Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Breathless Google-watching.

Adam Bosworth, who worked on some very interesting mobility applications during his tenure at BEA, left to join Google just shortly before Google's IPO last year. Adam's a smart guy, and lots of us wondered what he would work on for his new employer. I ran into him shortly afterward at Esther Dyson's PHI Conference in New York; he was mum about his plans then, but I thought it an interesting venue in which to find him.

Garrett Rodgers has an article in ZDNet today on Google Health and Adam's job title in a recent PC Forum attendee list.

Just as I said in October: I believe that personal health information management is currently a mess, and a field ripe for innovation. It will be interesting to see what Adam and his colleagues have cooking.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Data tone.

Coté at Redmonk led me to news of the latest product innovation at Amazon: Cheap storage.

This is just another development in an accelerating trend: Data tone. People have come to expect that electricity and dial tone are just present in the walls of their homes. When they move in, they expect to plug their blenders and phones in, and to have them work. That's led to all sorts of opportunity for innovation, and all sorts of value to consumers. Standard interfaces and reliable service have allowed companies to build useful devices and offer valuable services on top of existing infrastrcture. Home alarms, voice mail and call waiting, DSL broadband access and more are built on these services.

Amazon's announcement means that you're now able to get storage services in much the same way that you get telephone and electrical service today: It's provided by a capable and reliable utility (Amazon), so you don't have to worry about installing your own data storage devices and keeping them running. This first generation is aimed at innovators and entrepreneurs who build storage-based products on top of Amazon's standards-based service, but those innovators and entrepreneurs will develop the devices and services you'll buy for your home.

Want your computer backed up automatically? No problem, just get the client software product, with strong encryption built in, that moves your files automatically to the Amazon-provided storage service. Not happy with the price you're paying your ISP for email storage? Use the email client plug-in to copy all your important messages to the Amazon store, where you can keep them more cheaply.

Next step in this progression will be computing cycles: You'll be able to use a computer remotely and just pay for the time that you consume. It'll be cheaper and much easier than buying, installing and maintaining a system of your own, especially when you can stop worrying about Microsoft system viruses and all the updates and upgrades that your home system requires. Already companies like Sun are offering on-demand computing to businesses; that'll penetrate to the broader consumer market soon.

For now, Amazon's storage service is metered -- you pay based on space you consume and data you transfer. Over time, I expect that this will move to flat-rate service, just as the mobile and wireline telephone market has for most ordinary consumer uses. Remote computing will follow that same progression as infrastructure is built out, and as competition drives prices down in the market.

There's an important business trend that goes along with the technical trend. You used to have to spend a lot of money to start a company -- you needed people, buildings, IT systems and expensive software packages. Increasingly, the physical plant isn't required. You can buy the IT services you need (as in Amazon's storage offering). You still need people, but the start-up costs are dramatically lower because the equipment is no longer needed. You can pay (very little, in general) for what you need, as you need it.

This trend, toward lower capital requirements by new companies, is happening at exactly the same time that venture capital firms are looking to place investments from very large funds. It'll be harder for investors to find places to put substantial amounts of money, which means that it's a good time to shop for funding.

Disclaimer: Amazon's a big Oracle customer and uses a lot of Berkeley DB. I'm a regular Amazon customer and a big fan of the company. Mostly, though, I'm just enough of a geek to think that this is really, really cool.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Go Bears!

Victoria punks USC. Man, I love Berkeley!

Airport security.

I've written about this before. I am on a watch list for airport checkin with Southwest Airlines (but not, interestingly, any other airline that I fly regularly). Having my name on that list has meant I fly the middle seat whenever I fly Southwest, because I have to check in at the terminal. Not deadly, no, but a hassle, and especially aggravating because the additional screening I undergo doesn't actually increase air security.

Further proof of the flaws in TSA screening appear in an article in CSO. Thanks to Bruce Schneier for the link.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Hayward fault helicopter tour.

Sobering mashup of the day: The Chronicle ran a story today about a virtual overflight of the Hayward fault. Anyone living in the Bay Area knows what this is about. It's a Google Earth mashup with some data from the US Geological Survey.

The project page is here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Two anecdotes.

Two anecdotes that I particularly enjoyed from The World is Flat:

TiVo collects information on the viewing habits of its users, and analyzes that information to figure out what its customers do. This infrastructure means that TiVo knows what moment in television was most often rewound and re-viewed: Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl.

Later in the book, Friedman interviews Bill Gates, and they talk about the "ovarian lottery." Friedman writes:

Thirty years ago ... if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat ... natural talent has started to trump geography.

"Now," says Bill Gates, "I would rather be a genius born in China than an average guy born in Poughkeepsie."

Flat is the new open.

I've had Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat on my bookshelf for almost a year, now. I buy more business books than I read. This one has gotten some very good reviews, though, and I liked Friedman's earlier The Lexus and the Olive Tree an awful lot. I finally got around to reading it this week, and am sorry I waited so long.

There are a few general business books that have swept Silicon Valley over the last years. Shapiro and Varian's Information Rules was one, and Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma was another. If you're an investor or an entrepreneur in technology these days, you've probably read these. You should add The World is Flat to the list.

Friedman's case is simple to state, and his book argues it compellingly. Technology and economics are eliminating barriers around the world. It is easy to collaborate with people today, no matter where they are. Broadband networking makes it possible to send clerical, accounting, software development and other jobs to the places where they are done most cheaply. The quality of the global workforce is on the rise: India, Pakistan, China, Eastern Europe and South America offer educated and motivated people eager for good jobs. The trend is not limited to desk jobs, either. UPS, for example, has transformed itself from a shipping company to a logistics company, with warehouses and expertise all over the globe, able to help companies with storage and distribution of goods, and with supply chain management.

These forces push in one direction: Companies and individuals must broaden their networks, cooperate with providers and consumers regardless of geography, and open themselves to fast and flexible affiliations that let them do more, more quickly, than ever before.

Friedman, Shapiro, Varian and Christensen all acknowledge that these forces are painful. When jobs are more mobile than people, people suffer. Like the others, though, Friedman makes a key observation: Lower costs and easier collaboration create opportunity as well as pain. If your infrastructure costs go down, you can invest more in innovation on top of that infrastructure. Yes, you need to work harder to find ways to innovate, and yes, you have more competition from other companies in other places. But global collaboration can be -- should be! -- about building new value, and not merely shaving costs. Christensen, in his public speeches, calls this "the conservation of attractive margins."

Tremendously interesting stuff, and well worth reading. But why is free the new open?

Friedman identifies ten trends that are flattening the world. One of them is open source. It's an important trend, but Friedman's description makes clear that it matters most because of the way that the open source community behaves.

After reading his book, I am more firmly convinced than ever of a key truth about open source: The source code is the least important thing about it. Successful open source projects thrive because of the charisma of their leadership, and because of the enthusiasm and dedication of the community members at large.

I believe that open source wins because of easy access to expertise. Most of the key developers of open source are directly accessible to users, and most work hard to stay in close contact with the larger community. That ethic, of low barriers and easy direct communication, is a world-flattener, in Friedman's terminology, and a sustainable advantage to the projects.

Certainly the act of sharing source code makes certain kinds of collaboration easier -- sharing the work of finding and fixing bugs, for example, and giving people the tools they need to add features and extensions. Many in the industry, though, confuse open source with open access. Access to the experts makes software more valuable; access to the source code may or may not.

When I talk about "open", I mean pretty much what Friedman means when he talks about "flat": factors like communication, collaboration, community, feedback, componentization, distribution. I believe that open is strategic, but that source is merely tactical. Competitive organizations need to find ways to be more open and collaborative, to solicit feedback more directly, to work faster and to share more easily. Whether or not there is source code in the pot depends upon the soup.

Many in the open source community deride proprietary vendors for their perceived fear or confusion about giving away source code. Open source projects have pioneered new collaborative strategies that drive success, but those strategies are easily learned. The winners in the future will be those who, like UPS in Friedman's book, transform themselves by adopting openness as a strategy, and who work hard and pay attention to their customers and partners. Proprietary software vendors may well have much to learn, but they not are stupid.

I don't usually post disclaimers on my personal blog, but will break my rule this time.

Because we recently sold Sleepycat to Oracle, some might read this post as a dark prediction on the future of Berkeley DB. It's not. Berkeley DB is tremendously successful. It uses the source tactic to advance the open strategy extremely well. It's open source.

Rather, this post describes -- openly! -- what I think will happen next in the technology industry: Source code will fade in importance, and openness will become critical.

The world is flat, and flat is the new open.