Friday, September 30, 2011

RIM, PlayBook And More Kindle Fire

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 19:  Blackberry Playbook t...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeSleep is good. I've always been a fan though I generally have to make up for my lack of skill with  enthusiasm and a good attitude. Thankfully I slept fairly well last night. That should translate into a little less mental fuzziness today. I can hope so anyway.

On the tech front I wanted to briefly discuss a couple of things before getting ready for work.

First on todays laundry list is a story focused on RIM and their Playbook tablet. You can find the text at the following link...

The gist of the story is that there was internal disagreement over who they were going to sell the Playbook to and over the direction the company was taking. Just a few years ago smart phones with almost exclusively used by businesses and RIM's Blackberry phones were king. Heck, they are still very popular in that space. People tend to focus to much on the fact that RIM's market share is slipping and not enough on the fact that the market for smart phones has been growing rapidly. RIM is a profitable company and will likely continue to be for at least a couple more years. What happens beyond that point is murky though and the Playbook scenario outlined in the linked story explains why. On the one hand you had people in the company that wanted to target sales at corporate customers. The advantage of this approach is that you can price the tablet higher and play to your strengths if your RIM. You're not going to sell as many as you would if you successfully rolled it out to the masses but your margins will be larger and you won't be going head to head with Apple. The other alternative is to try to sell it to everyone. If you're going to do that you need to price it a lot more aggressively.

Either approach might have worked. Sadly for RIM they chose to "compromise" and price it like they were selling to corporate customers while attempting to sell it though mass market channels like BestBuy. The results have spoken for themselves.

Cisco also brought out a tablet called the Cius this year. Haven't hears of it? No surprise there if you're not using Cisco's call manager it's not very useful and they aren't selling it to consumers. It's very expensive relative to the iPad but it isn't meant to compete in that space. It's only been on sale for about a month and I can't find any news stories about how Cisco is doing sales wise but they are following the strategy RIM should have if they wanted to charge a price that clearly made them a worse value than the iPad in the consumer space. Getting your targeting and message right is so important in this space. Trying to compete with Apple if you haven't done that is basically pointless and a good way to lose a lot of money.

The other thing is a bit about the Kindle Fire. There are apparently rumors that it's going to be in limited supply this year. Bezos said as much at his press conference when it was announced. If true there are likely two reasons for this. First of all Apple has used its excellent cash position and operational excellence to secure much of the manufacturing capacity that is available. This leaves Amazon and other tablet makers picking up the bread crumbs.

The second possibility is that Amazon never intended to produce that many of this version of the Fire. They may have wanted to get something out the door quickly and this was their best alternative. It's a capable platform but much like the first generation Kindle I suspect the subsequent versions will be more capable and elegant devices.

The end result of either of those two reasons being correct is we may see a limited supply of Fire tablets this holiday season so ordering early may not be a bad idea. I have my order in already as I believe I mentioned yesterday. Another thought is that scarcity has worked well for Apple and Amazon may be charting that same course for themselves in regards to the Fire.

Time to get ready for work and get a few other things taken care of. Have a great weekend!
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon On Fire (Short Take)

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Amazon founder J...
This will be another quick and short post. I had the choice of getting close to enough sleep for the first time in three days or spending an hour on the BLOG. Sleep won out. It's been even busier than normal around here but things should be settling down a tiny bit over the next few days.

Amazon is a really smart company. How do I know? The proof is in the pudding as the old saying goes. Look at their bottom line, look at what they are doing to their competition and look what they announced today. I'm going to talk about the Tablet and hopefully cover the other parts of the announcement in the next few days.

Seven inch tablet, $199. Wireless only, and not that impressive hardware wise but a good device to test the waters. Will feature the Amazon store which is substantial and a select number of other Apps. Android underneath the covers but that doesn't really matter anymore than the fact that the E-Ink Kindles run Linux

I think Amazon is testing the waters here. The new Fire compares well to Barnes & Nobles $250 Nook. B&N are rumored to be bringing out a new tablet soon, and will now have to think very seriously about how they price it. Think of the first Fire as a test shot across Apples bow. It's not going to compete directly with the iPad as it lacks the apps and the form factor. If things go well for Amazon though it would be very feasible for them to introduce a ten inch version in the spring of 2012. They would be very competitive on the content front and would have a decent selection of Android Apps, particularly if they upgrade the underlying version to something more up to date. They won't be able to compete head to head on the apps, but they don't need to. If they could sell such a device for say $300 wireless and $375 with 3G they would likely be in good shape.

Apples success to date with the iPad has been primarily due to two factors. One, the rich content experience they can provide and two, the Apple name. This lead to a third advantage when developers flocked to the platform (following the money and the cool factor) and built apps.

Amazon isn't as cool as Apple but they arguably have a more diverse pool of content and have the potential if they manage their app store well and entice developers to create a platform that will have a substantial enough pool of applications to please the majority of people who might otherwise buy an iPad.

As with all things technology related we'll have to wait and see but this race is likely to be interesting over the next year.

Image by Getty Images via @daylife
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Morning Miscellany

Tokyo floodgates created to protect from typho...
The weekend was very productive, both in terms of getting stuff down around the house and my current side project/venture which I'll write more about later this week.  I'm a little slower than normal getting going this morning as a result though so this will be another short/scatter shot entry.

Topic one is Google+; which is now open to the general public. On the plus side Google has been growing rapidly since the flood gates opened. In theory people are still required to use their real names.  On the downside, I've seen several apparently real names posting random spam to topics with little or no relationship to the topic of the spam. Google does provide a button to report bad posts. It's unclear to me what effect that has though and the quality of discussion is certainly down since the flood gates have opened. Google is going to need some better spam controls in place ASAP if they don't want to annoy their existing user community. Their email filters are amazingly good, so hopefully they'll get something similar in place on Google+ soon. A growth of ten million plus users in this first week is good, but they'll need to have sustained growth if they want to challenge Facebook

On another Google+ related note Klout now supports Google+. I'm kind of excited about that as my level of engagement on Google+ tends to be high which should help my score. It's not that Klout defines who I am but it's nice to have it measuring pretty much everything I do online at this point. I gave up on Peer Index awhile back since they never seemed to be able to fix the problems with my profile. The forty point mark seems to be a magic value that a lot of Klout perks require. I've been hovering just below it for the past week or so. Hopefully this week is the week I push above and maintain at least that level.

I'll round things out with a rumor that Apple is cutting production of the iPad 2 and thinking of a price cut. My initial reaction is that this doesn't sound all that credible. Thinking about it a bit though it could be true. Even the base model isn't cheap, particularly when compared to small laptops that do a lot more but don't have the Apple logo. At this point the early adopters and Apple enthusiasts should all own an iPad so we're getting to the point where a drop in price might be needed to sustain sales. The other alternative would be introducing a new version and there have been rumors of that for awhile. I don't think we'll see a new iPad until next spring though.

Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, September 24, 2011

HP CEO Swap (Short Take)

This sign welcomes visitors to the headquarter...Image via WikipediaNot a lot to say on the whole HP CEO debacle right now but I did want to note a few things.

Clearly this story started a year back when the current board ousted Mark Hurd and hired Apotheker. Whether the decision to fire was right or wrong I don't know. What I do know though is that it was done hastily and apparently with minimal thought based on the outcome. It isn't a surprise then that the HP board did such a sub par job again this time. I'm not referring to Whitman who should almost certainly be an improvement over Apotheker, but rather to the very public way in which the whole thing played out. That was unfair to Apotheker, unfair to HP's employees and unfair to their shareholders as well. It betrayed a lack of professionalism and ethics that was kind of disturbing.

I have no clue who the leaks came from but I very much question the suitability of the source or sources to be looking out for HP shareholders interests.

The last thing I wanted to note is that Apotheker's biggest mistake may arguably have been talking about selling or spinning off HP's low margin PC business. If he'd had a serious buyer lined up or plan in place this might have made sense since it would have let shareholders know that HP's margins would be under less pressure in the future. Apparently though neither scenario was in place so the net outcome was a lot of businesses that normally buy HP started looking at other vendors due to uncertainty over the PC divisions future.

Whitman has the advantage of coming into the middle of a train wreck in progress. Almost anything she does is going to look better than what her predecessor accomplished. I think it makes sense to spin the PC division off or sell it if a serious buyer can be found, but that planning/negotiation needs to take place behind closed doors and not discussed until a firm plan is in place.

A thorough review and housecleaning of the current board would be a great idea as well but that's going to require outside intervention.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Facebook's Timeline And Why I'm A Doubter

Ford Model T Touring
I've covered some of this ground over the past couple of days but there are a few new thoughts here and I've refined my thinking a bit.

First of all I'm going to say that I'm not making predictions here and I'm not confident I'm right. As I've alluded to in my previous couple of entries though I do have a nagging suspicion that a lot of people are looking at Facebook and their changes in a way that doesn't actually make sense. I've seen a lot of cool technologies that were loved by tech types (including myself) come and go over the years because they did not in fact appeal to a wide enough audience. This feels like a case in point. I'll be dropping this topic after today and taking a wait and see attitude though I may comment more in the future as things develop.

The first point to keep in mind is that Facebook essentially owns the social graph. This means nearly everyone you would want to communicate with is on Facebook. That includes not only your tech savvy friends but also people who are not. Different kinds of people have different priorities, needs and desires. As a long time tech geek and intermediate social networking participant I'm going to desire a different interface and volume of content than my seventy eight year old mother. This general concept explains why companies offer a variety of products in whatever market they compete in. Think cars for instance. Early in the history of the Ford motor company Henry Ford was quoted as saying you could have any color you wanted so long as it was black. Over time Ford added additional colors and models to their product line in order to entice more customers to buy from them. These customers weren't necessarily being fickle or stubborn either. If you needed to haul stuff around than a truck was much more useful than a car.

The second thing to keep in mind is that most of the people in the press who follow Facebook as well as the people creating Facebook are tech and social networking savvy. They are advanced users who handle change with much more comfort than much of the Facebook user community. The problem with this scenario is it means that a substantial % of Facebook's user base has little or no voice inside the company or from within the tech press. Their only avenue for expression is via the mechanisms Facebook provides for feedback and based on what I've been reading Facebook isn't very responsive in answering complaints that are voiced by their user community in those forums. I suspect this is because they are busy, they've seen this phenomena before and because they just don't understand what all the ruckus is about.

Facebook does have a marketing department but I wonder what the average age and background is and how comfortable they would feel saying "Hey developers, that stuff is neat and all but does it really address the needs and desires of the bulk of people using our site". I can't know for sure of course since I don't work there but based on my own workplace observations over the years I tend to suspect the answers are mostly under thirty five and "not very".

All of which leads to a very large blind spot for Facebook and the press that covers them, or so I theorize. What makes this blind spot more difficult to spot is the fact that other social networking sites don't have nearly as big a worry in this area since their customer bases are much smaller and more tech savvy.

Facebook has made changes before and after an initial period of discontent things have settled down until the next big change. Owning the social graph gives them a lot of leverage and makes it difficult for people to leave if they want to keep in touch with their friends. For the past several years there wasn't a credible alternative either which helped as well. It shouldn't be assumed though that the discontent simply goes away.  Based on comments people are making recently it's clear that much of that discontent lingers below the surface until the next change. At some point Facebook may reach a tipping point. I'm not convinced they have but I am convinced its possible. I've seen modest growth in the number of people I know on Google+ over the past week or two. At this point it's a trickle but with further changes coming it isn't outside the realm of possibility that it become a flood in the coming months. I'm not betting on that but it sure wouldn't surprise me either.

Consider also that the tech savvy types have numerous other social networking outlets where they can find both their tech savvy friends and interesting people to talk to and Facebook's dependence on their less geeky members becomes even more important/clear. If they start losing their "main street" base things will go very badly for them.

The next big change is Facebook's Timeline feature. I've read about it and checked out the demos and while it's techy cool I don't see the broader appeal primarily because it's going to take a lot of time and effort to curate it down to something manageable/attractive and I seriously doubt very many people are going to bother, particularly after the initial euphoria over the new capability wears off.

Using Facebook has increasingly become a "drink from the fire hose" experience and Timeline is just another step in that direction. It certainly has utility, particularly for people who want to make it easy for old friends who have been out of touch for awhile to catch up but is that utility enough to get people to actually maintain and read what is there?

I'm not against innovation. I am against creating products that fail to please large portions of a companies customers and it seems  to me that this is what Facebook is doing. If I were them I wouldn't give up on the innovation though. Instead I'd design my site so that it was possible for people to customize how they interact with it. By default I'd give people a very simple view that minimized the amount of clutter and information overload and maximized their ability to keep in touch with the people they cared about the most.  If you're wondering what that might look like, think Facebook three years ago or so. I'm not familiar with the FB API, but I suspect it wouldn't be hard for somebody to create a "lite" front end that minimized the bells and whistles while maximizing the experience. I'm not sure how Facebook would react to that though. Next, structure the site so people have an incentive to explore the more advanced features. Allow them to wade into the deeper parts of the pool slowly and in a way that they feel comfortable with. Also allow them to stop at any time. Not everyone is going to have the same sweet spot.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the few humans alive today who in my opinion has the potential to be the next Steve Jobs. He's clearly brilliant and has a drive and clarity of vision that is very rare. Much like the young Steve Jobs though he isn't without his rough edges. One big question in my mind is will those rough edges eventually lead Facebook into a downward spiral or will he learn and adapt quickly enough to avoid that? As with all things, time will tell.

Image via Wikipedia
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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Not Everyone Is A Geek (Facebook)

My Social Graph
I'm pressed for time today so this one will likely be short, minimally edited and perhaps a bit more jumbled than normal logic wise. The topic is highly news worthy right now though and I really want to get something out.

Facebook is apparently going to release/announce even more changes today and many in the technical press are waxing poetic about how wonderful it is going to be. Great, I don't doubt that people who love technology are going to be impressed. Frankly though that doesn't matter because the vast majority of Facebook's seven hundred and fifty million users are not tech savvy geeks. They are just people who want to hang out with their friends and family and share the occasional thought or event. They want a platform that intrudes minimally on their ability to do that and each "feature" beyond that happy minimum clutters their experience and leads to confusion and frustration.

Those of use who are of a geeky persuasion have always made up a disproportionate percentage of the users on most online services. Yes, the representation online has broadened substantially in the past fifteen years but until Facebook there was never a site that appealed broadly to almost everyone.

Facebook isn't run by normal people. It's run for the most part by a core group that are under the age of thirty, highly tech savvy and very bright. That description matches a substantial percentage of the work force as well. They are creating features that they think are cool, and they are right. If you're under thirty and highly tech savvy. This isn't to say that there is zero appeal outside of that core group, but the amount of appeal is going to be much more limited for many of these new features.

This likely explains why so many people complain every time Facebook rolls out a new round of changes. Much of that complaining is just a fear/dislike of change which is much more common outside of the technical community than it is within. It's easy to dismiss those complaints as meaningless in the longer term but I'm not convinced they are. With each successive major overhaul it has seemed like the level of complaints have increased and the amount of activity I see on Facebook has gone down. Keep in mine that the vast majority of the people I hang out with on Facebook are over forty years old, as am I.

This latest round of changes seems focused on turning Facebook into an all inclusive platform, almost an OS. You could in theory create devices that ran Facebook as an overlay. Add an HTML 5 browser and you would never have to leave. I can see the appeal of that for tech types, particularly the tech types working at Facebook but will it appeal to the majority of their customers who just want to hang out with their friends with minimal clutter and noise?

Facebook owns the social graph. This is their biggest asset right now and a big part of the reason they've been able to get this far in the changes they are making. They risk is that they'll reach a tipping point where large numbers of people are no longer willing to deal with the changes and the complexity they introduce and start leaving. Are we at that point now? Too early to tell but I think we're close. The next month or two will be very interesting for Facebook and social networking in general.

I halfway seriously made a comment on Twitter in response to something I read that Apple should create a simple cross platform social network similar to early Facebook. Apple understands the importance of simplicity and could probably pull this off fairly quickly. They also have a large and seemingly ever growing legion of fans who are willing to at least try anything they bring out. Could they supplant Facebook with such a service? I'd like their chances more than I do Google's.

Image by krazydad / jbum via Flickr
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Did Facebook Make A Mistake?

Profile shown on Thefacebook in 2005
It wasn't hard to figure out what to talk about today. Facebook has featured prominently in technology news over the past day or two and I'm seeing a lot of negative comments from my Facebook friends.

From a usability perspective Facebook "updates" are always a mess but this one seems worse than normal. I've always been under the impression that most people who use Facebook don't want a bunch of innovation and/or change. All they really want  is a place they can hang out with their friends and family without having to think much about the interface or being distracted by a bunch of extraneous stuff that makes it harder for them to meet that basic need. Facebook used to be relatively simple and met that  need well which is why they ended up owning the social graph in the first place.

As time has gone on though they've had a tendency to get away from that simplicity and add an ever increasing number of features that take away from their core value to the bulk of their customers. This trend has accelerated recently with the emergence of Google+ as their first legitimate competition in years.

Facebook is also preparing for a public offering of their stock and is thus motivated to make changes that enhance their core value to current and future shareholders. The ironic thing is that actions that in the short term favorable to share holders often end up being unpopular and unfavorable to stakeholders such as customers which in turn leads to lost value for shareholders.

One thing that makes Facebooks task more difficult is the fact that their most important customers are advertisers. Facebook has a relationship that is analogous to that of most TV networks. Generally TV networks are supported by advertising but without viewers a TV network has no business. The tricky bit is that too much advertising alienates viewers who in turn tune out which makes advertisers unhappy. It's a difficult balancing act.

In defense of Facebook, some of the changes they've made aren't bad. Providing automatically categorized lists (AKA circles) and making it easy to add people to these lists is a nice feature even if they didn't embrace this change until Google+ built a lot of their early momentum on it.

One problem I've encountered is that things I've "liked" no longer seem to be showing up in my news feed and there is no obvious way to add liked things to one of Google's new auto generated lists. I'm highly selective with my likes which makes it frustrating that right now I'm missing out on at least some of the content that is being shared by way of these likes.

One challenge all incumbents have is figuring out when to stand pat and when to react to their competition. You can wait too long or you can move to early. Either one of those scenarios can lead to lost customers. If I were to guess right now I'd say Facebook has moved to fast and too early. Having said that I think there is a good chance that people will settle down and relax over the next week or two. That's the typical scenario when Facebook rolls out new changes. Facebook may actually be in a bit of trouble if things don't play out that way.

On a related note, Google+ is now open to anyone who wants to join so if you've been thinking about checking it out and are annoyed with Facebook now's as good a time as any. Having said that, I'm not leaving Facebook any time soon. I find the two services to be complimentary though I prefer Google+.

Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Twitter Is The New CNN

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBaseThe recent Reno air race tragedy was my first experience with what I’ll refer to as the modern way of getting news. I saw the first indication/notification on Facebook by way of a second hand account a very short time after the accident occurred. My first instinct was to go to Google’s news site and do a search. Nothing. It was only later that I thought to go to Twitter and type #reno in the search box. When I did that I instantly got links and observations on what was then a rapidly developing news story. That was when I finally realized that the world on news has changed fundamentally.

That isn’t a new concept for a lot of people. I tend to be a bit slow adapting to new sources of information though. I’m not sure why but it’s a phenomena I’ve observed in myself before.

One thing that occurred to me is that the days of shaping and controlling news stories are going to be over soon unless governments somehow gain control of social media services. That’s going to be a tough thing to do though. The Genie is out of the bottle and I’m not sure it can be put back in. Keep in mind that the original version of Twitter was written in a very short period of time and wouldn’t be difficult to duplicate. This isn’t going to stop some governments from trying of course. China has their “Great Firewall” for instance but even that is of limited effectiveness to sophisticated users. It’s really a speed bump/warning system for people who don’t want to risk getting in trouble with the powers that be.

This isn’t to say that the news that comes through social media isn’t biased. We all see the world through our own personal filters. Those filters color everything and it’s foolish to think otherwise. There are also situations where people have conscious agendas that they are trying to further by way of the reports they make.

The great thing about social media though is that you have the potential to get multiple often raw accounts as well as pictures and video of the actual event. You still have to deal with your own filters but it’s much closer to being a first hand experience than has been possible in the past.

Overall I think this is a good thing though personally I can do without the graphic and often grizzly images that can go along with this new reality.

This whole phenomena leaves traditional news outlets in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand they are vulnerable to new entities that can quickly aggregate and interpret data that they find via Twitter and other social network sources while on the other they are constrained by both their employees understanding of the news and the general publics expectations of what it means to see a story on CNN, NBC, Etc. It's not clear to me that the same skills are needed in both cases.

Disruptive technologies are always hard for established industries and companies to deal with. Print media has been living with this reality for a decade plus. It seems to me that the disruption may just be spreading to other forms of traditional media. The signs are less obvious for now but we may be seeing them over the next couple of years.

Imagine an Internet only news site that depended primarily on social media to break stories. Imagine that they have contacts with reporters all over the world who can quickly get to the site of emerging stories. A smart phone and data plan plus a little skill is all anyone needs these days to be an in the field reporter.

You could have multiple channels/topics with regular updates for very little cost. Would the quality be as good as the majors? No, but from a commercial perspective does it really need to be? And if the costs are low enough you can service a lot of smaller demographics with news of interest and still make money. Time some of the standard social networking tools to the site and you would make the news immersive and collaborative. Google already has many of the pieces they'd need to pull this off.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Is Streaming Really The Future (Netflix)

A Netflix envelope picture taken by BlueMint.Image via WikipediaThe obvious answer to the question in the subject is yes, but I think it's overly simplistic and ignores some structural realities, at least in the US.

To briefly recap recent history Netflix has announced that they are splitting their DVD/Blue ray rental business from their newer streaming service and re-branding the older service as Qwikster while continuing to use the name Netflix for their newer streaming service. The decision to split the company in two isn't a bad one but  I question the prospects of the new company for the following reasons.

Two things are increasingly clear to me. First, US ISP's haven't made the investments they should have to handle growing bandwidth needs. This is particularly clear on the 3G/cell side of things were reliability has gotten much worse over the past year if my experience is any indicator. Dropped, slow and intermittent connections while tethering have become the norm and my ability to get work done while on the go has been reduced. I sometimes half jokingly blame the iPhone since I'm no Verizon and the iPhone is a relatively recent addition to their network but I suspect the real reason is the rapid rise of smart phones in general. At home we've also seen our peak bandwidth drop well below what is needed for 720p video frequently during peak usage times.

To be clear yes, I realize I'm basing this opinion on a very small number of data points measured in an unscientific way but I also have anecdotal evidence based on conversations with others and in combination those two source of data are more than rigorous enough for many major news outlets these days. (I debated putting a smiley emoticon here but I think I might be serious; it's too early in the morning for me to tell right now.)

The second thing that is clear to me is that low monthly data caps are pretty much a reality now. Comcast has a 250Gig limit, Verizon and AT&T have 2Gig caps with extra charges if you go above those numbers. HD video will blow through a 2Gig cap in the relative blink of an eye and 1080P will blow through even a 250Gig cap in much less than a month. Lower grades of HD are going to take up less bandwidth and be less problematic but the fact remains that for high quality video, 250Gig is not nearly enough for anything other than casual users of streaming today and if usage patterns continue to increase even casual users will be hitting those badwidth limitations regularly in the not too distant future.

All of which explains why I'm not convinced that Netflix streaming service has a rosy future, at least in the US. Blueray and DVD disks may seem a bit old school but they offer what is referred to by technical types as a "high latency high burst data rate". What this means is that while they don't offer instant gratification they do provide impressive bandwidth once they enter your home. This isn't a new concept. Old school computer geeks used to say that nothing beats the bandwidth of a station wagon full of high density backup tapes speeding down the freeway when you're trying to get a bunch of bits from one place to another.

As for why we find ourselves in this situation, I have two theories. In the case of cable companies that act as ISP's there is an obvious conflict of interest. They have their own streaming services and no desire to see the oft predicted death of cable TV take place as that is their core business and cash cow. Those 250Gig limits do not include cable services which are delivered by way of the same cable as their Internet service and thus in direct competition in the case of streaming video from companies like Netflix.

The second theory likely applies more to cell phone companies than Cable companies. The big cell phone companies in the US are all publicly traded and thus subject to the whims of large institutional investors who's primary interest is more often than not the short term. Investing in infrastructure is a long term play and  isn't a winner over the short term. Given that there is likely reluctance to invest in new technologies aggressively as it will have a negative impact on the immediate bottom line and calling it an investment doesn't help if the entity you're talking to doesn't plan on owning your stock for more than a quarter or two and/or has the option of moving their money elsewhere when you show any signs of ignoring their advice. Your drop may only be for a quarter or two but there is likely somebody else out there who is more willing to sacrifice their long term prospects for short term gain..

Getting back to Netflix, they are going to have a very difficult time growing their streaming service short of buying Cable companies or somehow partnering with them. On the mobile front the picture is even more grim as in addition to conflict of interest issues with the carriers there are the very real limitations of current infrastructure.

To be clear, Netflix isn't unique in these challenges. Any company hoping to build their business based on streaming video is going to run into this issue to an extent that will vary depending on how frequently they plan on providing content to their customers.

I'm predicting here that Net neutrality becomes and increasingly main stream cause over the next decade. There are a lot of complicated issues tied up in that topic that I may discuss at some future date. For now I need to get busy on other projects. I hope you all have a great week.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Semi Random Nick Knacks

Oracle Headquarters Redwood Shores
It's been a few days since my previous entry which is as long as I've gone without making a post in months. It isn't writers block, I can think of many things to talk about but finding time has been even more difficult than normal.

In no particular order here are some brief "drive by" comments on recent news items.

Google has apparently bought 1K plus more patents from IBM. Google started the current patent war woefully under armed and has been playing catch up over the last several months. Patents aren't granted quickly so to remedy their shortcoming they've been paying a premium to build their arsenal. They are likely to make additional purchases over the next several months. Google still has a lot of cash and it's not hard to figure out what their most pressing need is. They can keep up with anyone on the innovation front but that means nothing if they and their partners get sued into oblivion. Lesson learned, being disdainful of software patents may be hip and intellectually correct but sadly it's very bad for your business.

Facebook continues to add features at a rapid pace. Clearly they are emulating rather than innovating. They've had a history of confusing and annoying their customers and have continued to grow so the risk of making changes is probably low. There is a chance they'll probably lose a few people but they were having that problem anyway with Google+. On a positive note, I got an email from Facebook a few days back saying they would be sending me less email and explaining why. This was a very positive change for them and pleasant to experience. They are still prone to making changes with zero notice that have significant impacts on how people use the service but sending out that email was hopefully a sign of things to come. I can hope anyway.

On the jobs front, I don't see existing companies adding a lot of jobs. There are structural reasons for this. They are making record profits right now selling their goods and service to parts of the world were the economy is much better than in the US. When they are creating jobs those jobs are overseas. It also means that most of the profits are staying overseas as well. Net impact here, minimal other than an undervalued stock market. New jobs have been and will continue to be generated by new companies. Any jobs stimulus bill that wants to have a real impact is going to have to focus primarily on creating new companies.

Microsoft released the first Windows 8 preview. I really like what I'm reading in regards to the direction their heading and did take the time to download the preview. Unfortunately it doesn't run on a VMWare player so I'm SOL for now. There are reports that it runs on Oracle's Virtual Box and the full VMWare Workstation. I don't own either so that doesn't help. It does feel like an oversight on Microsoft's part not to run on  the free VMWare player. Few people are going to be willing/able to install the preview on a dedicated piece of hardware. This isn't a fatal flaw but it is a small bump in the road. It is easy to get a thirty day trial of VMWare workstation but that is more work than I'm willing to devote to this for now.

Time to get ready for work and deal with a few other things. Happy Thursday everyone.

Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Facebook Hates Privacy? (Short Take)

Privacy Lost
I went to make an entry into my Facebook this morning and realized that by default it was going to be public. Look in the lower right corner of the entry box to see who is going to see what you are posting. I'd had a custom view setup previously so it seems like yet again Facebook has changed something in a way that may cause people to inadvertently post in a more public way than they had intended.

It was reasonably simple for me to reset my default to something more in line with what I desired but the experience was still annoying and typical of what we've seen out of Facebook in the past.

There are two reasons I still post on Facebook. One, a number of the people I keep in touch with there are still not on Google+ or any other service and two, in theory the platform supports controlled sharing with the default having been reasonably private.

I'm sure they must have avoided fumbling one of these changes at some point but I sure as heck can't recall it.

In an odd and hard to explain coincidence as of this morning Klout now has me listed as being influential on the topic of Facebook. This is the first and so far only topic Klout has tagged me for. I mostly find it odd since I don't think I've spent that much time talking about Facebook in comparison to other companies.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Early September Venture Update

iPad wordmark.
It seem like the iPad loves to eat my best prose, generally with an assist from some Google product, in the latest case that product would be the new iOS blogger app that I wrote about in my last entry. This is yet another reason I'll very likely be going with an Android tablet when I'm ready to replace the iPad 2. I don't really want to reward Google for their recently lousy iOS support but I'm heavily invested in Google's tools and at the end of the day I just need to be able to reliably get stuff done.

Speaking of Google tools, I have a scheduled Google calendar event that reminds me to talk about the part time venture I've mentioned here before. It's a way of holding my feet to the fire to keep making progress but my need/desire to keep most of the details under wrap for now makes it difficult to say anything interesting or meaningful. If I don't at least make the attempt though I improve my odds of dropping the ball. It's much easier to lose focus on something when you aren't publicly on the hook for it.

I did have a significant setback recently when I realized that a lot of the data I'd collected was bogus due to a bug in my code. The section of code where the problem occurred was actually taken verbatim from some example code presented in the documentation for an API I'm using. I suspect the code in question may have been deprecated recently and I did find one source on line that seemed to indicate that was the case but I haven't been able to conclusively confirm this or come up with a work around yet. In the meantime I've changed my sampling methodology and fixed the data I'd already gathered so that it no longer includes the bogus information. Quality is more important than quantity but it was a frustrating experience.

I'm still working on getting up to speed on a number of different technologies and this is the price one can end up paying when that is the case. The Internet is a highly dynamic environment and its difficult enough to keep up with the things you know. A related problem is that the finish line is constantly receding from you when you're learning something new and it's not unusual for online documentation and resources to be grossly out of date. This is a big part of the reason why skilled developers make so much money.

I've been doing some preliminary research on what kind of cloud/hosting services are available in case this thing works/takes off. Amazon, Google and many others all have products in this general area and evaluating what technologies make the most sense for me to pursue has been fun but a bit of a distraction. I have decided to go with Google's data storage solution for now. Seventeen cents a gig per month seemed like a reasonable price to me. There may be cheaper options out there but I'm confident that Google's going to be around for the forseable future. There are additional charges if I ever want to retrieve that data but I'm fine with that. I have local backups so the Google option is just insurance. I do need to automate the process of sending backups to Google but that likely won't happen for awhile. It's not that painful to do manually for now.

Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, September 10, 2011

iOS Blogger App/Google Hates The iPad?

Image representing Blogger as depicted in Crun...
I'm typing the first draft of this on the newly released iOS blogger app. My enthusiasm over not having to try to interact with the new Blogger via the iPad's Safari browser is severely tempered by the fact that there is no HD/iPad support and it doesn't support landscape mode. I can almost forgive the first, it isn't that big a deal for an app like this but the inability to deal with landscape mode is pretty much inexcusable in my opinion. Google's iOS G+ app has the same problem.

One other complaint is that the blogger app won't let me type without the onscreen keyboard being visible and taking up about 40% of the screen. On the plus side, I can hide it but then I don't get to type when I do that. There are nice physical keyboard/Bluetooth cases for the iPhone so this is a frustrating limitation even if I just consider it an iPhone app.

The application is free, so I probably shouldn't complain to much but its increasingly clear that Google isn't at all interested in supporting the iPad or the iPhone more than minimally. It's easy enough to understand the competitive reasons for Google to take this approach but as a consumer of their services I don't like it.

One other complaint, the iPad sometimes gets confused and exits back to the lock screen when using a Bluetooth keyboard. When this happens you've lost all the text you've entered as the Blogger app doesn't save unless you tell it to and doesn't deal gracefully with being interrupted in that way. End result, I lost a bunch of text to another entry that I really liked. It's very annoying when you're in a groove to have that happen. No matter how hard I try, the rewrite never seems as good.

So my quest to find a decent and reliable way of writing blogger posts continues.

Hopefully there will be a quick update to this initial flawed attempt.

Image via CrunchBase
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Friday, September 9, 2011

Why I May Have Been Unfair To Apple In Regards To Their Fight With Samsung

With a post title that long I'd better write more than a paragraph or two on this topic. That shouldn't be a challenge. Making those words interesting... Well, we'll see.

I've criticized Apple in the recent past for what I view as an excessive amount of litigation. I still feel they are over the top in their patent litigation but it turns out that I may agree with them in regards to at least some of their litigation against Samsung over the Galaxy tab. It turns out that part of the disagreement is over trademark issues. Specifically what is referred to as "Industrial Design Right". We covered this as part of my MBA but that was a few years back at this point and I'm not a Lawyer so hopefully I'll get the details right.

The basic idea is that you can trademark the non functional aspects of a design. So for instance while you couldn't trademark the fact that a hammer has a handle, you could trademark a particular handle design that was distinctive to your product. The basic idea is that you are not supposed to be able to prevent others from building similar devices but you are supposed to be able to prevent them from building ones that look exactly like yours. Here's a picture of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 that I found on the web. Look closely at the shape of the case at the corners and how it is rounded.

Here is a picture of the iPad 2. the angle is a bit different but you can see that there are significant similarities between the iPad 2 and the Galaxy Tab 10.1

So Apple's point essentially appears to be that Samsung has created a product that from a visual perspective looks too similar to their product. Given Apple's attention to detail we can be sure that they've filed the appropriate paperwork to register their rights to this design.

The question is, can competitors make competing products that have the same basic functionality without infringing on Apple's industrial design right? The fact that Apple isn't suing ASUS, HP or other tablet makers in regards to this matter tells me that the answer to that question is probably yes.

The design elements of an Apple product are a big part of their appeal. It's easy for me to understand why Apple would feel a need to defend themselves if they felt a competitor's product was imitating one of their designs too closely. Apple is obligated to defend those rights if they want to keep them and I don't think imitating Apple's design elements this closely can be justified as "innovation".

The basic idea of the industrial design right is that it shouldn't prevent companies other than Apple from making tablets but it should give Apple the specific right to protect the unique design elements of their tablet. Has Samsung stepped over the line? Several different courts around the world appear to think they have so the answer to that question may just be yes.
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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yahoo, Great Name, Dark Future? (Short Take)

Why Isn't Carol Bartz, Yahoo's New CEO, on Flickr?
The big news recently in the tech world has mostly centered on Yahoo and their firing of CEO Carol Bartz and the subsequent "For Sale" sign Yahoo's board of directors put up. I wonder if Microsoft would still be interested? If they are I doubt they'll be offering $33 a share this time around.

Technology companies have a nasty habit of losing their way and becoming increasingly irrelevant. Companies like Commodore, DEC and Altavista all had their day in the sun but were eventually bought or liquidated by healthier competitors. If you're not nimble, flexible and agile you will be eliminated or adapt. It's really that simple.

Yahoo faces a fundamental problem in that they really don't have a game plan. Bartz trimmed a little fat and then basically seemed to go into a holding pattern. That wasn't what the company needed and the only real surprise here is it took Yahoo's board so long to get around to firing her.

If Yahoo does go the sale route I'm going to predict they'll break the company up into parts. Flikr is valuable and a lot of people still get their news and email from Yahoo.

One thing to keep in mind is that people like you and I are not Yahoo's customers. Their real customers are the companies that buy advertising. Any road Yahoo takes is going to have to acknowledge and address that fact. If they don't start doing a better job of providing for their customers they will continue to decline.

No situation is totally hopeless. Steve Jobs proved that when he returned to Apple. It is going to take a very special person to right this ship though or Yahoo is going to be broken up into parts and sold off to the highest bidders in the next few years.

Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr
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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Apple, The One Button Mouse And Gestures (Short Take)

Image representing Magic Mouse as depicted in ...
One of the things that has always frustrated me about Apple is the one button mouse. There is no doubt that Steve Job's is a genius in many different ways but that particular decision has never made sense to me. Yes, it's simple to the first order but it leads to additional complexity quickly in the UI as you have to make that one button do a lot. It's analogous to the difference between entering text on a full keyboard versus the old non smart phone keypad methods. It can be done, but it's not going to be as fast unless you spend a LOT of time gaining proficiency.

This approach is replicated on the iPad as well, though at least you have gestures and multitouch there. On the iPad it took me for ever to discover that pushing the button twice gives a list of running apps. Yes, I probably should have read the documentation but it's an Apple product and I'm a veteran geek, why should I have to? (That last sentence is meant to be somewhat but not entirely tongue in cheek).

I always feel like I've had part of my brain removed when I have to use a mouse with less than three buttons. Part of this is the fact that I still use the X-Windows system native to Linux/Unix on a regular basis. X uses all three buttons. No middle button means the normal paste functionality doesn't work. This makes coding and pretty much anything else a lot more difficult.

The thing I really find ironic is the fact that for some reason Apple/Jobs decided that multitouch on touchscreens is totally cool. In fact you can apparently do up to ten finger multitouch. They even have the magic mouse which apparently allows multitouch of some sort. Why is it user friendly and intuitive to use ten fingers on a touch screen but not more than one mouse button on a mouse?

OK, you probably could argue that touch and gestures are more natural to humans than pushing a button. I won't argue that point but is dealing with a button ten times more difficult than dealing with complex gestures that require a fair amount of dexterity and practice? It may be a sign of my age, but I'm still not all together comfortable with even two finger gestures. The thought that I can use three or more does not give me any comfort at all.

With the invention of devices like the Kinect though this is probably the general direction we can expect things to go in. Human computer interaction is moving away from the simple ones and zeros represented by button clicks and towards a more analog, or real world model. Having said that, the kinds of gestures currently supported by touch screens seem too abstract and complex to me. The Kinect essentially moves gestures from 2D to 3D. I'd expect touch pad like devices to have 3D gestures in the next decade. No doubt I'll be complaining about them as well if I'm right.

Image via CrunchBase

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Engagement And Social Networking

Empire Avenue: Facebook Fan Page Request for P...
I've been spending a lot of time on my side project over the long weekend which didn't leave much time for blogging. Now it's time to go back to the day job so I'm not sure how active I'll be here over the next few days.  I learned how to multitask and be productive while pursuing my MBA and working full time but there are only so many hours in the day and something has to give. So far it's been my guitar making and this BLOG.

I'm starting feel like less of a neophyte in the social networking space. I won't say I'm an expert but that early feeling of "what the heck am I supposed to be doing here?" has faded and I'm making decent progress. There are still surprises occasionally like when I checked my Klout score a couple of days back and it had dropped three points for no reason that I could discern. I've since recovered plus a little so whatever it was seems to have passed.

My big success has been on Empire Avenue where I managed to pass the one million Eave mark a week or so ago and have seen steady share growth for nearly a month. Eaves are the virtual currency of Empire Avenue. In theory that success means I'm doing well at the social networking game. In practice I'm not entirely sure that is the case. As I said above I feel like I've made a lot of progress but I'm not confident I'm doing as well as Empire Avenue seems to indicate.

Figuring out Google+ is kind of impossible since it's changing rapidly and people are still working their way through the best way to use it, myself included. I'm still annoyed by the who real names controversy but have decided not to cut my ties as there is a chance it's going to be a really useful tool and I like the platform in general. I'm also building a network of interesting people to hang out with and chat which is kind of the point of social networking. I do wish more of my Facebook friends would join up though.

Twitter momentum has been kind of minimal. I think it helps to have a larger than life personality on Twitter and that's not me. The one hundred and forty character limit also makes it difficult to have real engagement. It's really just a series of sound bites and brief asides intermingled with links to interesting articles. That isn't a bad thing but it does limit the scope. I tweeted this past week that Google+ is what Twitter should have grown up to be. Twitter did introduce the ability to auto post tweets to Facebook this week. I suppose that's cool but I don't see the point. For me the two services have completely different use cases.

Speaking of different use cases, I'm running into issues trying to decide how to use foursquare. Generally I break social networking sites down into two categories. The first is ones where I primarily engage with people I know personally. Facebook and foursquare would fit in this category. The second group is of course sites where I engage more broadly. That would include pretty much everything else.

The problem with foursquare is that I can see it working in both scenarios. Somebody on one of the Empire Avenue forums posted that they check in via foursquare when they are giving a talk for instance. These check ins effectively become subtle advertising. I'm not planning on getting into public speaking but hearing this idea did point out to me that foursquare might be useful with a broader audience than I'd been envisioning previously. Then again, I really don't want to spam people with my trips to the grocery store or my favorite restaurants. I'm going to have to spend some more time thinking about this one before I come to any conclusion.

Time to get ready for work. It's a virtual Monday here in the US. Hopefully nothing broke at work over the long weekend. I'll know soon enough.

Image by kristiewells via Flickr
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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Whatever Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong (So Think Ahead)

Tux, the Linux penguin
I've talked a bit about my side project/venture over the past few weeks. I've also mentioned some bumps along the way. I've had two more in the past twenty four hours. Nothing major and I'm continuing to make good progress but the number of problems has been higher than normal. I feel a bit like my resolve is being tested. I'm doing well if that's the case. Adversity isn't a whole lot of fun but it's inevitable.

I'd been doing my main development and testing on a Linux VM running on my laptop. It's a beefy machine with eight gig of memory and a quad core i7 Intel processor but I'm doing a lot of database related work and the IO was really killing performance on both the VM and my Win 7 host OS so I made my first semi large purchase for the business, a low end Acer desktop system that is quad core AMD based with four gig of RAM and a 1TB disk. The new desktop/server is arguably a bit slower than the laptop but it gets to use all four CPU's and doesn't have to go through the overhead of running on a VM. I'm also fairly sure the disk IO is significantly faster based on the performance I'm seeing which is what I'd expected.

The first problem I ran into was installing the server edition of Ubunto Linux 11.04. I downloaded the image, burned it to a RW DVD and it booted to the initial install screen just fine. Soon after I told it to start the install though it would lock up. I tried disabling various options but the result was always the same. It turned out to be a bad image write. Somehow I'd missed the error message on my laptop when I did the burn. Not a huge deal but I lost an hour or two to debugging the issue.

Once the install was done I was able to transfer everything over to my new server without issue. I had to install a few additional optional packages to get things to work but I was up and running by midnight. With a sigh of relief I decided to call it a night since it had been a long day and I was beat.

Another problem I've had along the way is my wireless router. It is less that a year old but it loses its mind periodically and needs to be power cycled. The server wasn't plugged into it, but my laptop does use it get to the network. About thirty minutes after I called it a day the wireless decided to stop working. In theory this shouldn't have been a problem. Unfortunately I had started everything up while remotely logged in from my laptop and when the laptop dropped off the network the jobs I was running to gather and process data died. Luckily I woke up at 6:30AM and was able to get things working again quickly but I lost six plus hours of data gathering which isn't fatal, but painful since the project I'm working on is highly dependent on data.

The tough thing about any task is that the devil is in the details. In both these cases I neglected to take into account a potential failure scenario and I got bit. I could argue that chance didn't favor me but at the end of the day that doesn't matter; what matters is results.

I've mitigated the odds of my second failure repeating by running all of my tasks in the background via a handy program called "screen" that lets me detach my virtual terminals and reattach from any place I can log into the server from. The screen program is extremely venerable but still useful in circumstances like this.

Time to get back to work. Number one on the agenda is some sort of reliable data and code backup solution. Chance clearly prefers those who ask it few favors.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, September 2, 2011

Amazon Touchpad/Venture Update (Short Take)

Combination of two Nuvola KDE icons.
One of the interesting bits of news recently is that Amazon may be contemplating an HP firesale like price point for the new tablets most of us expect them to introduce soon. The thinking is that HP can afford to sell at a loss since they are primarily in the business of selling content. It's basically the same model that game console makers have been following for years and it's seemed to work fine for them. In reality I doubt Amazon will want to sustain $200 or more in losses up front per unit sold but $50 might be OK and that would put them at a very attractive price point. There are also rumors of a $99 Kindle. If it's color, that would be very cool.

I've been doing my early code development venture work on my laptop via a Linux VM. I woke up this morning to find that my laptop is feeling very sluggish as the VM is busy doing all sorts of database queries. This laptop is under a year old with four real cores (Intel I7) and 8 Gig of memory. I feel a sense of accomplishment that I've been able to bring it to its knees. :) I have an old desktop machine sitting around gathering dust that I'll be installing Linux on this weekend so I can transfer my work to there.

I've worked through some possibilities for the business side of the idea I'm working on and am getting excited about the possibilities. I don't think this idea is a complete dud which is nice. In any case I'm getting to learn some cool technologies and am excited about coding for the first time in years.

Image via Wikipedia
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