Information Technologist as Merchandiser

Oliver Steele's remarks about "The Apple Boutique"

Colleague Oliver Steele made some interesting observations about his recent decision to switch to an Apple laptop computer. Rather than lamenting the loss of broad choices he enjoyed with his previous Wintel laptop, he felt relieved.

Oddly, given his computer science prowess, Oliver enjoyed deferring decisions on hardware and software to Apple. He ascribed his relief to confidence in Apple's good judgement. To Oliver, Apple as an IT vendor appeared analogous to a builder with good architects, a retailer with good merchandisers, or a newspaper with good editors.

If the proliferation of computer hardware, software and services proved overwhelming to the likes of a 'smart m.f.' like Oliver, imagine how all this has impacted the lay public. Perhaps this explains why some believe the I.T. sector has reached a phase where the market needs are more about improved services than about increased product innovation. From consumers to companies, the buyers of information technology may want less rather than more. If Oliver's sentiments are shared by others, some vendors could actually improve profit margins by demonstrating that "less is more".


PhotoBlox touches Rome to reach home

Photoblox Screenshot

On the 'one hyper-linked world' front, Italy's Robin Good Blog recently wrote a flattering entry on the Blogbox Project, providing extensive coverage on the PhotoBlox in particular. A few days later, the site got a 'thank you for the info' comment post from Cynthia Typaldos, reaching a local personality from the project's point of origin in Silicon Valley, California!

Just another example of how the Internet has usurped geographic proximity in the propogation of information. And I admit it is gratifying to see my Southeast Asia travel photos spreading around the world.


Two Cultures?

Growing up as an American of Asian descent, when someone discussed the "two cultures", I assumed they referred to "East meets West", with China representing the East, and California representing the West (plz forgive me...). Later, I learned of other pairings. There were the two cultures dividing the university -- the sciences and the humanities. And there was Islam versus Christianity.

Since the recent U.S. presidential election, I've been reminded of yet another juxtaposition of two cultures, humorously represented by some maps of North America.

The United States of Canada and the United States of Texas

After we all share a laugh or two, appreciative of our democracy and our privileged lives, we might consider feeling a bit depressed. Which oddly, reminds me of a great American who wrestled with two cultures in his day. You remember him..."a house divided against itself can not stand...".


Yankee desperation versus the Red Sox

Annonymous photo remix
Originally uploaded by lyndon.

Spreading through the Internet... a slightly modified photo of the infamous play that required deployment of New York riot police to restore order.

In Game 6 of Red Sox versus Yankees 2004, Yankee base runner Alex Rodriguez attempted to reach first safely by swatting the ball out of the out-stretched glove of the Red Sox pitcher. The first base umpire called 'safe' in part because his line of sight was blocked by the Red Sox first baseman, enabling another Yankee base runner to score. Sensing something amiss, the umpires huddled, corrected their mistake, called Rodriguez out for interference and brought the scoring runner back to first base. In the ensuing confusion, New York fans pelted the field with baseballs in protest and New York Police in riot gear were called onto the field to restore order. The Red Sox eventually prevailed in Game 6, to tie the series 3-3. The following day, they won Game 7 as well for the championship and became the first baseball team to come back in post-season play from an 0-3 deficit.

As for the dainty fashion accessory composited onto Rodriguez' forearm in this photo... it appears someone is calling him a "girlie-man" -- some harmless digital imaging humor, and a timely example of the "remix culture" championed by Larry Lessig


Google SMS

yet another Google revenue stream on deck...

Colleague P.T. Withington brought an interesting new Google SMS service to my attention. It looks like a very interesting market test.

If Google finds positive user feedback and usage, I suspect they would have very good leverage in negotiations with cellular carriers to incorporate Google SMS into default menus of shipping cell phones. This would make money for the carriers, and I would guess Google could extract payment for co-marketing activity. Anything that increases SMS queries would look pretty good to the carrriers. Often times, SMS sends cost money while SMS receives are free.

If Google accepts payment for priority listing submission or priority order in the response SMS, then they have a revenue opportunity for local business information directory services to the mobile device market. That possible future is hinted at on the HowToUse page. This could bring the yellow-pages style revenue model to SMS -- Google could incent carriers to provide Google SMS sends and receives for free by sharing listing services revenue with them, and increase two-way SMS usage all around.



Permission Culture versus Free Culture

Lawrence Lessig's remarks at Web 2.0 in San Francisco

Earlier this afternoon, Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig delivered an eloquent plea for the need to rethink our notions of content copyrights. He observes that digital technology has made the 'remix' a viable activity for the many. Using examples of network television audio and video creatively repurposed to form political satire, Lessig makes the case that remixing is a way of expressing important ideas and not simply theft as our current laws imply. He draws a parallel to the text media type, where writers must be free to quote others and create variations on phrases in order to convey and advance ideas. What some consider a battle against piracy in the name of property, Lessig redefines as a campaign for liberty in the name of human progress. In so doing, he extends into new realms the lessons of the Open Source movement and Richard Stahlman's defense of "Free Software".

Lessig's ovation-worthy talk was part of a reinvigorating O'Reilly Conference called Web 2.0.

Announcing OpenLaszlo at Web 2.0

Laszlo's contribution to the Web 2.0 diaspora

At the O'Reilly Web 2.0 conference, we announced the open source release of the Laszlo platform, and launched the associated OpenLaszlo Project(which I set up, wrote and coded in substantial part with my own hands). This has created a stir in the developer community, and swampd Laszlo's servers. Thank goodness we put our sites on the Akamai network on the day prior to the announcement.

Web 2.0 was a thoroughly stimulating event. For three days at the Nikko Hotel in San Francisco, luminaries of the Internet Boom pondered the future of information technology and society. It was nice to run into familiar faces, including a few former executives from ExciteAtHome whom I had not seen in a couple of years. I even had the good fortune to win one of twenty Apple iPod Minis Jerry Yang gave away in his conference-closing session on the past and future of Yahoo.

In a fitting conclusion to an eventful week, I'm going to 'rip' a few favorite music cd's and relax with my nifty new iPod MP3 player.


What good is a personal online forum?

Questioning aloud what to do with phpBB on my personal website

Have I hit the limit with "because I can" thinking? I recently created my first "real" public website, lyndonwong.com. I shut down my old ATT Worldnet homepage in favor of registering my own domain and using a host with basic PHP and MySQL support. As a result, I can now indulge in experiments with a rich array of open source PHP-based data-driven server apps. I recently installed phpBB, an app I first heard of in the context of the 2003 Webby Awards. It powers my own personal online forums. Now, all of my friends can engage in public discourse with me on a wide range of topics, whenever the mood strikes, from anywhere in the world. The only catch is so far none of my friends have any interest in doing that. They'd rather catch up on the phone, perhaps exchange some emails, or best among all options, actually meet up for a meal or some outdoor fun.

This begs the question, can a mere mortal such as myself make any use of a Web bulletin board? If I were California's current governor, my forum might be useful and popular on multiple fronts. But would any of my conversations in that context actually be with my friends? I could require a log-in to view a forum and provide some privacy to our discussion threads, but then we might be better off using gmail.

One thing forums do especially well is generate a searchable online knowledge base, as technical support operations have known for a number of years. Could my close family and friends have any use for such an arcane repository?

Or have I created the cyberspace equivalent of a personal one-lane bowling alley? Cute but ridiculous.


Permanently Important Information Systems

During the heyday of the Internet Boom, I started to chat with colleagues about the nobility of 'permanently important information systems' -- anything less seemed unworthy of the energies of the gifted engineers and designers I had met. Digital media content and games seemed to attract a disproportionate amount of attention in those 'convergence' years. But my highest admiration was reserved for the builders of large-scale information systems. As we've grown comfortable with the Web, we've seen how software can enhance our most important institutions, making government more transparent and effective, engaging more people in the political process, and generally strengthening our democracy. Growing numbers of us are beginning to recognize the need for 'permanent' systems, with open data formats and no vendor lock-in.

But there are far more qualified commentators than I on this subject. Ted Leung of the OSAF makes some interesting remarks on a recent essay by Dan Bricklin on software that lasts 200 years. The sentiment is out there, among the key influencers.


Favorite Reads: Karl Popper, "The Open Society"

Fifth in a series of favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

When Karl Popper made the case in 1943 for guiding human society in an open manner with modest 'piecemeal' social engineering replacing grand 'oracular philosophy', his arguments foreshadowed a battle waged over how to develop software systems. Popper reminded us of a much older question: Should aristocracies make decisions on behalf of the general populace, or could the populace be trusted to judge and decide on the best course of action? In the software realm, 'oracular' interests favored specification-driven methodologies while 'piecemeal' advocates argued for an iterative prototyping approach.

Centuries passed before democratic institutions could establish their efficacy in the eyes of the world. But only a few decades were required to confirm the viability and enhanced quality of software systems developed iteratively in an open manner. The parallels between Popper's prescriptions for humanity and the ideas espoused by the open source software movement beg for a careful study of both.


On images and blogging

9-11 Memorial Site
Originally uploaded by lyndon.

The combination of writing and photography makes both elements more interesting. Those fortunate enough to live and think today have incredible tools of expression at their disposal, and the rest of us are fortunate to be their beneficiaries via the Web.

In centuries prior, the ability to express ideas with a synthesis of writing and imagery took considerable effort to cultivate, and could be shared only with the privileged few. Now, the tools required to develop these talents, and to share the progress with everyone, are available to vast numbers of us.

What does any of this have to do with a photo of tourists surveying the site of 9-11-2001? It reminds me of how fortunate I feel to live in the present, despite the challenged state of the world.


Flickr, blogs and photo sharing

NYC Sunset
Originally uploaded by lyndon.

Just surfaced from 1.5 hours riveted by the FlickrLive environment, where I may have witnessed the future of online photo sharing -- nearly 6 months after Marc Canter said as much to the whole world. Flickr successfully melds a number of ideas about online communications, photo-sharing and community building. It's simple to use, integrates well with multiple blogging services, and it works from essentially any Web browser on any OS. Ludicorp's Flickr thus also proves the viability and joy-in-use of rich Internet applications delivered via the Flash player.


Software engineering for Internet applications

Stumbled on an interesting book based on a relatively new undergraduate CS course at MIT. Focuses on creating community-oriented web applications.

Worth marking for future reference.




Here's a nice hack, that works in 'most' modern Web browsers (circa 2004). Andrew Wooldridge uses some fancy JavaScript to spawn a Laszlo blogbox right inside a web page:

Launch GoogleBloxlet

GoogleBloxlet is Andrew's spin on Antun Karlovac's neat little blog widget that enables Google search queries via the GoogleAPI.


Sunrise through the mist at Buena Vista Park

The free Picasa Hello client provides direct photo uploads to Blogger. Interesting feature to add to an online photo-sharing client. Interesting marketing alliance too, announced May 10, 2004. Picasa provides free image hosting for users of free Blogspot accounts, and ostensibly hopes these bloggers will purchase the Picassa photo-organizing software at a sufficient rate to make a profit. Google's Blogger gets to provide yet another free premium feature, on top of built-in commenting and Atom XML feeds - passing along the hosting costs to a hungrier startup. It feels like 1997 all over again. :-)

Epilogue: Google acquires Picassa.

Looking east to Buena Vista Park in San Francisco at sunrise.


A reminder to myself... a number of favorite authors are all profiled at: http://www.edge.org/. Worth perusing further.


A Complete History of Software ;-)

Noticed a post by David Temkin on "The lost art of user interface programming". Got me thinking about my own direct experience with the evolution of software, and what I've observed about the user experience along the way. Being fond of 2x2 matrices, here's my four quadrant history of software, based on producer-consumer relationships:

I. When software was for organizations serving organizations

My first job out of college was with Andersen Consulting, now known as Accenture. Andersen originated in the world of mainframe information systems, that typically served the needs of institutions rather than individuals. I still have a coffee mug commemorating my work on the Tax Accounting System for the Employment Development Department of the State of California. The design center of such systems was the flow and processing of data records through an organization, rather than the task goals of an individual user. The user interface was relatively crude -- here it was the user's job to interact with the system, and periodically give user-friendly reports to superiors, who would rarely seek to interact with such systems themselves.

II. When software was for individuals serving organizations

When the personal computer came along, suddenly software served the needs of individuals on a mass scale, and the shrink-wrap software industry was born. New categories of staple products emerged, including spread-sheets, desktop publishing tools, word processors, image editors and even complete accounting systems. Those accounting systems were availabe for the equivalent of less than an hour of consulting time by an Andersen partner -- what a deal!

These products needed to be accessible to an individual rather than to numerous operatives within multiple departments of an organization. It was all part of the productivity revolution of desktop computing. Extensive system manuals needed to be eliminated along the way -- and to the greatest extent possible replaced by self-documenting user interfaces. Today, few of us fully appreciate how many people were once required to accomplish what one person with Quicken, Photoshop, Excel or PageMaker can get done. We forget that there were generations of people who actually had someone else type their correspondence, and relied on entire departments to produce presentations.

III. When software was for organizations serving individuals

While productivity tools for individuals garnered most of the attention, the needs of organizations did not disappear. Data processing systems also advanced by combining server-based business processing with the superior GUI capabilities of personal computers. In most of these cases, the user experience could be simpler than what was required for personal productivity software, but still leveraged the GUI paradigm to make the IT system more accessible to non-specialists. The only problem was there was a lot of desktop client software that had to be distributed and updated every time a system was launched or modified. Deploying and maintaining distributed client-server apps was a hassle.

The Web came along and changed everything, mostly for the better. Deployment became instantaneous on a global scale. A new generation of data processing service providers emerged to expose information systems to the public at large rather than only serve internal constituents. These new "Dot-com's" also needed to deliver self-documenting user experiences, and had an interest in making their offerings as broadly accessible as possible. What they lost in capability with the Web browser, they compensated for with the value of instant global reach.

IV. When software is for individuals serving individuals

But the Web browser is not the end-all. Under some circumstances, software creators need to deploy desktop client software. The quality of the user experience seems to rise to the extent that software considers the needs of individuals over organizations. A new category of software enables individuals to serve each other directly without any organizational or instititutional intermediaries. One of the more stunning examples is Internet file-sharing software. Here the concerns of individuals outweigh the needs of not just organizations, but entire industries -- and governments must step in to arbitrate.

This last quadrant of activity is quite new, and in some cases is referred to as "social software". Individuals now routinely serve each other in a growing variety of online activities. While there are risks associated with these 'unmoderated' interactions, there are also potentially great efficiencies. Surprisingly, the creators of these systems sometimes opt to distribute client software rather than rely on Web interfaces.


From these observations I surmise that institutional incentives impact the quality of the user experience -- the broader the scope of a software solution, the greater the impact of these institutional dynamics, and the more challenging the task of creating an effective user experience. Usability matters. Technology matters. Economics matters. The path of progress can be indirect, though we tend to find it eventually.


PhotoBlox Unleashed

Last week, we unveiled the sequel to SoundBlox -- the PhotoBlox, a viral, highly customizable Internet image slideshow application. Here's an example that launches in a pop-up window:

Like every 'blox' in the series, PhotoBlox can be embedded in a personal blog or web page, customized extensively via an external XML data configuration file, and viewed via any modern Web browser while delivering the type of user experience normally associated with desktop client software.

Time will tell how PhotoBlox is received. To date, the SoundBlox has been put to use by EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow, by the Internet Archive and numerous others. It also garnered a favorable reaction from Dan Gilmor of the San Jose Mercury News. PhotoBlox is a much more feature-rich application, and should appeal to an even broader audience -- let's see if my hunch is correct.