts and really stepped up my game on the BLOG and social network interaction front. It's nice to have some motivation to engage and an outlet that both encourages that engagement and gives me tools to help judge my effectiveness.

Speaking of social network engagement, my Klout score has been taking a bit of a hit recently and I'm not entirely sure why. I'm going to guess algorithm changes that aren't favorable to my model of engagement. I'm not going to worry too much about it but it's always disconcerting when a score goes down and I'm not quite sure why.

Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Venture Progress Report And Other Ramblings

Startup
I promised myself I'd post an update on how my start-up exploration is going today. So far, so good. I've written a fair bit of code and am using it to gather data. My idea centers on data analysis so I need to accumulate a decent sample size before I'll be able to draw many conclusions about what is possible. I'm probably a week or so away from having the base I'll need but I'll continue to write code while gathering the data. 

I've been learning a bunch of new technologies which has been mostly fun but a little frustrating. I'd forgotten how lousy most technical documentation is. All I need is a good example with an explanation. Instead I get lousy examples with almost no explanation most of the time. Technical types who are also effective communicators are apparently a very rare breed. When you write documentation you have to imagine you know nothing about the topic you are writing on. Most people don't do this. 

The price range for the 16G HP Touchpad one the grey market seems to be holding steady. Still no word from HP on new stock. I've signed up for the mailing list they've made available for people interested in purchasing one so I should hear something if they ever put more stock up for sale. I doubt I will though.

I made my first virtual million on Empire Avenue. I still have slightly mixed feelings about the platform but it has continued to encourage me to stay engaged and look for ways to make (hopefully) meaningful contributions in the social networking space. 

It's been kind of amusing watching Facebook change themselves into Google+ over the past week or so. OK, I exaggerate but all the changes they've made to their picture service and privacy settings are pretty clearly motivated by Google and their success with G+. The picture quality on Facebook has been lousy from the get go so it's nice they upgraded things but really, why did they need Google to motivate that change?

OK, time to get back to chores/hobbies/coding. 

Have a great weekend.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, August 26, 2011

The HP Touchpad Finally Finds Love

A Hewlett-Packard sponsored Porsche 997 GT3 Cuo
I'm continuing to lust after the $99 closeout HP touchpad but with the exception of a brief window in time this past Sunday/Monday it's begining to look like they are about as common as a humble politician.

HP's web site did claim more would be coming up until sometime between Tuesday evening and the wee hours of Wednesday morning but now they just say "Out of Stock". Online reports indicate that even people who work for HP aren't sure if or when more stock will show up.
There seems to be a lot of supply in the grey market with EBay and Amazon's marketplace showing several sources willing to sell for around $230 to $260 as I write this. Actually some people are asking a lot more than that but I doubt they are getting many bites with lower prices being available.
It's kind of odd that HP has been sending mixed signals this week. They should know their supply chain well enough to understand what they have in the pipe. They seemed ot think they were going to have more, now they are saying the opposite. I have a couple of different theories about where the remaining supply has gone.

My first theory is that they realize they low balled their clearance price a bit and are trying to figure out how to extract a few extra dollars from their remaining stock gracefully. Maybe a big shareholder called up and read them the riot act.
My second theory is that HP is going to sell all of their remaining units through channel partners, possibly to help assuage some of the frustration those partners likely have thanks to HP abandoning the tablet market suddenly. Heck, it was only a couple of weeks back that they were talking about being comfortable with the number two spot in the tablet market. A lot of people have gotten whiplash on that one.

Actually a third theory just occurred to me. Based on the frenzy around the $99 clearance HP has decided they really do have a future in the tablet market and is regrouping to announce they've changed their mind. I don't have an opinion on whether they should or shouldn't have abandoned the tablet market but if this one is true they need to take a reality check. The only thing the recent feeding frenzy proved is that even flawed products can be attractive if the price is low enough. We Americans love a sale more than just about anything else.

A lot of these bargain basement HP touchpads are going to end up with Android installed. That is my plan if I get my hands on one. I'll give WebOS a brief test drive but I have zero desire to learn a third platform, particularly one that is apparently dead.

Image via Wikipedia
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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs (Short Take)

Apple Inc
It's not hard to figure out what the obvious topic for today is. It's been interesting and occasionally encouraging to read the various news accounts about Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO of Apple. One I just read claims he worked a full day yesterday at Apple. That would be great if true because it would at the very least argue that he's not on deaths door as most people seem to be assuming after yesterdays announcement.

Still, most signs point to the fact that he is in fact human and that his health is not improving. I've admired his company and his effectiveness as a business leader for many years now. He's not perfect but he's done more than pretty much anyone else and he's managed to accomplish all that while doing less harm than most people who have amassed large sums of money have managed.

He hasn't always had the Midas touch though, at least over the short term. The NeXT computer was a brilliant product that never actually gained the kind of market share it needed for long term viability. The original units were shipped with a very cool but slow R/W optical drive only, no hard drive. This combination was revolutionary given the time but did not make a good impression from a performance or reliability perspective and that didn't help the viability of NeXT. Other than the original AppleTV it's hard for me to think of any other even partial failures since then though. Of course NeXT was eventually absorbed into Apple and a lot of that technical DNA survives today. The MacOS X OS was at its start a port of Next's operating system.

A lot of people have been writing eulogies to Jobs. I'm going to choose to believe that his story isn't done yet. He's apparently still heavily involved with Apple and he's still on the board at the Disney company. He may just surprise everyone and stick around long enough to add substantially to his legacy.

Image by Phil Bradley via Flickr
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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

HP Tablet Hunting And Garrison Keillor

Lake Chelan
My quest for a cheap HP tablet may yet bear fruit as HP may have more available later this week. I have my fingers crossed. I'm a total junkie when it comes to tech toys and even spectacular failures have a bit of appeal if the price is right. I'm periodically hitting refresh on the HP page hoping to get lucky.

As I write this my wife and I are on our way to see Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegone fame. I've been a casual fan of Keillor's for many years now so I've been looking forward to this for awhile. We almost missed the show though as it was originally on our calendar for tomorrow night. Thankfully through an unlikely series of coincidences we found out around lunch time that it's tonight. It's nice when stuff like that works out in your favor as tickets for a show that has already occurred are even less useful than expired milk as there is always a chance the milk might turn into cottage cheese or something else marginally useful.

I've decided I need to put a lot more effort into my blog entry titles. Apparently "foo/bar/whatever" isn't a very enticing labeling based on the number of page impressions I get on those kinds of posts versus ones where I use something that looks like a question or statement. If any aspiring bloggers are reading this, please learn from my mistake. It only took me a year and a half to figure out.

Of course following this advice is easier said than done. It's not like I don't want to come up with pithy titles. If I were good at that I'd probably be in marketing or advertising or maybe comedy rather than technology.

My favorite new social networking site is FourSquare. Any company that can get me to tell them where I'm at voluntarily has to be doing something right. Apparently I'm a sucker for virtual badges and points. Particularly when I get to compete against my friends.

It's after the show now. Keillor was by turns hilarious, thoughtful, serious and always entertaining. The Mountain Winery, the venue for the show was excellent as well. It's high up on a mountain side in Saratoga California which is southwest of San Jose and overlooks the silicon valley.

My plan for the morning of the 24th is going to be to work on the programming portion of my business idea. I should be able to finish up the initial data gathering portion of my coding with a bit of luck. At that point I'll be able to start working on other aspects of the project.

A minor rant before I go. The Google+ mobile client for iOS has a lot to recommend it. Two things I don't like though are the lack of an HD/iPad version and the fact that it only works in portrait mode. It's the second decade of the 21st century. There is no excuse for a mobile application not to work properly when the device is rotated.

Image by gelund via Flickr
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

HP/Cisco/Good Morning

English: Rendering of the Acid2 test on the Pa...
I'm still kind of regretting not getting one of those $99 HP clearance tablets. When I did a brief survey on EBay they were selling for twice that yesterday. I like my iPad well enough but having a very inexpensive alternative to compare it to would have been nice.

If HP had gone this route earlier they might not have failed in the tablet space. Of course they are losing a ton of money on each unit sold but it might have been worth it if they could have established WebOS as a viable alternative to Android and iOS. There has already been a port of Android announced for the platform; no surprise there given the capabilities of the hardware and the closeout price.

HP's fire sale can't be making other vendors happy though as they are no doubt cannibalizing at least some of the tablet market. Apple probably won't see much of a blip but the Android tablets are going to see a short term reduction in sales and given how poorly most of them have been doing to date that isn't a good thing.

It will be interesting to see how much of an impact, if any this has on people's price expectations, particularly for Android. Apple might just make out like bandits on this one as they have high margins and a differentiated product. The Android tablets are much more commoditized and don't have a lot of room for price cuts if they want to stay profitable.

On a different note, my halfhearted aspirations to be a Cisco CCNP are continuing to lead where most halfhearted aspirations do. I managed to fail the switch exam again. Oddly I know I was much better prepared than the first time and my score was actually lower.

One of my early jobs was working as a programmer in a department that created both computerized and paper and pencil tests. I’ll never claim to be a trained in the art of psychometrics but I do have a pretty good layman’s grasp of the concepts and this kind of variance in the face on increased knowledge doesn’t bode well for the testing methodology in use by Cisco.

I’m done for now on the Cisco front. I just don’t have the motivation I need right now to be successful and I’d rather be spending the time learning technologies and skills that are directly applicable to my current hobbies and side projects.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's All About... (Short Take)

Entity-relationship diagram showing a database...Image via WikipediaMe this time. I'll get back to my prognosticating in a few days. Right now I'm a little obsessed/distracted with other things.

The weekend is about done and results are mixed. For my nascent business idea I made good progress. I'm not done with the initial project I'd scoped out in my head but I'm not far off and I've worked my way through a number of problems so the remaining sections should go faster.  Two hundred and fifty lines of working code plus an initial database schema isn't bad given how rusty I am.

I had two other projects I needed to make progress on. One I'll talk about in my other BLOG. The third was studying for my Cisco CCNP switch exam. I think I'm going to be OK there. I just need to get an early start tomorrow and go over my notes one more time before heading to the testing center. This will be my second attempt. I barely missed passing the first time so in theory I should be OK this time but I've been letting myself get a bit too fragmented recently. I'll know soon enough I guess.

I'm going to keep this short so I can get to sleep and get an early start.

Happy Monday everyone.
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Another Pleasant Valley Sunday

The Android Emulator home screen.
It's been a long time since I've been plugged into any sort of developer community. Epochs essentially in Internet time. I made some tentative steps yesterday morning and evening to get back into the swing of things as part of the side project I talked about in my previous post. The first hour or two was fairly frustrating. $15 wasted on a book that though only a couple of years old is largely out of date and a dozen web sites perused and discarded because they didn't contain timely information either. This is a pretty good example of why search is rapidly becoming obsolete and curation and discovery are gaining popularity. Locating all the worlds information is great, but if it's mostly obsolete and difficult to sort through the utility in that is limited.

Another thing I discovered is that a lot of sample code is short on error detection. I'm not complaining since I paid zero for the code in question but it was a good reminder to me that it's not enough to just call a function and assume everything is going to go well. Better I be reminded of that early in the process rather than later.

It may not seem that way at the time but I tend to think that the worst case scenario is really when everything goes right early. When the wheels finally start to come off you're just not prepared. I think I prefer that mildly paranoid feeling I get when everything is finally going well.

I did manage to generate about a hundred lines of code yesterday. It connects and downloads some data. I've started work on a database schema and should have a first version of the initial portion of my project by the end of the day. I also have my Cisco CCNP switch exam tomorrow which I've been putting off for awhile. I'm not going to do that again, so I may get squeezed for time due to the need to do a bit more studying.

When I wrote the bulk of the above I was sitting in the passenger seat of our trusty Honda Fit. The iPad is great for some things but coding isn't one of them. This is particularly true when said code lives on a VM that isn't remotely accessible. I'm going to need to do something about that. Since I couldn't code I figured it was a good time to work on the BLOG. I hate to waste time.

The good thing about the book I bought is it is the Kindle edition so at least I found out it wasn't going to be very useful sooner rather than later. E-Books are one of many reasons that product development times have become much shorter in the Internet age.

One bummer for yesterday was that I missed out on the $99 clearance HP tablets. I figure there is a good chance that somebody will port Android to them and for $99 it seemed worth it to grab a potentially useful historic foot note.

Time to get back to work.

Image via Wikipedia

Friday, August 19, 2011

Setting Goals

idea
I've been a hobby acoustic guitar builder for a few years now. Recently I've taken to giving myself public dares on my other BLOG as a means of setting some goals and motivating myself to spend more time on projects related to my aspiration to someday build great sounding and looking guitars. Those challenges have helped me focus and make more progress over the past three weeks than I have over the previous several months.

Another one of my goals has been to be a founder in a new business. It's important to note the use of the letter "a" in that previous sentence rather than the word "the". I'm really more of a team guy and have never viewed myself as CEO material, at least in my initial venture. I've had this plan in my head for awhile now where I'd be a principal in a new company, work hard at it for a few years, reach a graceful exit point that included a modestly large sum of money and then take that experience and create a situation where I was the prime mover and shaker. It's a nice dream, but it isn't going anywhere and I'm tired of waiting.

This doesn't mean I'm quitting my day job and starting a new company right now. What it does mean is I'm daring myself to do some serious work on my latest business idea to get a better idea of where it might lead. I generally have about three semi serious ideas a year. I get excited about them for awhile and then move on to something else for a variety of reasons.

An idea might require programming skills that I don't possess. I'm not a bad programmer but I'm not a great one either and I've done most of my work in Perl and SQL over the years. I have a love/hate relationship with Perl but it's the tool I know and learning a new one would take a lot of time that I'd honestly rather be spending on things like writing and learning to build guitars. My wife and I also like to hang out occasionally so that's an important consideration as well.

I've joined and followed a number of professional organizations focused on entrepreneurship since finishing my MBA but really haven't gotten that engaged in any of them. That's been bugging me recently given my stated desire to be part of a new business. I've finally come to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is I don't feel like I'm bringing anything to the table when it comes to potential interactions in those kinds forums. Sure, I have an MBA from a school with an excellent reputation in the area of entrepreneurship but what have I don't with those skills since I finished that MBA? Brainstorming ideas, primarily with myself and interviewing a handful of people as part of my research was a good start but I need to do better than that.

My latest idea requires programming skills that I actually have, at least for the initial stages. My dare to myself is to write some code and develop the potential business model to the point where I can make an informed decision on whether this idea is worth further exploration. I have some other dares in mind if things look good at that point but I don't want to layer to make this overly complicated right now.

I'm giving myself one month to do this. I've scheduled a weekly event on my Google calendar to remind me to update this BLOG on my progress.

If it's a lousy idea, I'll determine that along the way and report more fully on what it is I was planning and why I don't think it will work. Otherwise I'm going to be somewhat vague. We were taught in business school that teams and execution are much more important than ideas but right now all I have is my idea and I'm not willing to share it with the entire world yet.

So in summary, I'm not quitting my day job any time soon but I am going to put a lot more emphasis and focus on figuring out if my latest idea has any merit over the coming month. That will include writing some code to test my idea and putting together a preliminary plan for how the business might work from a monetary perspective. Once that work is done I'll have to figure out the next portion, if any. Wish me luck.

Image by orkboi via Flickr  
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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why The iPad Needs A Keyboard (M.I.C. Keyboard Buddy Case)

I've had a combo Bluetooth keyboard/case for my iPad for about a month now and it's amazing how many times I've been approached by total strangers who want to know more about it. There are others but I use the M.I.C Aluminum Keyboard Buddy Case for the iPad 2.

From an aesthetic perspective it's a perfect match for the iPad. I've included some pictures here of my iPad in the case to give you a better idea of what it looks like.

From a functional perspective the keyboard works reasonably well. It occasionally needs to be power cycled because it either starts repeating the last key pressed or stops sending to the iPad but that happens maybe once or twice an hour tops. I'm not sure if that is a problem with the keyboard or bugs in iOS. I did briefly use a Microsoft keyboard with the iPad but that was awhile ago. I don't think I had these same problems but I could just be forgetting or the victim of small sample size in that case. It automatically puts the iPad 2 into low power mode just like Apple's smart covers.

The keyboard/case isn't a tight fit which is why I use an additional case from Timbuk2. That works great and is reasonably sized though a fair amount bigger than the iPad 2 by itself. It's an excellent combo to keep in my car so long as I avoid direct sunlight.

Most of the interactions I've had have been with wait staff at restaurants who are curious about the combo. Sometimes this has included staff who weren't even responsible for the table I was at. I'm generally very focused on whatever I'm doing so these encounters aren't being initiated by me. Yesterday I even had somebody follow me to the door of the restaurant I had eaten lunch at to ask me about my iPad/M.I.C keyboard combo.

When complete strangers are approaching me this frequently I start to suspect that the subject of their curiosity just might be a winning combination.

The iPad 2 by itself is still a conversation starter even several months after it's release but the level of interest has gone up ten fold easily since I've started using the M.I.C. Keyboard Buddy Case.

I would love to see Apple offer a keyboard like this for the iPad. It's pleasing to the eye and very useful if you want to turn the iPad into something a little closer to a real laptop. It's still not as flexible as a full on computer but I can do casual to intermediate content creation tasks now which has greatly increased the utility of my iPad 2 for me.

If I were Apple I'd move the charging/data port to the side of the iPad and create a docking station to interface with the iPad in some future version. This is essentially what ASUS has already done with the Transformer tablet though and Apple seldom imitates others.

The keyboard buddy is a visually outstanding product but somewhat flawed from a functional perspective. On balance I'm happy with the purchase and would recommend it for anyone looking to improve the functionality of their iPad. There are other options out there that might be better but I have no first hand knowledge of them.

The M.I.C. keyboard buddy is worth the $50 I paid for it. You're mileage may vary though.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Google/Motorola Mobility/Synergy?

Another view of the south side of the Googlepl...
The first thing that jumped to mind when I heard about Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility was the thought that I talked a lot about Apple and Intel in my last column but if you read between the lines I was also talking about Google and more specifically Android.

Apple has been waging what looks like an increasingly aggressive litigation/patent campaign against Android  as has Microsoft. I talked a lot in that column about how legal scuffles can become an unproductive distraction for technology companies but I neglected to mention the fact that your competition is eventually going to have to react if they want to stay in the game. Google has already claimed in the press that this purchase was motivated by what they view as anti-competitive practices by Microsoft and Apple.

There has been some cynicism expressed in the press over positive press releases by  Google's partners and soon to be competitors in regards to the Motorola purchase. What those cynics fail to take into account is that given recent trends Android was in danger of being taxed out of existence via licensing fee demands that partners and Google were ill prepared to defend against. Having Google as a competitor probably isn't something their happy about but Google now has even more skin in the game and an arsenal of their own patents to use in defense and negotiations. It's legitimate for Google's current channel partners to fear that preferential treatment will be given to Motorola which will create an advantage that allows them to grab the bulk of the highest margin Android sales but that is a remote and manageable scenario. Android's steadily increasing litigation and licensing "tax" burden was already eating their margins. Google may become a frenemy but that is still an improvement on the current situation.

I've also read claims that this is a precursor to Google making Android a closed platform and going it alone. That is a really absurd claim for the following reasons. First, Motorola and Android wouldn't stand a chance if they took on Apple mono a mono. Android's excellent market penetration is a result of being available on a wide range of platforms that no single company could possibly create or support by themselves. Second, that model is already in place at companies like Nokia and RIM and how well are they doing right now? Why would Google want to replicate a clearly failing business model when they already have a winner?

It is possible however that this purchase will cause companies to take another look at Microsoft's current and future mobile offerings so they can hedge their bets. Microsoft's close relationship with Nokia is however very similar to how Google is proposing to operate with Motorola so it's difficult for me to understand why this would be an improvement, particularly given the minimal market penetration of Microsoft's Windows phone 7.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Microsoft will buy Nokia within a year. Consolidation and increased vertical integration are clear trends in the mobile space and Microsoft/Nokia are already on their way down this path.

RIM is going to need a major turn around in the next six months if they want to continue to go it alone and be anything but a niche player.

I'm trying to think of a polite word to use as an adjective to describe Standard & Poor's downgrade of Google but failing. Seriously, their logic is absurd. Will this deal guarantee that litigation against Android stops? Of course not but patent litigation is much easier to defend against when you are armed as well.  Prior to this acquisition Google was poorly situated to deal with legal challenges and had been losing ground steadily. Now they will be operating from a much stronger position.

There are no guarantees in business or life, but standing around and doing nothing in the face of challenges to a rapidly growing portion of your business is almost never a good idea. Another complaint S&P have is that this will impact Google's short term growth. Well yeah, when you spend $12 billion on something that does have a short term hit on your ability to take advantage of other opportunities. Particularly when you're going to have to wait around for the better part of a year for the deal to be completely consummated. It's not like Google is cash poor though and CEO Larry Page has made it clear that they play for the long term. That pisses off analysts who only care about a very finite horizon.

S&P's analysis in this matter is flawed at best. Every purchase is a risk and this one is no exception but Google is taking credible action to defend against a risk to both an emerging and established portion of their business as well as reacting to trends within the mobile computing/phone space.

Getting shut out of the mobile space would have meant getting shut out of the search engine space. The social networking paradigm shift is reducing but not eliminating the importance of search and Google couldn't afford to risk having that revenue stream cut off. S&P's Google downgrade feels more like an attempt to garner press than an honest and well informed assessment.

There is a risk that Microsoft or some other company will make a larger offer for Motorola Mobility. Apple is unlikely to do so since they probably couldn't get governmental approval for such a deal. Microsoft would be pissing off their channel partners but might view it as a worthwhile risk. I don't think they'll go this route but it's not outside the realm of possibility.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Patentageddon/Apple/Intel/Etc.

Apple:  Keep Your Lawyers Off My Computer
I'll admit it, I'm a bit idealistic. I have a strong pragmatic/practical side as well though so I'm not the type to talk about "peace and love" without putting up some kind of framework to explain/justify why I think a particular approach makes sense.

I'm also not totally anti patent. Patents were a noble experiment that made a lot of sense when they were first instituted and spurred innovation and progress. The reality today is all together different, particularly in the case of software patents which almost never make sense and do not encourage innovation or progress.

Some might argue that patents encourage a meritocracy. At this stage I think it's more accurate to say that they encourage a moneytocracy and Lawyertocracy which isn't good for anyone but the Lawyers in the long term.

It's one thing to acquire patents to protect yourself, that's just the cost of doing business these days. It's another to use those patents in an attempt to bludgeon your competition outside of the market place.
Apple seems to be the latest company to fall victim to the lure of litigation as a means to secure market positioning. They are hardly the first and they won't be the last. Still it's disappointing to see a company that is so strong in their core competencies of marketing and innovation go down this path.

Litigation can be a core competency if you want it to be but particularly for a technology company this seems like a mistake to me. Intel was known for their prowess in litigation for many years. Eventually they were also known for their mediocre technology and marketing which is why AMD was able to sneak up on them and usurp the architecture of the X86 processor family for several years. Which is in turn why we use AMD's 64 bit extensions in "Intel Compatible" processors including those made by Intel itself. As an aside, the Intel Itanium processor may have been a nice piece of technology but it was a lousy choice for Intel's customers which is why it never gained wide scale acceptance. From Intel's perspective it was great since it was going to finally kill off the clone processors that had bedeviled them for a decade plus at the time but outside of Intel that was viewed with ambivalence at best and outright hostility in many cases. Consumers like competition and choice. Short sighted companies don't and that works to their detriment.
Intel has pretty much always had around eight to ten times the financial resources of AMD yet time and again they've been trumped by the smaller company. Intel has done better in recent years but I contend they never would have gotten themselves into the messes they did if they hadn't spent so much time, energy and focus trying to eliminate their competition through the courts while failing to create as many innovate products as they should have. For example, Intel's inability to create a credible high end GPU is hurting them to this day.
This isn't the first time Apple has gone the lawsuit route in a big way. If you've been around for awhile you may recall their battle with Microsoft back in the late 80's and early 90's. When Jobs eventually returned to the fold Apple was weeks away from liquidating their remaining assets and going out of business. It would be unfair to assert that suing Microsoft was the sole reason for their near demise but I do think it was a pretty clear indicator that Apple was getting distracted and focusing energy in the wrong direction.

You have to keep an eye on your competition, that's common sense; but if you're not keeping the majority of your attention on your customers  you're making it easier for someone else to capture their hearts and minds. Apple's increased litigation against their competitors could be a sign that they are starting to lose their way again. Given their current very robust financial situation that isn't a big deal in the short term but I don't see how it can end well.

Image by mary hodder via Flickr

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Technology & The UK Riots (Short Take)

U.K. (album)
I haven't been to the UK since I came to the US when I was eight months old. When I was younger it was in a sense close by though since my Mom is British. Thankfully she's still only a phone call away today.

Given that it's been depressing hearing about the recent goings on in London and other locations. Being a technology junkie I've tended to focus on that aspect a bit more than the stories of burning buildings and other such chaos. Two things have primarily caught my eye. First, the fact that the riots were in many cases organized and coordinated using Blackberry messenger service and similar technologies. This isn't a surprise. Any tool can be used for bad or good. Texting, Google, messenger services, etc are all just tools and thus no exception.

The second thing is that the thing the people organizing these "events" apparently failed to realize that those messages leave trails. Really big trails that can easily be followed back to them if the government desires and with this scale of mayhem it was clear the government of the UK was going to. You don't poke anyone in the eye that hard and not expect a response.

Another thing many apparently failed to realize is that London has cameras all over the place and that facial recognition software is amazingly accurate these days.

So a lot of people are getting arrested and will be prosecuted.

Speaking philosophically, violence is never a good place to start when you have a beef. It escalates things to a place where there is essentially no chance of a positive outcome.

The anonymity of the mob has been a pretty good shield in the past but as technology advances it's becoming increasingly difficult to hide. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's not nearly as simple as some might think. So, while technology may have played a part in aiding the riots it's also playing a part in catching those who lead and participated in them. Increased communication efficiency is a knife that cuts both ways.

Interestingly there was a case here in the San Francisco Bay area recently where BART, one of our local public transit companies shut off cell service in some of the tunnels and stations their trains use to discourage a planned protest over the killing of a rider by the BART police last month. That decision is prompting a lot of debate right now over what is an isn't appropriate. Personally I feel the bar needs to be set VERY high when it comes to justifying something like that.

Image via Wikipedia

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Change/Twitter/PeerIndex/Klout/FourSquare/Empire Avenue

Twitter HQ is on the 4th floor of this not ver...
Twitter is apparently in the midst of a big new platform revision. I still see the previous version no matter how many times I push the refresh button on my browser. Reviews seem to be mixed to negative so far. We humans do not like change though so I always try to wait a few days for things to settle down before assessing how popular a particular change is going to be. From my perspective the current Twitter web client is so mediocre that anything is unlikely to be worse.

My PeerIndex profile continues to be broken. I've had a ticket in for awhile now and I have seen some changes over the past several weeks but the parts that weren't updating still aren't updating and the parts that are updating still seem broken. Meanwhile Klout has been reliable and consistent and continue to role out new features on a regular basis. The most recent that I'm aware of being the addition of FourSquare to the list of sites they monitor in creating their social networking influence score.

FourSquare is one of a number of different sites that incentivize/gamify the act of self tracking our movements. You get points and virtual badges for using the FourSquare app to check into businesses, parks, etc. Some people even add their own homes or the homes of friends. That last bit seems kind of weird/creepy to me but I'm probably a bit old to fully appreciate/understand why this would be appealing. My wife and I have been using the FourSquare App for a couple of weeks now. She's consistently out scored me in part because she was on an extended trip and got to check into a bunch of new places which is how you score best. It's been fun so far but I'm not convinced it will be sustainable. Yelp and Google have similar apps and there are probably others I haven't heard of as well.

Twitter wasn't the only social networking site to roll out a UI update yesterday. EmpireAvenue also made some refinements. The general consensus seems to be positive with most of the changes being evolutionary improvements and refinements. I don't tend to notice a UI unless it gets in my way. There are still areas where EmpireAvenue needs work such as their notification system but they seem to be evolving in a reasonable direction.

Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Google Circles, Another Take

Circles - 52 Weeks Pix
Technically Facebook has the same functionality but it's much harder to find and use the Facebook equivalent. Circles allow you to assign all your contacts in G+ to one or more groups. You can classify people by geography, by hair color, by gender, first initial or anything your heart desires. In short you can create your own etymology and arrange things any way you want. There is one other important bit of information to keep in mind here, circles are one way so only you know who is in a particular circle.

Facebook and their fans claimed early on that Circles discouraged sharing. There were two fallacies at work in that claim. One, that unfiltered sharing is inherently good and two that having the ability to filter wouldn't encourage additional sharing over and above what people typically do on Facebook since with circles you can be selective about who you share with and are thus more likely to post things you wouldn't otherwise. I know that my posts on Facebook tend to be very bland and generic because I have such a diverse group of friends.

There is an aspect of Google's Circles that I haven't seen get a lot of press. Google claims to make their living by organizing the worlds information. It's true enough in a sense but at the end of the day the reality is they make their money by selling lots of highly targeted ads. To date they've left G+ ad free but that doesn't mean they aren't already making money. My thinking is as follows;  the reason Google is so good at providing highly targeted ad placement to their customers is that they can infer a lot about us based on how we interact with their services. Over time they are able to build up a detailed picture of who we are and what our likes and dislikes are. It's kind of creepy in a way but we got ourselves in this mess because we're suckers for the proverbial free lunch. There is no free lunch and this lack of privacy is the way we pay for our place at the table.

With Circles Google has created an incentive for us to classify all our contacts in a way that provides information about ourselves, and others. Google's data gathering has always worked best when we are given an incentive to participate such as search.Only you know who is in a particular circle and what you've named that circle. While Google doesn't make this information public, they are privy to it internally and can infer many things that would be useful in helping them do an even better job of targeting ads. Better targeting means better click through rates and better click through rates mean higher revenues for Google and happier advertisers.

Google needed to make a credible entry into the social networking arena but that was just a means to an end. Search provides them not only with a billboard but also with a way to get to know us better. It's unlikely that the need for search will ever go away but there is a good chance it will be less important in the future and it's also possible that Google will not be able to maintain their current dominance. The G+ service provides them with an additional opportunity to gather information about us and generate ad impressions.

Image by kiwinz via Flickr
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Monday, August 8, 2011

The Stinky Stuff Rolls Every Which Way

rolls
One of the commonly repeated phrases if you're operating on the front lines in any business is "the **it rolls down hill". It's a comforting thing to say and true enough in many ways. To be blunt, it also represents a  short sighted and overly simplistic world view.

Now that I've said that I better explain myself.

I've spent time both in the trenches and as a manager so I've been on both sides of the fence and based on those experiences I know that the grass isn't greener on either side. Some combination of personal preference, aptitude and random chance are going to decide which role a person ends up in. If' you're an individual contributor by choice or chance know this, the stinky stuff rolls in pretty much every direction.

To get to the individual contributor level it often has to flow past front line management and it probably went through one or more levels of management before it got to them but that's not the only direction it comes from.

When an individual contributor fails to complete a task in a timely manner it rolls every which way since at the very least their coworkers and immediate manager will have to deal with the consequences of that failure. Dysfunction at ANY level leads to some amount of dysfunction at EVERY level.

I could belabor this point for a few hundred more words but suffice it to say that there are people who primarily produce it and people who primarily deal with it. Being located higher in the food chain means a larger multiplier for either case but being on the front lines does not magically exempt one from appearing on either side of this equation.

Image by Darrow Slade Godeski Merton via Flickr
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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twitter Follow/Unfollow Game

Follow me on Twitter logo
Awhile back I wrote about how I disliked the fact that some people would follow me on Twitter and then unfollow when I didn't follow back. Sometimes that's because they are looking for people who are willing to interact and not following back makes two way communication more difficult. I can understand that motivation but I think it's only true in a minority of cases.

I've discovered something worse though. Apparently some people have been told that to be true Twitter superstars you have a positive ratio of followers to follows. So what do superficial people who just want to look good without actually earning it do? They follow a bunch of people, wait a couple of days for the inevitable follow backs and then unfollow all of those people. Then they repeat the process.

Yes, this does annoy me. 

Here's a bit of philosophy. When you game a system you destroy that system. I'm not stupid, I know that human beings do this kind of thing and that is  not going to change even if there is a good chance they'll have reason to regret going down this road later.

Lets expand on that last point, social network influence sites are increasingly popular and powerful. I've talked about Klout and PeerIndex before and they'll continue to come up in the future. The value of these sites is in assigning some sort of number to a particular individuals influence. People who try to game the system to inflate their score undermine the credibility of the score. If that happens it undermines the credibility of the companies assigning those scores as well and you can be sure they'll take that personally and come up with ways to detect and account for the shenanigans. It's not even that hard to do in this case. For example, Klout seems to have no problem scanning all of Twitter every day. All they have to do is look at who you're following today, who you've followed in the past and how long you follow others on average. If I ran a company like Klout and I were feeling nice I'd just lower a persons score if I detected this kind of thing. I'd also flag them as somebody worthy of extra scrutiny in the future. If I were feeling less nice I'd make available an additional score that showed the ethics of the person based how they built their network. A scarlet letter so to speak.

It's very easy on Twitter to create a new identity and start over but it isn't nearly as easy to do so on other sites and there is a big push by both Google and Facebook to force people to use real identities.

I don't expect anyone to stop doing this kind of thing because I say so but I do suspect that currently emerging trends and technologies will at the very least blunt the effectiveness of this approach. There is also a very real chance that public exposure and shaming may be in the cards.

For better or worse, anonymity is increasingly scarce both in real life and on the web.  It's very important to keep that in mind when developing an approach for your social networking interactions.

Speaking of social networking interactions, you can find me on Twitter as #emkey1tweets.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, August 5, 2011

State Of My BLOG

2x2x2 Three-Dimensional Torus Network. This to...Image via WikipediaOne of the things that makes writing this BLOG tough is balancing a lot of competing needs and interests.

I write here to help me keep my hand and head in the business and technology world and because I like to think try to understand stuff and write about it.

One thing that makes the whole operation tricky is I'd also like to work in that larger world some day and I worry sometimes about offending a company I might want to work for. I don't generally pull my punches, but there are times when I probably spend a bit too much time thinking about how to phrase something in a way that will be descriptive but innocuous. Taking that approach has a tendency to produce prose that is stilted and bland.

On the flip side, I don't want to be snarky. I know that sells but it doesn't feel right to me. A little humor or sarcasm every once in awhile is OK but I don't see any merit in being some sort of Internet bully.

I don't write for money or fame but I'd be lying if I said I didn't write for recognition. That's one of those basic human drives that we're all hard wired for.

Occasionally I've written about some very esoteric topics. I used to do this without a second thought but as my page views have increased over the past few months I'm starting to have second thoughts. Does anyone really want to hear my half baked ruminations on the future of high performance computing?

Now that I'm on a pretty good positive growth curve do I really want to keep stepping out of the box? Knowing who your audience is and catering to their needs, desires and interests isn't optional if you want to see continued growth.

Which leads to my big question right now. Do I want to see continued growth? I've set myself some fairly aggressive goals for this BLOG over the past few months in terms of readership and so far I've been able to meet them. I haven't set a new goal for this month and the main reason is that I want to figure out where I'm going with this thing. Setting a page view goal pretty much answers that question.

Finally there is the thought that some day I might be looking for a job or a potential business partner. Odds are good that this BLOG will be one of the things they'll examine while working their way through to a decision.  What if they read something that they consider to be sub par or disagree with? I should probably pretend that I wouldn't care but the truth is I would. I work with a great bunch of people and have excellent management but I don't want to be doing what I'm doing today for the rest of my professional life. The thought that I might lose an interesting and potentially life changing opportunity because I happen to do a poor job of explaining a point I'm making or express a controversial perspective is a sobering one.

But I believe life should be about taking risks. When you do that you risk failure. That's a little scary but I'm OK with it. The world is a constantly changing place and right now that is more true than it's ever been in my experience.

Change comes whether we like it or not. We're all running with the bulls; we can ignore this and hope we don't get gored or participate and work towards something better.
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