Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Decision Trees

If you're a tech savvy, computer aware person, you probably spend a bit of time doing tech support - helping friends and families with general PC problems . You've probably experienced the kind of guru-like awe and reverence that you're viewed with when you quickly solve a problem by breezing through a thousand unrelated options. For us nerds, it's not so hard - just a case of knowing the behavior, and the conventions, allows us to pick our way through even completely foreign application with relative ease.

For the rest of the world, Computer use is something of a dark art. User interfaces are complicated. Designing such complexity for an untrained human to use is really hard. Of course, Software Engineers are frequently not great at it, which doesn't help.

Jan Miksovsky's post, (via The old new thing), got me thinking about an old idea I had to try and visualize the complexity of a user interface. I call them 'decision trees' ( I apologize in advance if these already exist) Basically, the idea goes that you graph every option that you can present to the user in your interface. As Joel Spolsky says in his book on UI Design for developers - "Every option you add forces the user to make a decision. "

So I thought I'd have a go at trying to create one of these decision trees. I picked Windows Notepad, because it's a pretty simple application, and I'm lazy. I started to build the decision tree for Notepad, starting with the menu bar (because it contains nearly all of the options available to a Notepad user) After I'd finished the file menu, I decided that would be enough to illustrate my point. Check it out:

You can see that even one menu item of Notepad extends down to 5 branches. That's five levels away from the original decision to click on the file menu. Look how many possible paths the user could take! Imagine how complex a real application could get!

If your application is really designed for untrained users, optimizing your interface for a shallower decision tree should be your aim- such an interface should try to reflect the users intention as quickly as possible - this will make untrained users a lot more happy. In a way, this means you have to take a lot of power away from users, and make decisions for them. I think that Apple does a lot of this kind of stuff really well. (I love the way that the iTunes visualizer has one option - "on" or "off". )

So is a deep decision tree harmful? Maybe. If you are looking for an extremely high level of acceptance, (by nearly every class of user) the more decisions you present per user intention, the less likely it is the user will be delighted.

But if you have a specialist application, like Photoshop or Maya, a deep decision tree is unavoidable - at that point, the UI challenge is to find a sensible way to present complexity..

This is one of the problems that the new Microsoft Office 12 interface is trying to deal with, and the new ribbon interface looks like a really cool way to address it. (Much better than just hiding things, which was the approach taken in Office 10...)

So yeah, decision trees are an interesting reflective tool that you can use to determine how complex your user interface is. And the next time you give your baffled friend some tech support, remember that while the correct path may be apparent to you, he might be stuck in some unrelated part of the tree, floundering around with weird and unrelated options...

Update: Decision trees do indeed exist, as a tool of decision theory. Mapping a traditional decision tree like this to a user interface would take forever. Maybe someone should write a cool application that generates one..

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bah Humbug and so forth

As the creeping Christmas crap encroaches into the shopping malls this time of year, I must admit I always tend to get a bit Scrooge about the whole affair. I was thinking I'd share that surliness with you all.

But, then I read on Seth's blog, the sentence that sums up Christmas Shopping for me:
"The consumer portion of our economy is now dependent on a four-week long debt-fueled race to buy the useless..."
So sad. And so true. But mainly sad...

All the kids are right

On the drive home the other day, my friend Rhys and I got to talking about when we first discovered the internet. He mentioned that he started using the internet in high school, when he was about 15. (Rhys is one of those funky young, talented hip marketing guys that software companies love to hire because they make them a bit cooler.)

Okay - so that just made me feel old. I can't really remember seeing a web browser until I left college. And it dawned on me in a moment of horrible reality that there are kids arriving in the workplace today who were born in 1987. These guys started high school after the .com boom. The internet is to this generation, what TV was to mine.

These are kids who have grown up with the web - and not just the old style, "hey look! It's just like a library but packed into a tiny beige box!" kind of internet - but the communicative chat, publish and discuss kind of internet. According to the Pew Internet project, More than half of the US kids online today have created digital content - added blogs, posted or tagged photos, remixing internet content. That's about 6.8 Million kids, and that's just in America.

Content now is more nebulous than ever - it's becoming as free as conversation. Maybe someday soon the government is going to have start handing out grants to journalists, in the same way they do to sculptors or musicians...

I guess where I'm going with this is that this read/write web hooplah is actually a thing. The internet isn't just being written by big media and consumed by the public, it's being edited by the public. It is the public. How does your organization communicate with this all reading, all writing public? How will it relate in the next three years? (Because by then, the kids born in 1990 will be arriving to help run your organization...eek!)

Local H had it right...

Monday, November 28, 2005

All in a Fluxiom

Fluxiom has one of the nicest demo videos I've ever seen. It looks like it might do just about anything. I'm not sure what it is, but I think I might want to use it.

Apparently it's developed in rails, which makes it just that little bit cooler still.

There is a lot of noise happening around enterprise content management and web 2.0 at the moment - It's going to be interesting to see how these young new whippersnapper guys are going to compete with the established big ECM players.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What's new?

I decided that with summer coming, it might be time for a new site template.

So I borrowed a pagekit from, and tweaked my way to the summery goodness template you see now.

(Nice work guys- those pagekits are an absolute godsend for the discerning web site owner with very little eye for design. )

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The power of procrastination and distraction

I've spent the week trying out the (10+2)*5 hack, from 43 Folders. It's a life hacking technique that's designed to help get things done, by forcing you to use the very vices that you are trying to overcome.

My task list, nay my life, is a fractured, diverse collection of things - it can contain specifics like:
"Refactor the code that cleans up the bug tracker", or fuzzy things like "Learn more about subversion".

On a typical day, I have about 6-10 of these tasks on my today list. Now I should admit, I have a tendency towards procrastinating, (unless I have a task that's really exciting). In fact, being faced with a long list of slightly uninteresting tasks is the very thing to set off my distraction alarm, and send me out into the cube farm to find somebody else to harass.

Which is where this clever life hack comes in. Basically, you pick a task, and work on it for 10 minutes. Then you force yourself to take a 2 minute break, and switch to another task. (That's where the (10+2)*5 comes from) The focus is not so much on completion, as just progress. At the end of an hour, the theory goes you've done 50 minutes of real progress.

Weirdly, at the end of the first hour, I didn't feel the urge to seek out a distraction - so I went straight on to the next hour. It's actually quite remarkable - I found that it definitely improved my efficiency. You get more stuff done, and it feels like you're just being your regular old distracted self. It is a little strange forcing yourself to abandon a task and do nothing for 2 minutes, although I did find that you can squeeze a single race of Mariokart DS into a 2 minute break nicely.

If you're keen to give it a go, you can grab this Konfabulator Widget to help out.
It probably won't work too well if you have a job that needs serious 'zonal' focus - like writing lots of code. But if your task list gets too long , and there's at least five little uninteresting things that need to be done, it's a nice hack to have in your arsenal. Which is kind of an unpleasant sounding sentence to end with, but there you go :^ )

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Gord on blogging

There was an interesting discussion today at work about the blogging. Always with the blogging. Blah Blah Blah. Before you all tune out and go – "oh, Gord’s just blogging about blogging again," hear me out. This is the longest post I’ve ever done, so I must really care about this stuff. Anyways, back to the discussion…

Depending on which side of the fence you were on, the conversation was either about the increasing importance and value of the read/write web, or it was about the potential dangers of having bloggers on your staff, and generally questioning the relevance of blogging.

Obviously, as a blogger, I took a healthy interest. As an internet consumer (mmmm. packety.) I know that I am innately more trustworthy of a company that is prepared to openly blog about stuff. In fact, it's becoming increasingly evident to me, that in the web 2.0/new media/ future of connected clichés, the only way you will be able to prosper as a business is by adopting this corporate motto:
My company will endeavor not to suck at what we do.

This isn’t exactly news. It’s pretty obvious that the best way to avoid bad press, or bad opinions of your organization, (and word can really get around nowadays), is by always doing your best to provide your product or service the best way you can. If that's always your intention, you're well on the way to success.

On the other hand, if your intention is to try to swindle somebody, the blogosphere will absolutely eat you. Sony is hanging it’s head in shame after Mark Russinovich’s blog exposed it’s plan to secretly install ‘security software’ (spyware) on unsuspecting users of CDs (full story at wired). It only took 14 days of uproar before they announced they were pulling software off the shelves and offering to replace ‘faulty ‘CDs for free.

Now, anyone who's been around longer than 5 minutes will be able to tell you that companies aren't really as perfect and pretty and amazingly well organized as their annual reports and TV ads make out that they are. That's because companies are made up of people, and people screw things up. Not all the time, but sometimes. So, there will always be a risk that your company will look stupid. Just occasionally. The old adage ‘nobody’s perfect’, applies to collectives equally well as individuals.

Imagine that blogs are a transparent window into your organization that allow people to see what's going on inside. They can see people working hard, enjoying their jobs, healthy arguments, people having fun - They can also see that your company occasionally makes mistakes, or if people are unhappy. What would be the end result of such an imagining - Dwindling stock price? Deserting Customers? Impending Doom? granted, all of these things may potentially eventuate, but the important thing to remember here is this:

Your 'market' are all actually people.

There are no robots or rhinos out there with cash for you. Just People - and they've all made mistakes. They understand that occasionally things go bad. Just as you’ll forgive bad service if it’s adequately explained.

Going back to the Sony example, the absolute worst thing they could have done in that instance was to keep quiet about it:
”Rootkit? No, there is no rootkit. Everything is fine. Please continue to buy lots and lots of Celine Dion Albums.”

That kind of arrogance can cause irreparable damage. People remember that stuff. So what to do? Panic, yell, call a few meetings, and then admit the mistake, and make it clear to the customer that you're doing your absolute best to fix the problem. Like Lindsay says here – the first rule of crisis communications is “telling the truth, telling the whole truth and telling it fast."

But future customers aren't going to hear that. Instead they're going to hear:
“...I read on the internet that My Celine Dion CD will install evil virus death software that deletes windows and downloads loonix…”
Without that window for people to see for themselves, an excellent effort at customer service goes unnoticed - it could even potentially damage the next customer, because the bad news is still traveling quickly.

So, future customers can benefit from the transparency. Present customers benefit, because you try extra hard not to suck. What about the downsides?

If we have that window in place, who else can look in? Obviously it's not just potential customers. It's competitors, potential colleagues, partners, market analysts, shareholders... This is the scary part.

Chances are you wouldn't mind sharing this window with your partners, or future colleagues (unless your operation functions in some sort of really embarrassing way, like all work has to be done naked, or something.)

But your competitors will benefit – they’ll be able to use whatever information they can get against you, and if you are a serious player in your field, you can bet that they will. How much damage could they do? Potentially a lot - I guess it depends on what your company does. So, how do you prevent this from happening? This can largely be catered for with a corporate policy that aims to grant you the benefits of the window, without disclosing anything that could be potentially damaging. Employees like their jobs. Good employees will appreciate the policy and understand the need for it, and blog accordingly. Bad ones will continually breach it, and then you can fire them, or stop them from blogging...

Google does a great job of keeping it’s secrets. It has loads of bloggers. There was a big hoo-ha a while ago about a particular blogger who didn’t, and he had to get a job somewhere else. A corporate blogging policy has to be part of a modern HR world.

And what if people get the wrong idea? What if the window doesn’t reflect the company at all? What if this blogging window thing makes everything a hundred times worse?

All good questions. If you like to hire deranged lunatic ex mental asylum employees, or cheap prison labor, then this whole blogging caper might not be for you. If you can't trust your employees to say good things about your company, or you are honestly scared that their opinions will be more hurtful or harmful, then you probably have a much bigger issue to deal with.

Oh – and it’s most important that the window is actually real.
My favorite post from the Microsoft IE blog has Chris Wilson telling people that they still haven’t got CSS support right yet. I read it, and said “Yay! That is so cool of Microsoft” (even though I’d been swearing about IE’s crummy CSS support for at least 2 years.) Microsoft have turned their whole image around using this technology. Yay Channel 9. Yay Scoble. Real people, not marketing droids, talking honestly and openly.

It can't be a candy-assed pretend marketing department painted on rainbow and fluffy clouds and cute hopping bunnies window. That’s not the kind of window we want. It’s been proven that such Madison Avenue nonsense will do far more harm than good. Check out the sad, sad Juicy Fruit effort (well, you can’t - it's gone now, because it was laughed out of existence by the self correcting nature of the blogosphere) but you can see some of the fallout here and here.

Modern technology is empowering us all. As Seth Godin points out on his blog, We are all getting access to the same tools that the big guys use. This has never happened in history before.

This point is being and has been made a lot, by lots of other bloggers around the world, and I think that as we get along, it will all become part of the woodwork, and certainly not worth ranting about.

Meanwhile, my inspiration behind all this comes largely from the following places:

Seth Godin


Hugh Macleod

Shel Israel

The Cluetrain


It's also most important to note that the original discussion (and hence the subsequent rant) was largely inspired by Ian. (And because I haven't yet discovered how to link in the real world, this hypertext tip-of-the-hat will have to do...)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Red Shell, Green Shell

Okay. I promise I'm not going to start constantly ranting about MarioKart. I know where it all ends up - people get so annoyed you have to start another blog.


I was just lazily reclining in my hammock on my front deck, dappled sun filtering through the jasmine vines, warm light spring breeze blowing from the north-east. As I lazily swung to and fro, I was locked in a fierce battle for kart supremacy with some bad spelling stranger known only to me as 'MasterCheif". We were at 1-all after the first two races, and had settled on the spooky Luigi's Mansion track as the decider.

Towards the end of the third and final lap, I jumped into a big long slide that gave me the perfect boost - I was headed for victory, for sure. I could see MasterCheif languishing behind me. Just as I began to laugh maniacally, a green koopa shell, (fired by me two laps before) appeared from nowhere and knocked me into a spin, leaving me about a foot short of the finish line. As I fell out of the hammock in shock, MasterCheif shot right past me to claim the title.

Amazing - the game engine, the wireless technology, the whole infrastructure that lets you share such an awesomely fun experience with someone on the other side of the planet.

When I was 12, I used to have a pen-pal in Germany. We used to write letters on paper with our hands, and send them to each other on aeroplanes. Nowadays, people I've never met can knock me out of a hammock remotely. Now that's progress.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Mario Grows Up

I just ran out and bought Mario Kart DS, and spent all of last night getting totally 0wn3d by a bunch of people from around the world who are much better at mariokart than me. I mentioned this to my friend Alan, who said, with a wry smile:
"Well, to be fair to you, they are eight years old. They probably have much faster reflexes..."

Ha! Well, to counter that, I give you this:

(from Japundit)

Now, I have no idea what's going on, but I think that "次へ" is the Japanese equivalent of 'Next'.

Make sure you click the link to get the whole story!

(PS - if you would also like to beat me at MarioKart DS, my Friend Code is: 060189 090100)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Still Crazy

When I started with TOWER Software four years ago, I was keen to get on with the job. You know, new project manager guy and all, trying to figure out what was what, and who was who. As part of this breaking-in process, I went around and asked each developer what they were working on, and how long they estimated that their current project would take.

I'll admit that I had a secret agenda - it's important to find out who are the overly optimistic guys, and who are the more seasoned realists, because you're supposed to adjust your project schedules accordingly.. Anyway, I collected all this data and feed it into a secret Gantt chart I had somewhere. Most of the team were working on features that were being shipped in the next few months, and I got the broad range of overly positive responses, which is pretty common. I know I'm a terribly optimistic estimator.

(Incidentally, if you're like me, my advice is to always multiply your estimate by the value of pi in order to give a more realistic number, with an impressive precision: 'That task will take me ninety-one point six eight four days', but I digress.)

In the middle of all these 'thirty', 'fifty', 'twenty five' day estimates, one figure made my Gantt chart look extra stupid . The young guy who was tasked with porting Web Drawer to Context had told me that the task would take three hundred and eighty five days. When I queried him on the figure, he returned my quizzical gaze with a very straight look.
"Well, I based the calculation on the fact that you Gantt chart boys are really into paperwork, so I divided the tasks and multiplied them by a factor of four as a documentation overhead, then I figured you'd want change management and stabilization factored in. I allocated a further factor of point five to compensate for those status reports and change notifications. I did the Prince 2 course, so I know about contingency time. When I added it up, It came to three hundred and eighty five days. If you keep asking me about it, it will take longer. See you next year!"
I thought he was crazy. But it turned out he was Michael Still.

Over the years, Michael and I became firm friends. He is a fiendishly smart guy, who's never afraid to speak his mind. He drove me crazy, but he made me laugh ten times that. We argued a lot, but always constructive and valuable argument. And so it was with a mixture of sadness and pride in his accomplishments that we farewelled him off to go and play in Mountain View with the other Googlers this week.

It's weird farewelling someone as connected as Michael (his farewell email was about half the length of his signature, listing all the ways to contact him), because although he might be heading over to the other side of the planet, I'm sure I'll still hear from him regularly. It's really just a goodbye to the Stilly-the-meat, not Stilly-the-man.

So on that icky note, Good Luck and Farewell!

ps. The Context Web Drawer project was finished in about four months.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Real Google Kool-Aid

Many have speculated on how it is that a couple of kids from Stanford turned the internet upside down. Some theorized that maybe it was because Sergey and Larry went to Montessori Schools. "Perhaps", some wondered aloud, "there was some fiendish pact with the devil..."

Well, now, I know the real secret. This post makes it abundantly clear. The magic of Google comes from Kombucha tea. Because you didn't follow that link, I'll explain. Kombucha is this weird tea made from a "polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically." Basically, what happens is you take this gelatinous blob of yeast and some as yet unidentified bacteria, get some sweet black tea, and 'feed' the blob, removing some beverage each day in the form of an alcoholic(5.0-1.5%) caffeinated, crazy-ass yeast and bacteria excrement liquid. Which Googlers drink for breakfast! (1 and a half gallons of the stuff, every day...)

Who knows what weird and magical properties this stuff has. People have variously claimed it cures cancer, combats stress and is a natural anti-biotic. Adverse affects reported from drinking kombucha include
liver damage, metabolic acidosis, cutaneous anthrax infections - Anthrax! For breakfast!

Isn't it obvious that Google is really a company that's not actually controlled by humans, but by a polyculture of super talented gelatinous yeast and bacteria?

C'mon, people, you know it's true...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Things that made me smile today

There's a whole bunch of construction work happening outside the TOWER headquarters. When Rhys and I arrived at work, there were about four construction guys wearing yellow safety vests and hard hats, hammering stakes into the ground - and the mandatory building site AM radio was blaring out Starship's 'We built this city on rock 'n roll' at maximum volume.

The local pamphlet delivery lady, wearing an ice cream container with eyes painted on top, and carrying a big stick, warily sneaking around the neighborhood from letterbox to letterbox. (In the Australian spring, the Black-Backed Magpie is prone to pecking people on the head if they get too close to a nest...)

My five year old son Reuben's new battle cry - Brandishing a plastic sword, he charges at you from the backyard and yells 'Shannon Noll!' (link) in a deranged way. I'm not sure where he got it from, or what he thinks it means, but I was certainly frightened...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Begin Invoke

Having spent the week refreshing my .Net skills, thanks to Paul from Readify, I remembered that programming can be a very satisfying activity. So, with me sporting a head full of curly braces and semicolons, Alison and I joined some friends to see Bernie McGann play out at Poacher's Pantry, a restaurant a few Miles out of town.

When I was a 'young adult' I couldn't figure out what kind of nerd I was. I wasn't sure if I was your basic engineering/science nerd, or one of those creative artsy fartsy type nerds. At the time, it was a cause of great consternation - but in the end I ended up in software, which is probably the best of both worlds - a pretty creative endeavour that's grounded in engineering.

Jazz music reminds me of a lot of things, but listening to the band last night got me thinking about the border between creative and structured. Jazz can really screw with your engineering head - it's based on a definite mathematical structure - scales, modes and time signatures, and yet if you try to bring along your engineering discipline, your music will sound stilted and awful.

Great musicians (like Bernie) bring so much empathy and colour and warmth into the music, through a creative, emotional thing that is really hard to define, yet gives Jazz all of it's magical power.

And so we sat there, enveloped in music, and awash in the organic imagery that comes along with such a spontaneous, ephemeral musical experience. For me, it was evoking the fresh hidden tunes in rolls of thunder, the musicalness of a Fibonacci curve, inspirational highs, those long lopey summer days, where rays of light tug at your nostalgia chords with each sunset.... ah.

It can be so rewarding to really listen.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Software Services

Last week, my access to Google went away. Must've been some local cluster outage, but in Canberra, I couldn't get to any Google sites. That was weird, because I couldn't check my mail. Couldn't get my document from my Gmail inbox to work on. Couldn't complain to the world about it because I couldn't get to Blogger. And so I sat around and twiddled my thumbs and waited. And it dawned on me how reliant I am on this company for access to my own information.

I'm not usually in the habit of defending Microsoft - but David Kirkpatrick's article Microsoft Plays Catch Up seems to me to be a little unfair. Sure, Microsoft are really behind. They don't have a strategy for the new web, just like they didn't have a strategy for the old one.

But the first time I ever heard the phrase ' Software as a Service', it was from a Microsoft Employee.

Remember Hailstorm? (My Services) Microsoft were totally ready to pounce on this stuff, about four years ago.

And then there was this unanimous public uproar about 'I don't want Microsoft looking after my data' and somebody in Redmond got spooked, and pulled the whole thing days before it launched. I'm not sure if they were planning to give it away for free, but it certainly wasn't 'baby steps'. There would certainly have been MS built web clients to access them. For a while these services were billed as an integral part of Windows XP (which may have been why they were pulled - maybe more legal reasons than otherwise)

So here we are, 4 years after Hailstorm died, and things are different. Now, it seems we're all happy to have a single company store all our information somewhere else, no complaints.

I don't think that it's quite right to blame Microsoft for lack of innovation around software services- truth be told, they drove a lot of it. They just weren't in a position to gain everyone's trust, which it turns out is what you need for all this stuff to work.

The ladder of bloggertunity

It's been a fun week in the blogosphere - my post on innovation was picked up by a few blogs around the planet, most notably Fortune Magazine's business innovation 2005 - (which it turns out is quite a cool blog - subscribed). Lindsay even asked me for my autograph, so I figure that I must have made the grade from Z-list to Y-List.

So what's a Y-lister to do? Cash In!

I added some Google ads to the side of my blog. I know, sell out and all. But if you find them interesting and click them, then they pay me money!

(I'm trying to recoup enough cash to pay for the fact that they stole Stilly away....)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Subversion Land

As I was saying, our development team at TOWER Software is in the process of making the transition from Source Safe to Subversion.

This meant that we had to spend a whole bunch of time trying to figure out the best way to manage branches, and releases, and a whole bunch of other really important SCM stuff. Now I know I probably also said this before, but despite the importance of this discipline, I find it really hard to care about as much as I should, because it's so very, very boring.

So, I came up with a way to make it more interesting: Here's a part of our SCM Model, displayed as your neighborhood. (If you live in a sparse, snow covered land full of highways and pine trees, that is...)

Points of Interest: You can see our smart, free-range (well, somewhat less responsible) developers in the train at the top, working on some cool new innovative stuff for later on. You can see our smart, semi-responsible developers in the train at the bottom, carving out our next immediate release. And you can see our two smart, super responsible developers working on our field update packs, released specifically to help our customers out.

I'm not sure if they realize that they're actually trapped...But then, code maintenance can be like that. Where do you want to go today? (bwa ha ha...)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Warp Pipe or Garbage bin?

When I was 12, my brothers and I went on an intense money gathering campaign. We pooled our collective resources, and began nagging our parents, washing cars, and weeding gardens. In desperation, we even collected aluminum cans...

(I seem to remember my brother actually telling the Alco guy to 'piss off!' when he handed over seventy-five cents in return for two garbage bags of crushed cans. To us, that represented an entire weekend spent in garbage cans. He was a pretty brave nine year old.)

The purpose of all this entrepreneurial activity was this machine: the Nintendo Entertainment System. At the time, I didn't want anything else in the world.

Back then, I didn't know anything about marketing, or statistics. If you had told 12 year old me that 31 percent of homes had a video game console, I wouldn't have cared. I would've smiled politely and asked you for money.

Now that I know enough to be interested, do you know what that figure is?
31-32 percent.

That's a market that hasn't grown at all (proportionately) in 18 years.

That's why Nintendo came out today and started talking about disruptive technologies. Reggie Fils-Aime, the original extreme marketing guy, spoke at a press summit about Nintendo's strategies for moving forward, and for the upcoming Revolution (Which I now want more than anything else in the world).

He cites the example of Sony, who were so focused on building a better discman, they didn't notice an unexpected competitor almost completely capture what used to be their market with a remarkable product, pitched squarely at early adopters.

That's what Nintendo are trying to do - shake up the market in order to see it grow. Will they be able to do it? We'll have to see. But the alternative is just to keep watching your competitors, asking focus groups, getting locked into feature shootouts, and delivering more of the same. Which I guess is still a sound strategy, if your goal is to make cash...

(It doesn't sound very exciting, though.)

More on disruptive technologies here.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Copy Cats, Cows and Giants.

Just after my post on how a lot of web tech stuff is boring and derivative, comes the introduction of Yahoo! Maps. It looks great. No doubt a lot of people will find it very useful. But the sad thing is that, in the scheme of things, it's boring as hell.

I really feel for the development team behind that effort. They all must've known that when they finally shipped (and shipping software is a really, really, amazingly hard thing to do), that the blogosphere would be full of big gaping yawns and nasty posts about what copycats they are. And no matter how good they made their service (it's really cool), nothing would change that.

Speaking of copycats, I reconnected with Robert Scoble today - His feed had been super quiet, and I thought he might be dead, until mikal pointed out that he'd actually moved house, over to (Maybe there should be a forwarding service for RSS feeds. That might be an original idea...) One of the things that makes Robert mad (in fact almost completely deranged, by the sound of it) is the fact that when you look at my innovation graphic, there are very few 'created' lines coming from Microsoft. And there are a lot coming from Google.

Scoble wants Microsoft to try to delight the early adopters - the bloggers, the slashdotters, the people running beta software, and most importantly, the people who hold enormous sway with their friends and colleagues. But then, he's a nerd. He's an early adopter himself. Those kind of folk always get passionate about this.

It's all beautifully defined on wikipedia under Diffusion Of Innovations. Seth Godin illustrates it again in Purple Cow. Google are delighting nerds like me and my friends. They're being remarkable. Microsoft are focused on delighting the late majority and the laggards, because those folk are conservative and rich. And yet, Google are slowly reeling in the rest of the market, because people like me tell people like my Mom and Dad.

In the end, it comes down to corporate culture, because that determines how an organization reacts to corporate change. I'm not sure a company with a huge history of delighting slower, more conservative people can ever re-invent itself as one focused on the early adopters.

But then, Microsoft have more money than God, and they are never so scary as when they are stealing somebody's lunch. Who knows what might happen?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Are there any original ideas?

Innovation is a weird thing.

Everytime I go into a movie theatre, I end up asking the same question aloud:

"Aren't there any original ideas anymore?"

It seems every movie is a remake of an old movie or a fairy tale or a kids book or a TV series, or a sequel to some other movie. In a flash of simplistic reductionism. I decide conclusively that there aren't any new ideas at all. That all 'new' ideas are just a baked together collection of old ideas.

Lets use the internet technology world as an obvious example of what I'm talking about, because that's something that moves pretty fast, and something I (sort of) understand.

Once upon a time, a California company made a better search engine. And coupled with that, they made a better revenue model, that made money from 'the long tail'. They made a gazillion dollars, in a way that didn't even seem intentional.

Now, they have this wonderful reputation, as nice guys, but also as innovators. (Although it's been humorous watching the slashdot crowd slowly turn on Google. The conspiracy theories start creeping in at the edges, and before you know it, it's Larry's face with the Borg implant...)

But while Google are certainly innovative, they're not immune to a bit of inspiration, either.

Every time something new comes out in the web tech world, it seems like you've heard it all before. And you know why? Because for the most of it, you have. Check out my innovation map of who made what and how, and you'll see that there are only 7 original ideas, from the 21 products listed:

(I know, I left out a bunch of stuff. I'm just focusing on the web 2.0 stuff from the last few years. And I'm calling all those yellow 'inspired by' lines based solely on how I saw them, so there's probably room for argument. )

Still, none of the seven ideas are actually new. Webmail is just mail on the web. (E-mail is the actual idea, and that's really just the pony express). These guys pre-dated the google maps phenomenon, but even all that Ajax and Web 2.0 stuff is just based on XMLHTTP, which Microsoft invented years ago for OWA, but even that's just http...which is just more pony express. Skype and all the IM crew are just coasting on the coat-tails of Samuel Morse, and Keyhole just made a big fat round atlas....

Isn't reductionism fun? It makes you feel ever so clever :)

And that's better than most modern movies...