General “Must Have” Requirements for the next “Killer” Web Service

General “Must Have” Requirements for the next “Killer” Web Service

Just my opinion, your thoughts welcome

  1. Must have Twitter integration, in and out
  2. Must be visible across all web services, using RSS as the universal glue
  3. Must accept OpenID, if not also be an OpenID provider to boot
  4. Must be SEO friendly, if not a downright SEO “juicer”

In short, openness, visibility, and portability are necessary and sufficient for its success.

My idea would be for an “open” data store based upon OpenID trusts to extend personal profiles across web services. Yeah – I know there are already groups out there trying to grok this in group thought.

Someone just needs to do it and let the market decide. The internet has enough committees.

Hate to think what Twitter would look like if designed by committee… or community for that matter.

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Branding and Esteem

Branding and Esteem

Just posted an article on my Facebook profile about Dell’s poor quarterly earnings and how they blame their poor performance on everything EXCEPT the root cause of their troubles – terrible customer service. While Dell has reasonably priced and well equipped laptops and desktops, they are losing mind share and market share to Apple (yes, Apple).

Apple’s product offerings across the board are overpriced and underpowered. And yet – they are expanding in all areas: music downloads, music players, desktops, phones, laptops. They are on a tear, no doubt.

Why is Apple prospering, and Dell (and Sprint, another notable customer service story from hell) floundering?

Because Apple respects their customers. Apple products are an esteem issue with their customer. Customers are willing to pay a premium for ease of use, ease of hassle, beauty, elegance.

The marketplace of commerce and ideas is fast changing, and old thoughts of ignoring customers because you CAN are long obsolete.

Just ask Dell and Sprint. While you can.

Do As I Say, NOT as I Do

Do As I Say, NOT as I Do

Ajaxian had a post today about how Firefox 3 uses an undocumented API call to get the same performance characteristics as Safari on Mac.

This kinda “private vs. public” debate is as old as the PC. Peter Norton became a millionaire by exposing the hidden / underdocumented bits of the bios, fat, and msdos, and Andrew Schulman went on to become wealthier – if not persona non grata at Microsoft – for writing about Undocumented Windows API calls.

I had an app that was in production for 18 years (YEARS) that used frowned upon direct video memory writes for fast display (which, in the day, everyone did writing commercial DOS software).

To sum up: its OK for Apple to use their own internal API calls to get a performance gain over competitors, but it is somehow “bad” if Firefox does the same to level the playing field.

Yeah – THAT sounds fair.

Using undocumented API calls is sometime the only way for commercial software written by third-parties to compete in a marketplace where OS publishers use undocumented APIs as a way to outperform those locked out of the Sanctum Sanctorum. Microsoft has been notoriously beaten up in the past over such shenanigans (“DOS isn’t done until Lotus won’t run” went an infamous apocryphal saying back in the eighties).

Apple probably isn’t getting as much heat now as MS did way back when, for a few reasons. Apple fan boys and gals usually question nothing that Steve and Co dish out. Most developers today are far removed the vagaries of OS API calls (or the OS for that matter) and really don’t understand the implications that using undocumented calls to gain competitive advantage give an OS publisher writing apps as well (Microsoft famously touted the imaginary “Chinese Wall” between its OS team and the applications teams).

The only real danger in using undocumented API calls is that when the OS changes and the API behavior breaks in some way, the OS publisher is morally under no obligation to notify of the breaking changes. It’s caveat emptor, baby.

Not even as bad as the risk people take when they hack the SIM to use carriers other than AT&T on their iPhone.

In short, if using undocumented API calls levels the playing field, do it – with your eyes open – because if it were REALLY that bad, the code wouldn’t be in the WebKit to begin with.

Reliable Services

Reliable Services

One bane of the social web is the unreliability of services that we depend upon more and more to extend our brand, connect with friends (real or imaginary), or flat out do our work (work? what’s that?).

Twitter (at least for me) is more noticeable when it is down, as it is one of the more immediate and impactful of all the social web services. I update all of my sites that have statuses using Twitter integration in one form or another. I regularly use 3 twitter clients a day (two browser based, one mobile based) to check tweets and update my status.

When Twitter is working, it is the best thing since sliced bread. When it is not… ah, there’s the rub. It is down ALL the FREAKIN’ time.

On the one hand, how can one complain about the uptime of a “free” service? And yet, how can I delegate more trust and business function to a service that is as unconstant as the moon (nod to Will Shakespeare)?

I’m picking on Twitter in this regard, though there are plenty of other examples out there in Web 2.0 land (the Bloglines Plumber and the LinkedIn Wizard – who made an appearance last night, BTW – are just as recognizable as the Twitter Cat and Robot screen). Bebo had some ungawdly downtime number, measured in the double digit HOURS for a two month period, and that just ain’t gonna cut it ongoing.

The relative unreliability of social networking services, free though they are now, are real stumbling blocks to wider adoption by businesses that need reliable up-time “always there” access. Web services should STRIVE for the level of service and reliability that we expect from our phone service, water systems, and electrical grid.

Strive is the key word.

Think I am overhyping this? What if you were trying to alert a campus emergency ala Va Tech with Twitter or a service like it, and got the Cat and Robot screen? What happens when Skype goes down for a day?

Real world high availability systems are just as vulnerable as the virtual systems I’m ragging on. Just ask the people on the East Coast of Florida about their half-day blackout a couple of days ago.

Again, we must strive for a higher level of service from the online services to which we are devoting large chunks of our lives and intellectual capital.

Now, forgive me. I have to go interact with real people until Twitter allows me to chat with my imaginary friends.

Social Networking’s Big Disconnects

Social Networking’s Big Disconnects

I am a relative latecomer to the Social Networking party, really jumping feet first into the fray last October with a flurry of activity releasing several Facebook applications to see what kind of traction actually existed in the marketplace and to see if there was any “There, there.”

Over the past five months or so I have uncovered several surprising (to me) truths about where Social Networking suffers significant disconnects:

  • The vast majority of “the business world” is oblivious to social networks, either passively or actively ignorant of the potential reach and impact of these networks,
  • Most of my colleagues / contemporaries (grew up in 70s, college in 80s) are absent from social and professional networking, and
  • Businesses that do engage heavily in social networking are media, HR, or web-invested.

Editorial Note: These so called “truths” are of course my personal observations. Your truthiness will vary.

In short, while the numbers of people actively engaged in social networking activity are hyper-aware of the space and what’s going on, there is seemingly no middle ground of those businesses or persons passingly familiar with social networking; they either get it, or they don’t. A great deal of the people who don’t get it – in fact, I would argue they represent a VAST majority of businesses – are the decision makers for technology training, direction, and expenditures.

There are many times I would like to engage my contemporaries with something exciting that I have uncovered or discovered on the social web, only to to find that I don’t share their frame of reference and that I have a many hours, days, or weeks task of bringing them up to speed on the ecosystem before I can begin to discuss the relevancy of this world to what they are (or should be doing).

It’s like discovering that people under 30 really don’t use email like those of us over 30 do. Discovering that nobody gets your “Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!” rant (for me, this happened first in college when my landlord’s son asked me who “Yes” was while thumbing through my albums).

HR people definitely “get” social networking. LinkedIn is the SN equivalent of the Rolodex for these folks as they hungrily hoard their network connections and chum with the best of them. Media types (PR flaks, marketers, political activists, RSS geeks, news organizations, bloggers, conference goers, echo chamber yodelers, attention whores, and the like) “get” social networking for its ability to reach audiences. The web-invested (the Facebooks, MySpaces, Bebos, LinkedIn, Twitters, QIKs, Plaxos, web startups, VCs, etc.) “get” social networking as another fresh field to “flip and fly.”

Where does that leave the vast majority of the “real” business world? You know, the business world of retailers, bakers, butchers, car repairmen, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, firemen, policemen, government cogs, Walmart greeters, teachers, factory workers, engineers, dry cleaners, convenience store clerks, TSA screeners (TSA Gangstaz, holla), and the like? Disconnected and disenfranchised.

This is not an argument that for social networking to be successful, all of these (and more) need to be connected and engaged – I simply am pointing out that what the echo chamber of the social web deems to be important and all encompassing really only represents a small fraction of the “real” economy that the “knowledge based” economy willingly or unconsciously fails to consider any time we’re slapping each other on the back for Google Juice.

If social networks are about making connections, and meaningful connections, we will need to extend beyond the self-congratulatory echo chamber silos that we have built for ourselves and figure out how all this stuff we are building can be used for meaningful and long lasting purposes; raising our kids, feeding the poor, paying tuitions and mortgages, providing insight to the masses, leaving the world a better place than how we found it.

Seeing the Ball

Seeing the Ball

The last thing the world needs is another cheesy sports analogy. Please forgive this aging has been sports jock, and bear with me… and it does have technical relevance… eventually.

But please be warned. This post is in dire need of edit and is more of a rambling bar discussion than a well crafted missive.

I blogged yesterday about how certain individuals seem to be able to coalesce seemingly random and non-deterministic events into a coherent whole, and how this relates to professionals of different ilks being able to work “out of band” to make sense from chaos, because they can digest their experience in order to “slow down the game.”

A corollary to “slowing the game down” is being able to “see the ball.” In baseball, basketball (name your favorite ball sport) what this means is that the game is no longer difficult, you see what is happening in any given moment of the game, and no what to do for best effect (know when to drive, know when to shoot, see the slider, know when the runner is stealing second, see the open man for the pass).

In the tech world (see – I told you I would get to the tech angle) there are many companies that have lost their ability to “see the ball.” In fact, I daresay that MOST technology companies have lost their ability to “see the ball.”

“What?!? You’re crazy!”

Let’s take several case studies.

Take Microsoft – please. Microsoft is hugely successful, highly profitable, and is sitting on tons of cash. Companies dream (or at least used to dream before Google) of being the next Microsoft.

However, they have lost their ability to “see the ball.” They are no longer the visionary company they were in the eighties when they snookered IBM. They couldn’t find the Social Web if it were firmly glued to their backsides and you helped them place their hands where they sit. They missed the Internet (if someone says “but what about IE?” – I reiterate – they MISSED the Internet). Why was that? Because they no longer valued vision over pure profit. Their focus was on the mundane (and lucrative) rather than the sublime and visionary.

Consider next Dell. When Michael Dell began selling clone PCs out of his dorm room at the University of Texas in the mid-eighties, there was nothing like it. He was the trailblazer – a bug to be squashed on IBM’s windshield (seeing a pattern here?). Now, low these twenty years later, Dell is a power house and IBM is no longer really in the PC business (not really, guys).

Yet, Dell can no longer “see the ball.” They arguably have the worst customer service reputations in the market. Disclaimer: I am writing this post from a Dell laptop. They have languished in this state for quite some time now, and are really only staying on top because no one has really challenged them (except for one company, which I will get to below) to punish them for losing their original vision.

Let’s get a little more current now: what about Google? “Google! Are you NUTS!?!”

Yes – I contend that Google has lost its ability “to see the ball.” How so?

Google is the 8 jillion pound gorilla in the room. The occupy the tech Olympian Heights once scalable by the IBMs and Microsofts. They are a money making powerhouse. They do no evil (cough, cough).

They are the king of search, and this gives the chimera of being all answers to all data problems and challenges on the web. They are not.

They have failed at social networking (Orkut? Are you FREAKIN’ kidding me? This is the BEST they can do?), Open Social (c’mon guys – it sucks), social people search (crickets chirping), photo and video search meta data search, offline office apps, etc. etc. etc.

Nobody ever calls them on this, because they are Google, and if you piss them off, they won’t buy your flip-the-world-buy-my-house-in-Cali dream. Instead, everyone chants “monetize”, “eyeballs”, and “CPM” as if they can wish themselves into a fraction of the cast off prosperity coming from the Googleplex.

Why has Google lost its ability to “see the ball?” Because they falsely believe that because they are kings of search they are expert at all else. They are not.

If you have stuck with me this far, bear with me a little further kind soul.

Being able to “see the ball” means that you are still in the game, you are in the zone, you are at one with all that is going on around you. You are plugged in, you feel the game in your DNA, the game is an extension of your central nervous system.

The common thread that runs throughout all of the entities listed above is that have all become disconnected from the game (development, hardware, search) that made them the companies they are.

Yes – all of these companies are financially swimming in the dough. All of them are leaders in their market. But they are Michael Jordan. They are Roger Clemmens. They are Arnold Palmer. Great in their day. Well known today. Not the best today.

To retain one’s ability to “see the ball”, the game has to be played and engaged to its fullest each day.

If you’re not engaged, you need to grab some pine and let someone who wants to play get in the game.

Stochastic

Stochastic

Stochastic – from the Greek “stochos” or “aim, guess”, means of, relating to, or characterized by conjecture and randomness.

Source: Wikipedia

If there were a word to most aptly describe the state of the Web today, Stochastic comes pretty darn close.

The Web is not linear, it is not predictable, and it is far from knowable in its entirety. It is always surprising, random – stochastic.

I have a childhood friend, Pete Wilson, who works for the Vanderbilt University Library and is arguably one of the smartest people I know or have ever met in person. In addition to being a very smart guy, he hosts a weekly Jump Blues radio show on the VU student radio station, Friday mornings. Pete has an encyclopedic knowledge of blues and musicology, gained over many years of listening. Pete has a built in sense for tying together seemingly disparate and unconnected sets of influences and sounds into a cogent thread. Not everyone can do that, and it seems like magic to us lesser beings who stand in awe at such talent.

The best political operatives and junkies operate in the same way; they have the innate ability to take seemingly disconnected and discontinuous events, past and present, in order to conceive a cogent narrative for his or her campaign. What may seem like a random morass of chaotic events, people, and places to most seem to these folks like a crystal clear picture of things “as they are.” They have the ability to extricate the context from the chaos.

For the sports minded, this is the same phenomena you hear from Quarterbacks who say that after a few years in the Pros the game “slowed down for them.” What this really means is that, after years of being deluged by the fast moving “facts” of the game, with enough experience, the background context of what happens in a game becomes internalized until it is visceral and not cerebral. If you’ve ever wrestled (not ‘Rasslin, wrestling) or played hockey at a high level, you understand – it takes many hours of sweat and repetitive workout so that the mental ANTICIPATION of doing subsumes to the ACT of doing without conscious thought.

What does this all have to do with the Web and Stochastic processes?

Well, for one thing many of us long for a unified means of messaging (IM, Twitter, Email, Voice, SMS, Video, …) – or long for a single social network that will aggregate everybody we know and are interested in – something that in fact will never occur.

Why will this never occur?

Because all of us gather and understand context about the world around us differently; some of us are visually oriented, some of us are verbally attuned, and some of us have to accumulate mass amounts of data before the skies part and all is made clear. No single network, no single communications mechanism, no single channel will ever be able to do this for us. We have to “grok” it on our own, and it is those people who can do this “out of band”, now, that are the social media superstars.

If you want to find the next winner on the web, it will be the person who can make the distance between unrecognizable chaos and understandable context attainable by the common man.

Until then, we’ll have to continue to admire the talents of people like Pete Wilson who can contextualize chaos for our enjoyment and entertainment.

And hope some day to slow down the game.