Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Taking Notes

Not to, in any way, equate myself with Fischer Black (of Black-Scholes option pricing fame), but I was struck by a recent posting in Marginal Revolution about how he took notes:
He did almost all of his work in an outlining program called ThinkTank, which he used as a kind of external associative emmory to supplement his own. Everything he read, every conversation he had, every thought that occurred, everything got summarized and added to the data base that swelled eventually to 20 million bytes organized in 2000 alphabetical files...Reading, discussion and thinking that Fischer did outside the office was recorded on slips to paper to be entered into the database later. Reading, discussion, and thinking that took place inside the office was recorded directly. While he was on the phone, he was typing. While he was talking to you in person, he was typing.
I'm not quite back at the ThinkTank stage--even if I remember the program (a "terminate and stay resident (TSR) outliner that essentially simulated multi-tasking in a single-tasking world)--although my sometimes preference for text editors over Mind maps may seem in a similar vein. However, such assidious notetaking does reflect how many of us work as we transition to a world in which our role is increasingly to synthesize vast amounts of data. It's really handy to have this sort of external memory in accessible and searchable form.

When I started as an analyst, I took old-fashioned longhand notes. I'm an enthusiastic convert to the electronic sort. t's just so handy during a briefing to pull up the notes from a peior meeting and ask: "So, when we last met, you said that XYZ was going to be the next big thing. Whatever became of that?" :-)


The term "convergence" may be passe these days, but the question of which devices will fold into other devices is still of immense interest to a lot of people. Especially because it's all more than a little bit mysterious. I suspect that's in no small part because the (in many cases) engineers trying to figure all this stuff out are being entirely too rational about it. They tend to ignore style and fashion, which aren't exactly rational after all.

Let's look at a concrete example. Why haven't MP3 players folded into cell phones in a bigger way. After all, cell phones are ubiquitous and you don't need more than a bit more memory and another chip or two to make them do double duty as an MP3 player. Sure, there are some business issues--the carriers subsidize cell phones and aren't going to be exactly thrilled about subsidizing other types of gear that doesn't bring them services revenue. And some practical ones--does everyone want to drain their phone's batteries playing songs?

But we're heading down the rational path. I was informed by a college freshman of some much more fundamental reasons this past weekend: iPods are cool and small cell phones are cool. The mathematical corollary, I suppose, is that big cell phones playing MP3s are decidedly not.



John Dvorak's been writing about computers since the early days of PCs. Does he like to be controversial? Sure. That's his thing. And is he sometimes WAY off base? That too. But that more or less comes with the territory when you've been writing for a long time about a wide span of topics--at least some of which you aren't exactly an expert in.

Dvorak's been heating up the Linux zealots of late with his reportage of the PJ-O'Gara tiff. Seems pretty accurate, if a bit over the top. However, it's his latest critique of "tags" that really caught my eye. With all due respect to all the fans of high-tech "blogosphere" linkages, but John nails the hype.
The "folksonomy" notion is the bloggers' last hope of invention, although it's a rewrite of the prebubble "semantic Web" technology at best. And it too is doomed to failure. The utopianism and idealism that exist in the online societies ignore the real problem with tags, metatags, übertags, folksonomies, and the like. This is because they honestly think that most people are goodhearted. The online world, because of its anonymity, encourages bad behavior. "You suck!" is a common post, and it would be the number-one tag if tagging ever became popular. Then would come the tags about "Online Casino!" One site promoting folksonomies is the darling of the bloggers: Flickr.com—an excellent photo-sharing site where being in perpetual beta is a marketing tool.

Interestingly, the ever-insightful Clay Shirky seems to at least sort of endorse the idea of tags in a recent post although he has skewered the "semantic web" in the past. I suspect that there's a bit of a definitional issue going on here. But that's the problem isn't it? When tags become both everything and essentially nothing (i.e. keywords), they lose much of their significance.

My current feeling is that extensive linking and the fact that digital documents have no need for a single physical place means that keywords are preferable to rigid hierarchies. But to extrapolate from there to deep physical meaning for those keywords across individuals and communities seems a bit much. Keywords (or tags if you prefer) yes. Folksonomies, no.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

BBS Documentary

For the young 'uns that's Bulletin Board Systems.

Before the Internet was democratized, there were BBS's. At their largest, they were big multi-line operations. My service of choice was Channel 1 Communications in Cambridge, MA. Communications software like Telix and off-line new readers like Qmail let people snarf the contents of various discussion forums onto their PCs. After all, telephone rates were higher back then. BBS's were also where Freeware, Shareware, and less savory files and programs were exchanged. (Mostly legal in the case of the big operations, less so in the case of smaller and shadier ones.

Compared to today's Internet, BBS's could be much more intimate and could even be the hub of a sort of local community given that the reality of phone costs tended to keep a lot of the membership relatively local. (The larger BBS's also participated in various networks of discussion boards but they also had non-networked boards strictly for the "locals"--i.e. those who dialed in directly.)

There's now a documentary out about those days. I haven't seen it and haven't heard any reports, but if it's any good could be quite the nostalgia trip for some of us. I've thought of doing a book on some of the social communications history of the computer age but I haven't made any real progress on doing so.

Monday, May 23, 2005

So Apple's Jumped On the Podcasting Bandwagon

Actually it was more like a ginger step, but the Steve says that iTunes 4.9 will get podcasting support. I suppose it's the least they could do given that they have this buzzed-about phenomenon further building up their iPod brand even though podcasting has basically nothing to do with either Apple or the iPod.

Make that overhyped buzzed-about phenomenon. I'm going to be a party pooper here and suggest that podcasting is not getting anywhere as big as ordinary blogging. Which, by the way, is overhyped too but does seem to be a legitimate phenomenon albeit one that's not as widespread or influential as some of its practioners think it is. But back to podcasting. Why the yawn. Let me posit a few reasons:
  • It's harder to do well than written content. There are lots of technical issues as well as strictly content-related ones.
  • Power Laws are going to make it real difficult for thousands of broadcasters to find an audience. It's just much harder to "skim" through audiocasts in search of gems than it is through regular blogs. I have to be pickier.
  • It's not exactly hard to get a podcast onto your portable flash memory music thingamajig. But it does take several steps more than just turning on the freekin' radio. When we get to the point that your home computer handles this all automagically between itself and its counterpart in your car, OK. (But then will we just want on demand versions of more commercial fare for the most part?)
I have to admit that I don't like even professionally-done talk radio for the most part. OK, maybe that's a big reason that I'm pretty indifferent about podcasts. But I think there are other reasons to think they won't be the "next big thing" too, Wired covers notwithstanding.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Illuminata Perspectives is Live

In addition to here on Connections, I will now also be posting about IT topics to Illuminata Perspectives. Posts that veer close to mainstream, datacenter IT will tend to migrate over there, but most of what I've been writing about--social connections, photography, etc.--will remain here. Collaboration will likely bridge between the two somewhat.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Time To Revisit Micropayments?

"Micropayments" were part of the Boom's lexicon. But they never really went much of anywhere. Instead, everything was "free"--either in the frequently forlorn hope of charging later or in the often deluded hope that it would be paid for by advertising or some other deus ex machina.

We've ended up in this sort of binary state as a result. The free (perhaps with annoying registration) and true subscription. That's a bit of an oversimplification of course. A site like Nerve has both free and premium content. A site like Salon offers various forms of free access in exchange for watching commercials. But, close enough for government work. But, in general, it holds. We've got sites that are largely free and sites that charge subsriptions--often in the neighborhood of $25 to $50 per year--that exceed what I pay for most of my magazines.

And $1 an aricle? Forget about it unless your audience is mostly well-financed paid researchers. That's not a micropayment. That's a midi-payment--just like buying a song is. Perhaps not a major purchase, but something that you'll think about, or as the ever-interesting Clay Shirky calls it, a transaction cost. (I'm not sure that I agree with Clay that free is the only way to go, but I certainly agree that payments large enough to make you think about them are a real inhibitor.)

Perhaps we need to look again seriously at micropayments. In the cents per transaction range--and, perhaps, implemented as subscriptions that span sites rather than per-transaction decisions. Hard? Sure. But the alternative may well be a dichotomy of free sites and sites that hardly anyone has access to or reads.

Score One for the Littler (But Not So Little) Guy

So Walmart is getting out of the online video rental business in favor of a partnership with Netflix. Blockbuster then promptly took the opportunity to start backing off its recent round of price cuts--which certainly undercut Netflix but were also doubtless aimed at keeping its close to Walmart's rates, which were lowest of all.

I don't shed any tears at Walmart exiting this business or at a certain softness in its overall fortunes. There's a lot not to like about the company as a whole (however much I appreciate the low prices when I shop there myself) and it's hard to see that their online video rental business would ever have been more than a very mass market, lowest common denominator, compete-on-price offering that made like difficult for other companies with more interesting and broad-based services. It's nice to see that Netflix is apparently able to stand up to challengers that could have potentially steamrolled it. (Which is not to say that Netflix is exactly raking in huge profits.) I'm a big fan of their service.

This does seem to be a case where the Internet boom mantra of "Spend to capture mindshare" has more or less played out. Netflix now has the brand (along with a competitive service) and its apparently going to be hard to displace. I think there are a few reasons for that in this case:

  • Scale matters. Without multiple distribution centers, it takes too long to send and receive movies. For an East Coaster like myself, this was a frustration with the early Netflix which had only a single DC in Los Gatos, CA.
  • Scale also matters to selection. Perhaps there's an opportunity for a company that deals only in high volume, mainstream fare. But there's a lot of aggregate volume in the less popular titles too--"The Long Tail" popularized by Chris Anderson of Wired.
  • And, if you're going to have scale, and a broad-based selection, how much more differentiation is possible? Perhaps someone will figure out an alternative way of doing things. (Distribution by broadband will presumably be such an alternative someday; Movielink and its ilk are not not meaningful competitors today.) Perhaps pay-per-movie alternatives to subscription. But the current pricing schemes seem popular and if any such alternative did click with consumers, it would be easy to quickly replicate.

All of which leads me to think that this business isn't favorable to having a lot of niche companies playing in it. (Porn being, of course, the exception given that it's big business, its boundaries are fairly well defined and mainstream companies--especially public ones--want nothing to do with it.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Expanding Linkosphere

It seems like every day we're seeing various information that we've stored away for our own benefit being open up and linked to others in new ways. Now, I'm not referring here to clearly personal data that's being disclosed and compiled against our wishes--inadvertently or otherwise. That's a different topic. Rather, I'm referring here to how we're steadily opening up our wishlists, our bookmarks, and our movie rental lists for all the world to see.

A whole crop of tools has sprouted up to syndicate Amazon wishlists. "I want this, what do you want?" ("Or, please, buy me this!") What started out as more of a personal organization tool--the list of things that I might want to buy someday--is increasingly something to show off to others. del.icio.us and its brothers are even more explicitly communal. They provide a place on the web to store and organize your bookmarks--an increasingly useful concept in these days when people commonly use multiple computers and tyerminals from a panoply of locations. But, in exchange, you bookmarks are exposed as are the way you categorize them using tags - essentially keywords, but explicitly communal.

Now Netflix is the latest to provide an option to make the individual organization part of a collective pool of preferences and predilictions. You can now invite friends to share their movie list queues with you and you with them. Know someone whose taste in film you like, or at least intrigues you, share a list with them. Cool idea.

At the same time, it's impossible not to think that we're rushing pell-mell into throwing a huge amount of at least moderately private information here. Perhaps as Sun CEO Scott McNealy famously said once: "You have no privacy, get over it." much to the consternation of privacy advocates everywhere.

To be sure, that line was a typically McNealy-ian one line zinger; elsewhere he's spoken on the subject in a more nuanced way. But his zinger as a clear kernel of truth as well. The plugged-in are, for the most part, far less private than they've ever been before.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Sorry State of Collaboration

Stephen O'Grady writes here:
One of the reasons I think applications like Trumba are important is that I think calendar applications are an area with a lot of potential in the near term.

a.) There's been essentially zero innovation in them in recent years,
b.) We've all got complicated schedules and
c.) Most of would like some mobile integration (cell phone at a minimum)
That seems about right. I'd go further though and say that there's been essentially no innovation in any of the core "collaboration" apps. I use the term "collaboration" advisedly because it strikes me as a rather overblown and pretentious use of the word given the sorry state of affairs in software that's supposed to help us work together--especially at remote locations.

What advances we have made have come neither from traditional productivity apps stretching themselves (unsuccessfully for the most part) into a more multi-person context nor form the blaoted, monolithic software that passes for serious collaboration tools. The latter may be useful, or even necessary, in some environments for regulatory and other reasons--but it's hard to see them in the mainstream.

Indeed, the most genuine collaborative innovations have come from the outside. They're lightweight and modular. They're IM and blogs and all the other pieces of software that real people use to communicate and commiserate.

A Hilarious Spoof...

of high-tech marketing creative.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Life is Random...

or at least multi-dimensional.

Tablets are an idea that refuses to either truly live or truly die. It's an idea that certainly has its enthusuasts. Most recently, James Governor of RedMonk weighed in on how Tablets could essentially be a Microsoft killer app in Microsoft: Putting Coolaid in Tablet Form.
It seems like the Tablet PC is one of the few things Microsoft can do (put in people's hands) that just stops people dead and cuts through prejudice. Tablet PC is disarming. Its funny to watch begrudging envy; is there a word for the opposite of schadenfraude?
The big issue here is that theTablet concept fills a very basic need. Us modern folks who have been using keyboards for a long time can type much faster than we can write. Indeed, my handwriting--in addition to bewildering even myself much of the time--cramps my hand and s incredibly slow by comparison to my (non-touch-typed) typing. But that typing is essentially linear--one-dimensional.

By contrast, when we take notes or sketch out ideas, we're all over the page--essentially two-dimensional.

See the problem? Great modern thought organizational techniques like mind maps are essentially 2-D while our fast input mechanism is 1-D.

That's why I consider tablet PCs a great unfufilled promise. Someone's going to ultimately crack the keyboard-tablet hybrid code and then it's going to be "You mean, people didn't always build PCs that way?"

In closing, I have to disagree with my buddy James on OneNote. Maybe it's a good app for Tablets but I don't see it as an underappreciated app for normal PCs--for reasons that I covered here. Microsoft: even if you have to look ugly, lose the proprietary format or at least provide a convenient export option.