Archive for November, 2007

Rainydawg Radio, Season 2, Show 5

Name Artist Album
1 TTV Telefon Tel Aviv Farenheight Fair Enough
2 Healing My Toothake DRONE
3 I Come and Stand at Every Door (Instrumental) Styrofoam
4 She Moves She Four Tet Rounds
5 A paw in my face The Field From Here We Go Sublime
6 Orange A (CD Edit) Donnacha Costello Colorseries
7 Come Into My Kitchen (M.A.N.D.Y. Remix) Joakim
8 Welcome Home (Prefuse 73 Danse Macabre) Daedelus Exquisite Corpse
9 Who Jahcoozi Pure Breed Mongrel
10 WEIT (Andi Muller F**kup) Royksopp
11 Drop Alberto Like It’s Hot’ 100dBs
12 Radar Receiver Solvent Apples and Synthesizers
13 Visionary Road Maps Stereolab
14 Touches Lackluster
15 By The Time (DJ Nastique’s Space Cowboy Mix) Grand National
16 Maps Ada
17 Rotundus Maximus Tipper Surrounded
18 Faust Arp Radiohead In Rainbows
19 Room 337 Aril Brikha
20 $20 M.I.A. Kala
21 Hours TV On The Radio Return to Cookie Mountain
22 Praise my 3 A’s Freeworm
23 Jump Up Step Back Kingdom
24 Kentucky Lovefingers
25 The End (Take 7, RS1 Mono) The Beatles

[audio:radio-archives/2007-11-29-5pm.mp3] 2007-11-29 5pm

[audio:radio-archives/2007-11-29-6pm.mp3] 2007-11-29 6pm

Universities are not traditional business customers

This last Friday I participated in a feedback session on PowerPoint hosted by a representative from Microsoft and held at the Information School where I was confronted with the distinction whether the University is primarily a business or a consumer customer. You could argue both ways.

During the discussion I was asked to express my opinions on Microsoft in general. I have fairly strong opinions anti-Microsoft and in most cases I don’t think they are un-warranted. I keep my mind open and try to evaluate their solutions as openly as I can. Even so, I’m continually frustrated with their inability to provide straight forward solutions that do what I need without a huge amount of hassle in terms of proprietary offerings, compatability nightmares, and their continual disregard for trends and standards. Instead, they constantly re-invent the wheel and impose stupid barriers to be able to inter-operate with their products.

I brought up the utterly irresponsible incompatibility that SharePoint 2007 has with anything other than IE. The WYSIWYG editor for content blocks doesn’t work at all in non-IE browsers but instead gives you Microsoft-ized HTML to work with — it’s completely absurd. The interface is filthy with UI glitches where boxes shift in size and location all over the page as you try to interact — sometimes I can’t click on links when I hover over them because the clickable area outside of my mouse pointers scope.

I mentioned that my harsh criticisms aren’t unfounded because incompatibilities like this prevent the widely varied audience of the University from using tools like this when they are being used to help people from all around the world collaborate from all age ranges and technical configurations. The users of this software includes so many people on different platforms with different browser preferences that for something like SharePoint to be embraced in the academic environment it has to work everywhere. Not just on Windows but minimally on Mac and Linux, Firefox and Safari.

The Microsoft representative responded that SharePoint is a “business solution” and the University is a “business customer” which somehow means these are not Microsoft’s problems. I disagree.

Also, when I mention employees of the University I’m more specifically speaking in terms of a school-specific environment (there are many schools within one University — business, art, information, etc.) rather than a University-wide environment which can be much more fragmented.

Faculty and Staff are employees of the “business”

Businesses are regulated. In most businesses, employees are provided a controlled computing environment to work in and they have to deal. If the corporate intranet only works on IE7 and the business gives everyone IE7 then all is well (arguable, but follow me here). If the business want everyone to use proprietary Microsoft solutions internally, that’s fine.

In general, these same statements hold true for faculty and staff at Universities because they are provided a specific environment to work in and as long as what the school provides works in the provided environment, there isn’t much of a problem.

The thing that’s different about employees at Universities is that they don’t operate in anywhere near as closed an environment as employees in a corporate environment do. They do research. They interact with students, faculty from other schools all around the world — many of which will not operate in the same prescribed environment that the employees of the university are provided.

Faculty are often heavily involved in outside organizations and projects where their computing needs and work environments can be heavily customized to the point that what the school provides (in terms of computing environment) does not suit them. In these cases the assumptions the school can make about its employees are broken and so they have to adjust what they provide to make sure everyone is accounted for.

Everyone else is a “consumer”

Faculty and staff aren’t the only ones using the tools the school provides. Outside collaborators, distance faculty, and students need to have access to a great deal of the schools resources as well. These people could have all kinds of computing environments. These people are much more like the traditional consumer market because their needs are random and often unexpected. They (or we, in my case) need loving too.

Not everybody can be completely pleased, but given the wide variety of environments and needs the school is obligated to make sure the tools they provide will work in as many configurations possible. People run Windows, Mac, and Linux. People use IE, Firefox, Safari, and many other browsers. At the very least, some configuration on each operating system should work with the provided tools. If not the majority of configurations, at least some configuration should work.

Where do you draw the line?

Of course, not everything the school provides needs to be accessible by everyone but for the things the school decides to encourage the students and others to embrace (Sharepoint for example) they should make sure everyone can use them. This means that people on Mac need to be able to work with the people on Windows and if teachers and/or IT requires/encourages use of specific solutions they need to be sensitive to other peoples configurations and choose wisely between solutions likewise.

The University environment is not as completely uncontrolled as a consumer one, but it does have to account for all types — at least for the tools which it expects everyone to use inside and outside of the organization.

If goals don’t align, it won’t work

For things like collaboration portals which the school has embraced and made available with the assumption that it will work for everybody, the people providing these tools should be sure that the company/group providing the solution they are making available aligns with the needs of the University. If not, then the school should look elsewhere. The person whom I spoke with last Friday about Sharepoint said that it was a “business solution” and that it is designed for environments where that fact can be embraced. If the goals of the technology provider (Microsoft in Sharepoint’s case) are strict and not lenient to the needs of the University then the University should find another solution or wait until the provider (Microsoft) can agree that the University’s needs are different and that the product will reflect those needs.

Universities are weird environments. They are so much like businesses but the needs of their users are much broader requiring them to be compatible with a much greater set of technical configurations and environments.

Microsoft, specifically, has conflicting goals

Microsoft, in many cases, is not designing products for the special University environment. They have made that clear. The reason Microsoft segregates its target environments is to have excuses for building products that don’t necessarily make everyone happy but will work in controlled environments like many businesses do. I’m not stating this is a flawed focus (even though I do in fact partially feel that way) but rather that many of Microsoft’s business solutions are not right at all for Universities. We’d all be better off if everyone was on the same page here. Yes they want to get their infrastructure products deployed at Universities, but if they aren’t going to play nice with everyone, then they need to stay out until they do. University IT deployers need to stand up and not suffice with ill aligned goals when they don’t meet the University’s needs.

Choosing the “right” web service

Nowadays there are so many web services out there that do the same or similar things. How do you choose which is best for you?

I’m continually finding it more difficult than I would like to settle on one or another web service to use. I’ve recently been conflicted with competing services such as Jaiku vs Pownce vs Facebook Status vs Twitter or Beanstalk vs SpringLoops or Viddler vs Vimeo or Basecamp vs GoPlan vs ActiveCollab vs [insert-your-favorite-wiki-here]. It doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult.

I’m going to generalize quite a bit for the sake of this article that there are two types of web service focuses on the web.

  1. Social: sites where the quality/size/content of the network of users is a key factor for its users.
  2. Application: sites where the value is in the application, utility is primarily personal, and the network is either a side benefit of the service or the network is not a factor.

It’s easy to follow the crowd

On purely social websites it’s often fairly easy for a new user to choose which one to jump on based on which one has the most people in your network at that time. If the network relevant to me is there, I’ll go there.

The extent to which the network matters also depends a lot on what I’m going to use the site for. For example, there is value in both the networks of ma.gnolia and del.icio.us but which will best serve my core/long term bookmarking needs? The popularity factor may be useful in the short term but it’s important to figure out in the long term with which I will wish I had put time and effort. I do enjoy having my networks there to send people links using built in application functions but since not everybody is on one or the other I’ve found ways to deal.

Sometimes the crowd doesn’t help

On other social websites where the application is the primary focus or where the competing networks are fairly even across the board, there is no clear choice.

The biggest dead-end choice is when the site is mostly application-focused and the crowd doesn’t help. Sometimes the features are almost exactly the same, the implementations similar, the pricing structures irrelevant. In these cases I will choose based on reputation, but reputation isn’t always clear — and I’m speaking as someone who lives in the internet. Most users are not as experienced or familiar as many of us are on the web and will find it much more daunting than I do.

The trouble faced by new players

How does a new player in the web service arena stake its ground?

I’ve been specifically troubled by this question while strategizing Mavenry. If there is no obvious culturally accepted or reputation-obvious choice service providers just have to do their best and hope people give you a chance. That is, if all you provide is a very non-specific approach to the market and don’t stake your ground somewhere unique. I can’t help but think about Facebook here and how it started out providing a seemingly similar social networking service as everyone else but they went after a specific market to build a certain network. That worked then, but now with things like OpenSocial coming into fruition the choice of social network is increasingly hard — assuming your network has no significant footing in any of the available options.

Grounding on a specific market can be limiting, yes, but it will guarantee a social service at least some full segment of the market. And, it’ll help its users make more informed decisions.

On the other side, how does a consumer choose between such evenly matched players?

My recent exposure to this question has been while trying to find a good bug tracking/code browsing/subversion hosting/documentation hosting provider. I see many providers out there with what seem like such similar features and benefits that there is no overwhelmingly significant reason (at least from my perspective) to choose one or the other. In the end I’m afraid I’ll just choose whichever site is prettiest to look at (admit it, you do it too).

When new players succeed at specifying their target market and making it clear to the user that it is “right for them”, people like me will find it easier to choose — whether or not it’s the best choice for either party. For example, I found it easy to choose Facebook because they made it clear that it was “for college students”.

It’s not so cut and dry

Of course, these are all generalizations. In most cases there are many more reasons why I would choose between sites such as the site’s openness, growth trends, or how well the company’s goals align with my own. You could even argue that how the site just feels to me is more important than any of the other factors at hand. In the example I made earlier about ma.gnolia vs. del.icio.us I often come back to thinking that the only real meaningful difference to me is the visual design of the site — and that just doesn’t seem right.

Increasingly sites are providing more and more ways to get at your data and to easily take your data with you when you leave. Flickr comes to mind here because through their API you can get access to your entire collection of photos and can easily export your data at any time for your own use or to other competing services like Zooomr. I expect trends will continually force services to open up and embrace open standards like OpenID, OAuth, Microformats, and you could even argue OpenSocial. I expect that having everything be more open and evenly matched will not help end users at all but instead it will make it more and more difficult to weed through the drunken haze.

Many of these trends also apply to desktop software as well. For an end user with simple needs where is the benefit in choosing something like Pages over Microsoft Word when I know Word will always work with the people I deal with on a daily basis. Yes Pages is faster, nicer to use, and has more features, and will work with Word documents just fine, but still.

This is not a problem that will ever be completely solved unless the man starts to decide for us against our will, but I continue to find it oh so intriguing none the less.

OpenWidget

Google released a couple days ago, along with an impressive set of initial partners, a set of APIs for building social web applications which they have decided to call OpenSocial. That name, OpenSocial, sounds intriging, doesn’t it? It’s a little off putting because what this new platform provides is not a means to open up our social graphs or help openly integrate the multitude of social networking websites out there. What it does is provide an standardized way for people write what are basically widgets, similar to what the Facebook application platform provides, and to easily embed those widgets in any number of social applications with little to no customization on a per-site basis.

It’s just a widget platform

OpenSocial is a very one-way system. It helps widget developers build applications off of each individual network’s data, but not to share the data between networks.

Because of the lack of generalized openness of the platform, the usefulness that these open applications provide is extremely limited and so what comes out of this is a way to embed random widgets. The widgets are non-specialized (at least by initial design) to the social networking websites they are used on and so what people build will be random in nature and will likely provide very little usefulness other than to amuse the users.

It’s too bad that this move wasn’t to open up the social graphs and help integrate the disjointed networks in all of these websites. That’s okay, though. This is still a great effort and a move in the right direction. As Tantek wrote, this is just one component of social network portability and does help social application developers a great deal.

The market is stronger now

As Fred Stutzman pointed out, having these widgets everywhere helps struggling/competing networks stay even with their competition. Now that everyone can provide a way to get these open widgets on their social applications they can say “Hey! Don’t leave! We have those too!”. While this seems helpless and slightly laughable it strengthens the competetive landscape.

As I listed in my recap of the Lessig lecture yesterday, the best way to keep a healthy corporate ecosystem is to encourage competition. The more competition is out there, the more trust will instill in the users of these applications. It will be easier for people to embrace competing networks without feeling like they all need to use “the one with the applications”. The hierarchy of social networking applications will likely flatten because of this. As Seth Godin pointed out, the choice now between social networks is, soon to be, hundreds of open sites (OpenSocial implementers) or one closed one (Facebook).

It seems like such a call for help

While more people having these applications helps the landscape, the inclusion of these widgets seem so forced. It’s sad to see promising services like Plaxo seemingly randomly embrace this without any reason other than that they can. When everyone has these applications they don’t add anything new or unique to any one network.

Time will tell which applications get listed on which networks and whether different implementations of the OpenSocial API will encourage different types of applications to be used. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

Is Google (2008) Microsoft (1998)?

Lawrence Lessig appeared on campus this past Friday to lecture about the current trends of Google and the similarities it increases to have with the Microsoft of 1998.

He is an extremely bright individual. Everything he said was solidly reasoned and perfectly constructed grammatically. The speed and inflections with which he spoke lent just the right amount of focus and attention to each and every word. Even during the Q&A, his responses were extremely well-crafted. It was a moving and motivational experience. Also, his slides are some of the sexiest around.

Take-aways from the lecture

I’ve cleaned up the main points here but I’ve also published an unpolished outline of the full lecture.

  • We can’t look to corporations for help — they have their own objectives. Once we have lost trust/faith in government, the next place we look for guidance is corporations. It’s important to remember that corporations’ aim is to make money and maximize shareholder value, not to do “good”.
  • Google’s platform is in its data. While Google provides great value to its users, the environment is architected so that your work with their products improves their platform. It’s a well-designed ecosystem — as you get what you want, your use serves something back to the provider.
  • What broke Microsoft was not the anti-trust, but rather that people had a “lack of trust”. The US v. Microsoft case reminds us that industry is allergic to trusting monopolies. It’s useless to file a lawsuit in cases like this. Instead, companies should change the environment to encourage competition because knowing that there is solid competition helps build trust.1
  • Facebook is building a system where the platform has the right to control innovation. This is quite a bit more closed than what Microsoft provided — Microsoft built a technology that anyone had the right to develop for.
  • Network effects mean we can’t guarantee competition when we need.
  • Innovation and investment can freeze up in monopolistic cases because people are afraid others will take their options away.
  • There are three types of “hybrid”2 rights control
    • Invite people to create but all creativity is owned by the publisher.
    • Like Google or YouTube. The publishers don’t want to understand who they are or what they should be.
    • Examples: Flickr, Second Life. All rights to creativity are owned by the content creators. Uses ownership here to build trust among participants.
  • Resisting competition is a rational, sensible strategy for a monopoly. To not do this would be irrational.
  • Politics divert to corporate social responsibility. We need to recognize that corporations cannot work for the public interest. We’re stuck because we can’t trust the government, so the only entity we can trust is the company. Government exists to remove the necessity of having to trust in companies.
  • Corruption is not about bad people, it’s about good people being corrupt. Most people go into politics to do good but people will bend to money.
  • The political system is at fault. If people don’t recognize this, then the revolutionaries will abolish the system and we’ll be poorer for it. We need to do what’s necessary to fix the system rather than abolish it.
  • How do we educate people on their rights? Data in America has no property rights — we need to find ways to establish this in some way. We need to push the idea that people should own their creations.
  • The political campaign system can be fixed. One idea would be to have campaign finances be secret where people’s donations are not trackable. Lessig commented that we need better functioning politics before we can focus on the companies.
  • The young generation needs to be educated and engaged in politics to counteract the current trend of consumption and lack of interest.

Elsewhere

Related to the talk

Others’ responses to the lecture

  1. Eg. Proctor and Gamble does this well.
  2. “Hybrid” meaning providing value both to the content creator and the content publisher — mixing read-only with read-write.

Facebook is a “bits feeder”

There have been several occasions recently where I’ve contributed to conversations about Facebook and its place on the web. The general starting point for these discussions begin with the question of whether it is turning into that “one place” that everyone will end up calling their social networking home on the web — the pivot location of all online communication and networking. While I cannot foresee the market stake it will hold even a year into the future, I’m starting to feel like I understand where Facebook stands and why it is fundamentally different than it’s commonly compared neighbor MySpace.

Facebook

Many continue to reference Facebook as the “new MySpace” but that is not a fair statement to make. Facebook seems to be approaching things in a completely different way. It is trying to become a hub of all things social. Not a hub like a Google where all of your data lives and is displayed only on Google, but rather a hub as in a place to collect little bits of information from all your other online presences and to pull them into one starting place for you on the web. It’s a place your friends can come to connect and identify relationships with you and then come back as frequently or infrequently as they want to get updates on little “bits” about what you’ve been up to lately. Facebook makes it easy to browse networks based on friendships, interests, personal information, and now through any number of methods using their applications platform.

MySpace

MySpace, on the other hand, seems to be in its core designed to provide an easy way for young people to push information about themselves with very little structure resulting in a massive influx of bulletins, blog posts, profile comments, and randomly placed content on profile pages. The generally younger audience makes sense when viewing the site in this way because it lends to younger peoples desire to be heard loudly among friends and peers. It is more of a communication platform rather than a networking application.

Rainydawg Radio, Season 2, Show 4

Name Artist Album
1 Think Niles Drink About Bongo
2 Alles Sehen Ellen Allien Berlinette
3 Cops at my door DRONE
4 Veni Vedi Veci (Diplo Remix) Black Lips
5 Numbers Booka Shade
6 Deserter Matthew Dear Asa Breed
7 Music is Math Boards of Canada Geodaddi
8 …So Soft Cell Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret
9 Les FLeur (Pocketknife’s Beach Blanket Bongos Remix) Kenneth Bager
10 Girl + Robot vector-lovers vector-lovers
11 Give Me Every Little Thing The Juan Maclean Less Than Human
12 Lovin’ Machine Glass Candy Iko Iko
13 My Radio Solvent Apples and Synthesizers
14 NY Excuse Soulwax Any Minute Now
15 My Friend Dario Vitalic OK Cowboy
16 Where My Heart’s At (Feat The Others) Wax Tailor Tales of Forgotten Melodies
17 Changing Time Jahcoozi Pure Breed Mongrel
18 Whirl a stream of comfort to cool and surround me until I lose sight of my own defeat Bichi Notwithstanding
19 Nightclothes and Headphones Jason Forrest Shamelessly Exciting
20 Fly me to the moon Jazzamor Lazy Sunday Afternoon
21 Schwabylon Justus Kohncke Doppelleben
22 Inegration Venetian Snares My Downfall
23 Rude Mechanicals The Marcia Blaine School for Girls Halfway Into The Woods
24 Happy Ending Manitoba Start Breaking My Heart

[audio:radio-archives/2007-11-01-5pm.mp3] 2007-11-01 5pm

[audio:radio-archives/2007-11-01-6pm.mp3] 2007-11-01 6pm

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