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Archive for the ‘product development’ Category

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Certain activities are fundamental to the human endeavor.

The list:
Acquisition of food, shelter and water
Mate attraction and selection
Procreation
Acquisition or forage of information regarding the first three
Acquisition of goods and services that may make it more efficient to get the first three
Exchange of above three

Only software that deals directly with these activities flourishes into profitable, long term businesses.

I define software here as computer programs running on severs and personal computers and devices.

The race to the bottom in the pricing of information and software and hardware that runs that software ensures that only software businesses that scale beyond all competition can last. Scale means massive and efficient data centers, massive support functions and a steady stream of people talent to keep it all together. And the only activities in the human world that scale enough are those things that are fundamental activities to us all.

Sure there’s a place for boutique and specialist software but typically firms like that are swallowed by the more fundamental firms who bake the function directly into their ecosystem and then they give it away. And this is also why the boutique struggles long term. Those fundamental software builders are always driving the cost down. So even if a boutique is doing ok now it is not sustainable if it is at all relevant. It will be swallowed.

Open source software only reinforces this. In fact it takes this idea to the extreme. The really successful open source projects are always fundamental software (os, browser, web server, data processing) and further drive the price of software to zero.

Scale is the only way to survive in software.

This goes for websites, phone apps, etc. All the sites and apps that focus on niche interests that don’t deal with the fundamental activities above directly either get assimilated into larger apps and sites with broad function or they whiter and die unable to be sustained by a developer.

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In Defense of The Question Is The Thing

I’ve oft been accused of being all vision with little to no practical finishing capability. That is, people see me as a philosopher not a doer. Perhaps a defense of myself and philosophy/approach isn’t necessary and the world is fine to have tacticians and philosophers and no one is very much put off by this.

I am not satisfied. The usual notion of doing and what is done and what constitutes application is misguided and misunderstood.

The universe is determined yet unpredictable (see complexity theory, cellular automota). Everything that happens and is has anticedents (see behaviorism, computation, physics). Initiatial conditions have dramatic effect on system behavior over time (see chaos theory). These three statements are roughly equivalent or at least very tightly related. And they form the basis of my defense of what it means to do.

“Now I’m not antiperformance, but I find it very precarious for a culture only to be able to measure performance and never be able to credit the questions themselves.” – Robert Irwin, page 90, seeing is forgetting the name of thing one sees

The Question Is The Thing! And by The Question that means the context or the situation or the environment or the purpose. and I don’t mean The Question or purpose as assigned by some absolute authority agent. It is the sense of a particular or relevative instance we consider a question. What is the question at hand?

Identifying and really asking the question at hand drives the activity to and fro. To do is to ask. The very act of seriously asking a question delivers the do, the completion. So what people mistake in me as “vision” is really an insatiable curiousity and need to ask the right question. To do without the question is nothing, it’s directionless motion and random walk. To seriously ask a question every detail of the context is important. To begin answering the question requires the environment to be staged and the materials provided for answers to emerge.

There is no real completion without a constant re-asking of the question. Does this answer the question? Did that answer the question?

So bring it to something a lot of people associate me with: web and software development. In the traditional sense I haven’t written a tremendous amount of code myself. Sure I’ve shipped lots of pet projects, chunks of enterprise systems, scripts here and there, and the occassional well crafted app and large scale system. There’s a view though that unless you wrote every line of code or contributed some brilliant algorithm line for line, you haven’t done anything. The fact is there’s a ton of code written every day on this planet and very little of it would i consider “doing something”. Most of it lacks a question, it’s not asking a question, a real, big, juicy, ambitious question.

Asking the question in software development requires setting the entire environment up to answer it. Literally the configuration of programmer desks, designer tools, lighting, communication cadence, resources, mixing styles and on and on. I do by asking the question and configuring the environment. The act of shipping software takes care of itself if the right question is seriously asked within an environment that let’s answers emerge.

Great questions tend to take the shape of How Does This Really Change the World for the User? What new capability does this give the world? How does this extend the ability of a user to X? What is the user trying to do in the world?

Great environments to birth answers are varied and don’t stay static. The tools, the materials all need to change per the unique nature of the question.

Often the question begs us to create less. Write less code. Tear code out. Leave things alone. Let time pass. Write documentation. Do anything but add more stuff that stuffs the answers further back.

The question and emergent answers aren’t timeless or stuck in time. The context changes the question or shape of the question may change.

Is this to say I’m anti shipping (or anti performance as Irwin put it)? No. Lets put it this way we move too much and ask too little and actual don’t change the world that much. Do the least amount to affect the most is more of what I think is the approach.

The question is The Thing much more than thing that results from work. The question has all the power. It starts and ends there.

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Almost all humans do all the following daily:

  • Eat
  • Drink Water
  • Sleep
  • Breath
  • Think about Sex/Get Sexually Excited
  • Communicate with Close Friends and Family
  • Go to the bathroom
  • People Watch
  • Groom

Almost all humans do the following very regularly:

  • Work (hunt, gather, desk job, factory job, sell at the market)
  • Have sex or have sexual activities
  • Listen to or play music
  • Play
  • Take inventory of possessions (count, tally, inspect, store)

A good deal of humans do the following regularly:

  • Go to school/have formal learning (training, go to school, college, apprenticeship)
  • Cook/Prepare Food
  • Read
  • Compete for social status
  • Court a mate

Fewer humans do the following occasionally:

  • Travel more than a few miles from home
  • Write (blog, novel, paper)
  • Eat away from home
  • Stay somewhere that isn’t their home
  • Exercise outside of work tasks (play sports, train, jog)

I’m sure we can think up many more activities in the bottom category probably not many more in the top 3 categories.

For a technology to be mass market successful it has to, at its core, be about behaviors in the top categories.   And it has to integrate with those behaviors in a very pure way, i.e. don’t try to mold the person, let the person mold the technology to their behavior.

I define mass market success as “use by more than 10% of the general population of a country.”   Few technologies and services achieve this.   But those that do all deal with these FHAs.  Twitter, Google, MySpace, Facebook, Microsoft, TV, Radio, Telephone, Cellular Phone…. the more of those activities they deal with the faster they grow.   Notice also that almost all of these examples do not impose a set of specific use paths on users.  e.g. Twitter is just a simple messaging platform for that you can use in a bazillion contexts.

It’s not about making everything more efficient, more technologically beautiful.   It is about humans doing what they’ve done for 100,000+ years with contemporary technology.  If you want to be a successful service, you have to integrate and do a behavioral evolution with the users.

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The iPad, like the iPod, iPhone, and iMac isn’t a revolution in computer science, design interface, consumer packaging nor ui. It’s a revolution of the economics of those things. Now that there’s a device on the market now at 500 bucks and an unlimited data plan for 30 bucks a month it’s almost assured that the iPad type of computing and media platform will be popularized and maybe not even by apple. The hype of the technology will surely drown out the economic story for some time but in the long run the implications of the price of this technology will be the big story.

Sure we have sub 500 dollar computers and media devices. they have never been this functional or this easy. Apple has just shown what is possible so now the other competitors will have to follow suit. It really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme if it’s apple or htc or google or microsoft or Sony who wins the bragging wars each quarter – the cat is out of the bag – cost effective, easy to use, and fun computing for everyone is possible in a mass producible construction.

There are some interesting side effects coming out of this. If a business can’t make huge profits from the hardware or the connection or the applications where will the profit come from? (I’m not saying companies won’t mark good profits I just don’t think it will be sustainable – especially for companies used to big margins.)

Obviously the sales of content matters. Books, movies, games, music and so on. This computing interface makes it far more easy to buy content and get a sense that it was worth buying. If the primary access channel is through a browser I think people aren’t inclined to pay – we all are too used to just freely browsing. On a tablet the browser isn’t the primary content access channel.

The challenge for content providers is that quality of the content has to be great. This new interface requires great interactivity and hifi experiences. Cutting corners will be very obvious to users. There’s also not really some easy search engine to trick into sending users to a sub par experience. That only works when the primary channel is the browser.

If advertising is going to work well on this platform boy does there have to be a content and interaction shift in the industry. Banners and search ads will just kill an experience on this device. Perhaps more old school magazine style ads will work because once your in an app you can’t really do some end around or get distracted. Users might be willing to consume beautiful hifi ads. Perhaps the bigger problem is that sending people to a browser to take action on an ad will be quite weird.

Clicks can’t be the billable action anymore. Clicks aren’t the same on a tablet! (in fact, most Internet ads won’t work on the iPad. Literally. Flash and click based ads won’t function)

Perhaps the apps approach to making money will work. To date the numbers don’t add up. Unless users are willing to pay more for apps than they do on the iPhone only a handful of shops will be able to handle the economics of low margin, mass software. So for the iPad apps seem to be higher priced. More users coming in may change that though.

In a somewhat different vein…. Social computers will be a good source of cold and flu transmission. If we’re really all going to be leaving these lying about and passing them between each other, the germs will spread. Doesn’t bother me, but some people might consider that.

Will users still need to learn a mouse in the future?

Should we create new programming interfaces that are easier to manipulate with a touch screen. Labview products come to mind?

What of bedroom manners? The iPhone and blackberries are at least small…

And, of course, the porn industry. The iPhone wasn’t really viable as a platform. This touch based experience with big screens… Use your imagination and I’m sure you can think up some use cases…

I do think this way of interacting with computers is here to stay. It’s probably a good idea to think through how it changes approaches to making money and how we interact with each other. I’d rather shape our interactions than be pushed around unknowingly….

Happy Monday!

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There’s an amazing thing going on.  It’s a small little product release that few folks outside of the techworld cover.  The release and tech uproar over Google Chrome Frame.

Why do I say this?  Oh, well, some folks at Google woke up and realized there are such things as platform dependencies and you pick the platform that makes it efficient to produce and distribute your product.  So… it produced a WRAPPER for the platform most widely distributed (windows/IE) AND reduced its dev costs (produce a runtime that runs on anything.).

We could continue in this fashion, but using Google Chrome Frame instead lets us invest all that engineering time in more features for all our users, without leaving Internet Explorer users behind,” argued Lars Rasmussen and Adam Schuck of Google’s Wave team last week.

Beyond Google making such an aggressive move to stash Chrome inside IE as a stab at Microsoft, this move demonstrates  that BROWSERS determine a BIG PART of business on the Internet.  Netscape was right, just way too early.  The browser is the new OS – both in user function and business line.    All the players are pitching users on various propositions.  Do you care about security? compatibility?  native software?  cool features?  It can be bought, sold, and managed just like any other piece of commercial software.  The browsers are not immune to real business.  The require real capital to build and real support to maintain.  Firefox is hanging on… but how long does it have with its main benefactors producing competitive products and forging competitive alliances?

Basically, the browser as a community project – Free Software Thing – is losing ground to browser as front door to lots of revenue.

It’s well known, and extremely frustrating, to many software vendors that whatever ships with the computer is what wins and trying to get a mass of users to install the platform is a losing battle.  As a result Google is trying very hard to make Android and Chrome OS a default shipping system, but it’s not there yet.    If Google is to ever grow as big as MSFT it MUST own the default software on the majority of systems.

I predict eventually Google has to ship hardware – perhaps in deep partnerships (tmobile MyTouch with Google is just the beginning).  It will definitely start shipping Google branded hardware that has Google OS and Google search, Google apps capable of doing real work and real entertainment.   Apple, PC Makers, Cell Carriers and others will divorce Google slowly over time as Google takes more and more of their core business.

As a very interesting side note…. the biggest eyeball engine every created still doesn’t have enough advertising revenue growth to power long term business growth.  That’s right… SELLING ACTUAL STUFF IS STILL WHERE BUSINESS LIES.  Just hawking someone else’s stuff isn’t enough…. and so it goes.

Welcome, Internet, to long term business.  Reality bites.

OR

Maybe I’m completely wrong and this helter-skelter game of pushing open source and community projects strategically can disrupt competitors enough to keep growing and further distribute the Google eyeball engine… hmmmm….

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Methinks the best experience will end up combining real time search with regular web search.  Yes, it’s nice to have unfiltered immediate information in certain situations like breaking news or emergencies.  Outside of that synthesis is essential to keep the noise to signal ratio down.

I don’t so much mind the metaphor used on TechCrunch today of consciousness and memory.

Imagine having just memory or just real time consciousness – it somehow wouldn’t be very efficient for the processing of information into action.  TC brings this up.  Yesterday’s Michael Jackson and celebrity death coverage and the malware issues showcases that without some non-real time synthesis things get pretty messed up.

Thinking through this is not that hard.  Though you can’t use citation analysis to filter results like in PageRank, you can do similar things to get some confidence interval in the real time results.  However, the more accurate you make that the more processing time it will take and, thus, it will be less real time.   I think some hybrid of rapid filtering with a real time pressentation of streams with a big note that says UNFILTERED or UNVERIFIED should do just fine at the top of regular web results.

I’d use that kind of experience, for what it’s worth…

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Whether it’s “valid” or not humans (and probably most animals) make associations of new, unknown things with similar-seeming known things.  In fact, this is the basis of communication.

In the case of discussing new websites/services/devices like Wolfram|Alpha, Bing, Kindle, iPhone, Twitter and so on it’s perfectly reasonable to associate them to their forebears.  Until users/society gets comfortable with the new thing and have a way of usefully talking about it making comparisons to known things is effective in forming shared knowledge.

My favorite example of this is Wikipedia and Wikis.  What the heck is a wiki?  and what the heck is wikipedia based on this wiki?  Don’t get me wrong – I know what a wiki is. But to someone who doesn’t, hasn’t used one, and hasn’t contributed to one it’s pretty hard to describe without giving them anchors based on stuff they do know.  “Online Encyclopedia”, “Like a Blog but more open”…  (for fun read how media used to talk about wikipedia, more here)

More recently is Twitter.  What is it like?  A chat room? a social network?  a simpler blog? IM?  right… it’s all that and yet something different, it’s Twitter.  You know it when you use it.

Just like in nature new forms are always evolving with technology.  Often new tech greatly resembles its ancestories.  Other times it doesn’t.

In the specific case of Wolfram|Alpha and Bing/google… they share a common interface in the form of the browser and an HTML text field.  They share a similar foundation in trying to make information easy to access.  The twist is that Wolfram|Alpha computes over retrieved information and can actually synthesize (combine, plot, correlate) it into new information.  Search engines retreive information and synthesize ways to navigate it.  Very different end uses, often very complimentary.  Wikipedia uses humans to synthesize information into new information, so it shares some concepts with Wolfram|Alpha.  Answers.com and other answer sites typically are a mash up of databases and share the concept of web search engines of synthesizing ways to navigate data.

All of these are USEFUL tools and they ARE INTERCONNECTED.  None of them will replace each other.  Likely they will all co-evolve. And we will evolve our ways of talking about them.

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