Thursday, August 18, 2005

Scheduling Problems

Fellow analyst Stephen O'Grady asks "Why is Scheduling Still So Damn Hard?"

Think about how you schedule meetings with folks outside your own calendar system:
* Step 1: Determine your own availability
* Step 2: Communicate that availability to an external party; typically means cut and pasting or manually writing some openings into an email
* Step 3: If you're lucky, some of these work, and you receive a reply which requires you to create a new calendar entry
* Step 4: If you weren't lucky in Step 3, the available slots didn't work, and the external party has proposed some alternatives so you're back to Step 1. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Certainly one root of the problem is the lack of appropriate protocols and mechanisms to selectively open up our calendars beyond the firewall. Yet just another example of the horrible state of collaboration, Microsoft Office 2003 dinosaur ads notwithstanding. Yes, it would be nice to do the same sort of group scheduling we can do with Outlook/Exchange with folks at other companies--or indeed could do with proprietary office automation products like Data General's CEO, fifteen years ago. Yes, that would be a good start. But we should also set our sights higher because the Outlook way of doing things isn't all that scalable either. The ultimate goal should be to have the system able to make intelligent decisions for us rather than just present us with a bunch of out-of-context data.

The real problem here is that computers are so bloody literal. They can schedule a block of time around already scheduled blocks of time, but that's about it. But scheduling is more complex than that. This isn't new. Consider the following from The Digital Deli, a marvelous look at PC culture circa 1984.
Next [in the list of computer applications to avoid] we come to the computerized electronic calendar. It doesn't let you make dates; you have to make "events." Can you imagine saying, "We fell in love on our first event"?

Worse, it suffers from that picky literal-mindedness of machine-think. For me, as for most folks, time unravels in a drinks-with-Chris-late-next-week sort of way. Electronic calendars are not that loose. To them, "late next week" means nothing. "Noonish" means nothing. They don't know about "happy hours," and they've never even met Chris. But "07-08-83, 6:00 P" they understand. No wonder we don't get along.

The electronic calendar also wants me to tell it just how long the "event" will last. The program divides the day into fifteen-minute blocks and has to know how many of those will be filled by my event with Chris. Now, I usually know roughly (within a half-hour, say) how things will go, but one has to be flexible on this sort of thing. Maybe an old mutual friend stops by the table, or we suddenly decide to go see a movie. Or there's a full moon out and it's a warm night ... You get the idea. Well, in electronic date-books, it's not enough to write "Chris" at 5:00. They want to know where you'll be at 5:15, 5:30, 5:45, 6:00. Sometimes I get the feeling this program was designed by somebody's mother.

I want a way to describe to the computer that I'd prefer to not have three meetings in a row, that I prefer not to have a call at 5pm but I can if there's no other choice, that I've got three hours blocked off for writing but I can take a call during that slot if it's important enough, and so forth. I'm not so naive to believe that we can easily get a computer to actually grok all our preferences and options, but we should at least have such considerations in mind as we tackle the nearer term mechanical problems.

Losing Money on Volume

A few weeks ago I suggested that
at least relative to the Harry Potter books of the world, there's a bit less discounting competition on the Long Tail which should at least partially offset higher costs associated with lower volumes. With purely digital goods, the Long Tail comes even closer to pure gravy.

It turns out that for the blockbuster hits, discounting can hit profitability hard. That's because a "big box" reseller like Best Buy uses hot new DVD releases as loss leaders to bring customers into the store. It may, in fact, sell new DVDs below cost for a time. This practice presumably works out for Best Buy (otherwise one supposes they wouldn't do it) because enough people who come into Best Buy to buy the latest Star Wars DVD also buy another non-sale DVD, a CD, or an ink cartridge. However, in the process, Best Buy pretty much destroys (or at least greatly reduces) the profitability of new blockbuster hits for everyone else in the process. Stores, both online and bricks-and-mortar, that drag less other business along in the wake of the bestseller can end up making relatively little money on their highest volume titles as a result. By contrast, smaller titles may have somewhat higher stocking and inventory costs, but tend not to be exposed to loss leader discount pressures from the big retailers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Code From Books

Dan Bricklin's latest Software Licensing podcast is with Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly media. A chunk of it deals with a topic that was once very relevant to me That's the question of what's allowable use for the code in a programming book.
Tim O'Reilly's short answer on his Web site is this:
You can use and redistribute example code from our books for any non-commercial purpose (and most commercial purposes) as long as you acknowledge their source and authorship. The source of the code should be noted in any documentation as well as in the program code itself (as a comment).

He then goes into a bit more detail. The bottom line is that using the code as part of a larger project is generally OK so long as proper credit is given. Competitive uses-for example, publishing a CD with the code snippets or including them in another book are not. It's got some elements of the original BSD license (with advertising clause) with the important caveat that O'Reilly will frown upon uses that directly undercut the market value of its own (or the author's) products or services.

O'Reilly's position seems quite commonsensical. It also somewhat codifies what's long been common practice. My personal interest is that I once developed and sold a DOS file manager, Directory Freedom, which (to quote the docs):
originally grew out of a variety of programs which owe their "look and feel" to Michael Mefford's DR and CO utilities in PC Magazine Volume 6, #17 and #21. DF was most directly adapted from Peter Esherick's DC (Directory Control) version1.05B. Peter helped get DF started by making the source code for DC available to me and has also shared some fixes which he has made in subsequent revisions of his program.

This type of reuse and adaptation was fairly common on a small scale in the days before today's Open Source hit in a big way. (I'm talking roughly the mid-eighties to mid-nineties here.) Code in magazines like PC Magazine, Dr. Dobbs, and PC Techniques was certainly copyrighted, but it basically existed to sell the magazines, as opposed to being commercial software in its own right. In practice, it was generally assumed by just about everyone that most uses of the code were proper, even if good manners suggested giving credit where credit is due.

One interesting aspect is that this code, while not licensed as Open Source, can in practice be used more flexibly than true Open Source licensed under a "viral" license like the GPL which requires that derivative works be likelwise licensed under the GPL. In fact, my Directory Freedom could not have been a shareware product had the PC Magazine utilities been explicitly under the GPL rather than the implicit loosey-goosey de facto BSDish terms under which they were actually published and used.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

NPR On Demand?

Podcasting and related technologies have been called the "End of Radio." I haven't been buying; at least for the most part. Given that podcasts have to be consumed in real time, a person can consume far less audio content than is the case with inherently skimmable written blogs. As a result, I've previously argued that:
as professional broadcasters like the BBC start putting content on the air, (e.g. "In Our Time") many--probably most--people will largely devote their limited audio-listen minutes to professionally-produced broadcasts. Call this podcasting if you like, but it's really just on demand radio as you can record more crudely today with software like Replay Radio.

Conspicuously absent from such on demand radio has been NPR which, like the BBC, would seem to have many programs tailor-made for the purpose-both highly topical and less so. (I'd argue that the current state of the technology in which several manual steps are needed to sync a program, for most people programs that can be listened to a week or a month after broadcast are preferable.)

Well, it looks as if NPR may not be totally clueless after all. It's apparently decided not to renew its contract with Audible, the maker of lame, proprietary audiobooks and the like. (In all fairness, Audible was long about the only game in town.)
As we formulate a more comprehensive strategy, we chose not to renew our agreement with Audible when it recently expired. We are now developing a new strategy for making NPR content downloadable and portable. Once the plan is finalized, we will announce it publicly.

via O'Reilly Radar

Dan Bricklin on Software patents

Dan Bricklin weighs in on software patents in this post.

Dan has some history here. As the creator of VisiCalc, he's previously written about why he didn't patent that software. His latest rejoinder is in reaction to:
Russ Krojec's blog entry "What if VisiCalc was Patented?" Russ argues that since VisiCalc wasn't patented competitors found it "...safer to copy the currently winning formula and avoid having to innovate. In this case, the lack of patents brought innovation to a standstill and we are all running spreadsheet programs that still operate like 25 year old software."

Dan correctly points out that Russ' position just doesn't square with historical facts--and demonstrates thereby the value of having an understanding of history. Back in the DOS days, I clearly remember any number of programs that were perhaps inspired by the spreadsheet metaphor but deliberately took different paths. There's some discussion of different approaches and programs here. A number of the alternatives were more explicitly multi-dimensional or iterative or capable of solving more flexibly-designed equations than conventional spreadsheets, but none were particular successes. Products that were very direct VisiCalc successors (basically Lotus 1-2-3 and then Excel) ruled instead, but it wasn't because there weren't alternatives. How come?

One reason that I'm pretty confident in giving is that, as the PC became more widely used outside of hobbyists and specialists, this forced a certain regularization of applications, for lack of a better term. Suddenly, the computer unsavvy needed to use these apps. A whole ecosystem of specialized training classes, books, and support systems sprung up. This tended to marginalize mainstream software that broke with established models. It was hard enough to teach people new command codes (which were highly irregular in the days before Windows), much less radically different mental models for how softrware worked.

Another reason is a bit more philosophical and I'm correspondingly less sure about it. But, perhaps the spreadsheet was just a metaphor and model that really worked and connnected with people--and the alternatives were just more copmplex variations on a theme that generally detracted rather than improved. In fact, most of the "innovation" around spreadsheet replacements has since been replicated in mainstream spreadsheets (e.g. for multi-dimensional, think pivot tables). And a tiny percentage of spreadsheeters use any of these capabilities-at least on a day-in, day-out basis. Furthermore, like word processors, the spreadsheet had a familiar physical analog--the accountant's ruled sheet.

I'm not convinced that software patents are bad in toto, however flawed the current system may be. But to say that more patents would have spurred greater invention in desktop productivity software just doesn't have a historical basis. And, indeed, at least with the reality of today's overly broad patents, it seems likely that just the opposite would have been the case with every remotely-related product litigated.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Web 2.0 Debate

Overheated blog conversations often get more wrapped up in the terminology than the "thing" itself. I've written about past transgressions like folksonomies. Tim Bray tackles the debate around Web2.0. Spot on. There's meat here but lose the freekin' buzzwords.

The Four Seasons and Generic Luxury

I like reading reading View of the Wing, even if (fortunately from my perspective) I'm not a serious enough road warrior to appreciate or take advantage of a lot of my advice. Sometimes I have to laugh out loud though:
Clearly this is a Four Seasons, but which one? In their zeal to determine what Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom might have looked like if he had had electricity and modern plumbing, Four Seasons has stumbled into the sort of routinized design philosophy embraced by mid-market chains with out the wherewithal to spend tens of millions building a hotel. I can only assume that the Four Seasons interior design team was let go in a corporate downsizing and their last cruel act was to commit the company to a 20 year supply of fake chesterfield TV cabinets fitted with mini-bars.

To the list of really good Four Seasons properties, I'd add The Olympic in Seattle. (Especially nice after a week of climbing or backpacking. The last time I was there, I drove up with this dust-covered rental car. I'm sure it took all the doorman's poise to not back away and avoid messing up his nice uniform.

Risks of Blogging

There's a good interview with Sun's Tim Bray, Director of Web Technologies, and Simon Phipps, Chief Technology Evangelist (Love that title!). Tim says in response to a question about the risks of blogging:
Yes, there are potential risks. But at the moment, a year into this, I would say that we are seeing almost all reward and no downside, so whatever potential risks there are, none of them have come forth yet. As one of our smart legal staff pointed out when we were starting to work on the policies, if we had come to a lawyer 15 years ago and asked him what he thought about e-mails he would have been horrified at the idea!

Many in the computer industry have been using email for longer than that; when I joined Data General almost 20 years ago, CEO (Comprehensive Electronic Office--a minicomputer-based integrated email/word processing/calendaring package) was already an ingrained part of the culture. However, in my previous job in the oil drilling business, there was no email and every memo-which is to say pretty much all written communications--had to be signed off by the appropriate level of authority. So, I certainly agree with the sense of Tim's comments. There's been a lot of loosening up just about everywhere. The convenience of email is too great and it basically doesn't work if it has to always go through channels.

That said, a lot of these discussions take place in the context of the technology industry and the Coasts. This SF Chronicle article, for example, is generally very upbeat--but most of the cases that it discusses are in the Valley where companies are often looser than elsewhere. I'm not about to argue a "blogs are risky" meme, but counsel that the standards of the tech elite don't necessarily applky elsewhere.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Long Tail For Quants

As regular readers know, I studiously avoid a lot of what I consider to be "blogosphere" hype - including the term blogosphere and such favorites as folksonomies and tags. However, the "Long Tail" remains a particularly powerful concept for me, in part because it ties directly into the business models of the likes of Netflix and Amazon rather than just a generic "linkiness is good." Yes, the partilly ego-boo-driven reviews on IMDB, and Amaon, and Netflix are part of what make the Long Tail possible - as Irving Wlawdawsky-Berger describes in the comments to this post - but it's the sales themselves that are the Long Tail.

That makes data like this which quantizes the Long Tail particularly valuable. Individual data points that are arrived at in indirect ways are always a bit suspect, but there's an increasing body of research that indicates a Long Tail at online retailers like Amazon - in this case meaning titles ranking below the top 100K (or roughly comparable to large brick-and-mortar inventory - of in the vicinity of a quarter to a third of total sales. The latest data corrects earlier figures which indicated a possibly (much) higher number, but even a quarter of Amazon sales is still a substantial number if they can be delivered with modest incremental per-unit cost. (I also suspect that, at least relative to the Harry Potter books of the world, thee's a bit less discounting competition on the Long Tail which should at least partially offset higher costs associated with lower volumes. With purely digital goods, the Long Tail comes even closer to pure gravy.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

10 Years That Changed the World

It's a bit ironic that, these days, Wired remains one of the few magazines that I still receive in dead tree form. I like the mix of story and item content and length. And its sense of style helps keep me from just going online. This month's cover story, 10 Years That Changed the World, is written by Kevin Kelly who helped found Wired and was its first executive editor. It's one of the best single pieces that I've read about the years since Netscape's IPO, in part because Kelly crystallizes certain underpinning concepts and dynamics of the Internet and the Web with considerable clarity.

For example, on the way that the Web turned the creation of content on its head:
Problem was, content was expensive to produce, and 5,000 channels of it would be 5,000 times as costly. No company was rich enough, no industry large enough, to carry off such an enterprise. The great telecom companies, which were supposed to wire up the digital revolution, were paralyzed by the uncertainties of funding the Net...Netscape's public offering took off, and in a blink a world of DIY possibilities was born. Suddenly it became clear that ordinary people could create material anyone with a connection could view. The burgeoning online audience no longer needed ABC for content. Netscape's stock peaked at $75 on its first day of trading, and the world gasped in awe. Was this insanity, or the start of something new?

And he has some marvelous turns of phrase:
But if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is the plausibility of the impossible.

For an industry so accustomed to hype that almost every announcement is and was a bew paradigm and a world-changing event, this is why the mainstream Internet and the Web caught many of us unawares. So much seemed impossible. For lack of a better hook, the Netscape IPO was a "Day the Universe Changed" to use the title of James Burke's old BBC series.