Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Threading conversations

Recent posts have talked about the mining the information contained in comments on blogs. The bigger issue to me is threading the whole conversation that is scattered across the blogsphere. Of which comments are a part. Trying to follow a conversation let alone the comments is, shall we say, difficult? More accurately it is tiresome and bordering on impossible in many cases.

Of course the aggregators and search engines can do a manual method. This will lead to missed posts and more importantly likely to miss the part of conversation held in the comments. Instead we need a system of automatically threading conversations ala Thunderbird or Outlook.

Until now RSS has been limited by being one way. Add in SSE and now conversations can be synchronised across sites. Instead of having a trackback or backlink each post would have a thread feed. When another blogger adds a post to the conversation they use the thread feed instead of the trackback. The post shows up on both sites with comments. Now the conversation is threaded. From any one blog the reader can find the whole conversation and not have to ferret it out across the general blogsphere.

Together RSS and SSE provide the active feedback channel that Zoli Erdos wants. It provides the automatic threading of conversations (including the comments) across blogs. Perhaps not the most elegant method but it is simple and can be done now and I'll take simple and avaliable over perfect and unavailable anyday.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Reliability and Liability

37signals posted on why relability wasn't critical for web service companies on the 6 Dec 2005 . Two weeks later several web service companies, SixApart, Del.icio.us and even the granddaddy, SFdc, had outages. Bloglines service has been spotty. The frustration that these failures have caused is evident from the moaning across the blogsphere. The SFdc failure has caused businesses to loose money.

Reliability matters in operations. Even for web service companies.

But debates on reliability are clouded by misconception and misunderstanding. We need to understand why reliability numbers can be misleading and how reliability is achieved.

Reliability as a Number
Reliability is often specified by a wonderful percentage: 98...99...99.9...99.98 and so on but what does the number say and what doesn't it say. Reliability in its simplest form is how many hours within 100 that the service is not available. Therefore 99% means 1 hour in every 100 the system is unavailable. The number does not tell you is how that hour is spread out across the 100.

What reliability numbers do not tell is how that 1 hour in 100 came about. The quality of the reliability. Two scenarios. Every 50 hours the system is take down for 30 minutes for preventitive maintence. The time is scheduled and announced well in advanced. Or that 1 hour is randomly spread across the 100 hours from failures and random firefighting. Users receive no warning of the outtages and they can come at any time.

The first scenario is a lot less fustrating to users than the second and yet they have the same reliability number. Reliability specified as a number is next to useless and can be grossly misleading. Before you can use a reliability number you have to understand how it occured. You need to understand the quality of the operations overall.

Achieving Reliability
There are two methods to achieving reliability: the brute force method and the smart method.

Using the brute force method to acheiving reliability is expensive. Each extra step in reliability is more expensive than the next. Each step increases the complexity of the overall system. Which of course increases the risk of something going wrong. To make matters worse not only does the risk of failure go up, the risk of a spiral into catastrophe also increases. Not a nice combination.

The brute force method is often used as it is easy to understand. But for many web service companies is overkill and too expensive.

The smart method is routed in engineering risk analysis: identifying the types of failure, the probability of failure and the consequence of failure. The various failures are ranked by risk: a combination of the probability of failure and consequence of failure. These failures can then be dealt with from the riskiest to the least risky.

Risk analysis reduces the cost of reliability by giving the users an objective method for identifying where they will get the biggest bang for their buck. But it is a continual process. It is not something that you do once, place into a drawer and forget about. The risk analysis must be done continuously as the risks and likelihood change as the environment, technology and business evolve.

There is going to be a lot of resistance to using risk analysis techniques in web services companies. If nothing else simply because it challenges the current way of doing business. But for the web service companies to survive they are going to have to embrance and internalise engineering risk management.

Risk management techniques were developed to address liability issues that engineering firms faced. They were hard lessons but liability force the engineering companies to develop better operations. Perhaps it is time for the web service companies to be liable for the quality of their service.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Here we go again

Leaving aside the question of whether Jeff jinxed Salesforce.com, the recent failure of yet another web service company is another indication of a relative lack of operations maturity within web services companies.

Zoli Erdos makes the point,
"The Typepad outage prompted Brad and Jeff write their piece was storm in a teacup; this is the real thing, the Storm."
I agree. SFdc is the standard bearer for the web services industry. What happens to them reverberates through the industry. I expect 2006 will be the year that web service companies gain operational maturity. Or slide off the radar.

As more and more people and businesses conduct their lives and make their living using web services, reliability of even simple services will increasingly be a competitive point. Those who achieve a perceived reliability of service will thrive and prosper. Passing the buck on reliability because it is companies feel it is to difficult (and/or expensive) to achieve is not going to be a successful survival strategy.

Update: Companies are losing/have lost money from the SFdc outage. Will they be compensated? SFdc does face the prospect for being sued for liability.

Links: Salesforce.com Outage article in Infoworld

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bringing More People into the Forest

Seth Levine of Venture Chronicles has a very good post about IBM's streamlining of patent licensing for startups.

IBM has one of the largest (if not the largest) patent portfolio in the world. It has remained the leading patenter for the twelve years. This move will bring some certainty for the startup community it also has the benefit of bring many patents that would otherwise not be developed into the hands of people who can use them.

While IBM does have a program to create internal startups, the simple fact is that IBM has too many patents to use them all. By creating this patent portfolio deal suddenly patents that would otherwise not be used can be used to build new products and services. Given the current IP system, IBM's deal is a good thing.

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Wherefore art thou Operations?

Blogsphere has been alive (and dead) with the recent failure of service of SixApart's Typepad blog service. Many users are very fustrated. Some to the point of moving to another service such as Jeff Nolan. Om Malik is riffing his refrain about the scalability of web 2.0 companies. David at 37Signals has a different take on the issue. They have even debated the subject on a podcast.

But their debate is a red herring. Or put another way, they are wrong.

Web 2.0 companies are service providers that rely on engineering operations to provide their service. Instead of their service being say, satellite broadcasting, it is publishing blogs (in the case of Six Apart). Consequently, web 2.0 and web service companies face the same issues as any other company that relies on engineering operations. They are not special or unique or some how able to defy the laws of physics.

The problems that web 2.0 companies (this applies to any web service company i.e eBay, Google, Yahoo! etc.) have suffered recently are not an indication an inherent problem in the company concept or business plan. What the problems do indicate is a startling lack of engineering operations expertise. Where is the maintence scheduling, the backout plans, the risk analyses? Where are the very basics of engineering operations?

Engineering operations has developed methodologies, tools and knowledge base over the last 50 years that ensures smooth provision of service and dramatically reduce the risk due to unforeseen events. You know, those things that lead to fustrated clients and lost revenue. And bankruptcy. The methods and tools are used because they work.

Nothing that the web 2.0 companies are doing indicate that they are using the methods and tools of engineering operations and I have to ask why? It is not hard to use the simple methods and tools. They don't need to use the more complex methods or tools so again I ask why? Lack of knowledge about these methods and tools, delusion that some how web 2.0 companies are special or disbain for tools and methods from outside the web world? I expect it is a combination of these and others.

The solution is not hard to implement. Hire someone with experience in engineering operations. Someone who can use the methods and tools to address the risks and processes of the company's operations. This person will have to do a lot. The operations will require a lot of house keeping as the current processes are brough up to scratch. Failing that, go down to the local bookstore and purchase three reference books. One for engineering operations, one for engineering risk analysis and one for engineering quality assurance and use them. While not as good as hiring someone with experience in engineering operations at least it will be better than the status quo.

The issue isn't scalability or lack thereof or even reliability or lack thereof. It is a lack engineering operations expertise. The web service companies are finding that even they cannot escape Murphies Law,

"What can go wrong, will go wrong in the worst possible way at the worst possible time."
Not using engineering operations methods and tools means that a small failure quickly spirals into a catastrophe for web service companies. They have nothing to manage nor mitigate the risks. Until web 2.0 companies, in fact any web service company, effectively addresses the engineering operations side of their businesses they are not ready for being mission critical systems.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

"and a star to steer her by"

"And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by"

-John Masefield

Hugh Macleod made an important point in his Les Blogs round up:
One tiresome theme that keeps popping up: "What is the future of blogs?" Dumb question. Nobody knows. And anyway, if we knew where it was going, we'd already be there by now. (his emphasis)
While we may not know what the future holds for blogs. We do still need a direction. We have to have somewhere to point the ship. So the question is not "what is the future of blogs?" but "which star are we going to steer her by?"

So...which star to steer her by?

The blogsphere is about conversation and it needs to support all types of conversation whether between a company and clients, between family and friends or the wider community in general. Currently, the conversations are haphazard and often difficult to follow. For the blogsphere to grow, to evolve, conversations need to flourish in all their forms.

Enabling better conversations is our guiding star. That is the star to steer her by.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Commoditisation of Opinion

The Internet disrupts everything it touches. Now it is the time for the consulting firms to feel the disruption.

Blogging and the blogsphere are commoditising opinion. No longer do you need to pay huge fees to a consulting firm to write a 100 page report (which your not going to read anyway) to tell you about an industry. The same insights are available for free in the blogsphere. This commoditisation of opinion will challenge the value of the major consulting firms.

The commoditisation is only in its early days yet. The lies a problem with trust.

The consulting firms have an implicit trust rating. You trust that they have done their background research and their opinion is based on facts. The blogsphere lacks this implicit trust. Each reader has to form an opinion on the level of trust to assign to each blogger.

The blogsphere needs a explicit trust mechanism.

The trust mechanism is a solveable problem. One which is likely to be solved sooner rather than later.

I wonder if the consulting firms will see this coming?

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Come all yea faithful

The Geek Dinner Dec 2005 was held last night in London. With roughly 100 plus people turning up it was a good evening. For me it was great to meet the people behind many of the blogs. The special guest was Robert Scoble with many who had attended the Les Blogs conference as well as those attending the Global Voices summit.

The dinner was held at the Texas Embassy Cantina near Trafalgar Square. The night began, as these things usually do, slowly with people trickling in by ones and twos. By 8 the room was a seething hive a geekiness and empty wine bottles. Nor did the night escape without controversy. Following Les Blogs Jo Twist created buttons with Ben Metcalfe's now famous (or infamous) IRC comment printed on them. But what is an evening without a little controversy?

The evening included a meal which filled up the cracks between the wine and beer. Dinner was time very well and very tastey. Somewhere during the night several speeches where made but I can't remember what they were about. I found the speakers impossible to hear.

After being kicked out of the Texas Embassy those still standing went to a champagne bar to continue the night. I personally didn't get home till about 5.

Thank you to the organisers, to Hugh McLeod who supplied the wine from Stormhoek and Microsoft for picking up half the tab for the evening.

Geek Dinner UK Information

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Friday, December 09, 2005

To USB or not to USB

I have come to the conclusion that there are to many power cords in my life. Each item has their own power cord that is un-useable with any other device. Even mobile phones from the same manufacturer often can't use the same power adapter from a different model. All this adds up to is the consumer tangled in cords, tripping over cords and ever on the quest for the specific power cord for a particular device.

Can anything be done? You can be universal adapters but this requires you to shell out more of your hard earned cash to solve a manufacturers problem. At any rate the manufacturers regular change the plug size making the universal adapters not so universal. No, the problem must be solved at the design stage.

Many (if not most) devices have a USB port. And this is the solution. These USB ports need to become the means of charging our mobile devices. Now all one needs is a single USB hub with a power adapter (one cord), and multiple devices can be powered of this one hub. You might argue that power cords are being replaced by USB cords. But USB cords are also used to transfer data (multiple use so we still gain on eliminating one cord) and the hub can be design so that the USB cords retract into the hub eliminating lost and tangled cords.

A neat solution that can be easily implemented across a wide range of devices without requiring extensive re-design.

Anything to get rid of those damm power cords.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Attention Wars

"Cry 'Havoc', and let slip the dogs of war"
-William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

Cry of 'Havoc' has been made. The dogs of war are loose. The Attention Wars have begun.

The Attention Wars have come about because of the shifting power relationships in the digital world as people seek to grab the last scarcity: attention. It is too early to predict the winners or loosers. The blogsphere will pontificate on the strategies and the likelihood of success. But no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Many will predict that the GYMAAE (or GAAMEY) group will dominate and that one or more of the group will ultimately win. But fate is a fickle creature. The open source community has the potential to throw a massive spanner in the works. There is no reason that that the open source community could not develop an attention stack mcuh as they did with the LAMP stack that underpins much of the GYMAAE business. The ground work already exists through the Attention Trust and Seth Goldstein's Root.Net market.

IBM, Technorati and News Corp are other players that will be involved. All three companies have both the drive and vision to become major players in the attention sphere. IBM could easily become the corporate champion of an open attention platform. Technorati is already an attention service, but how will the evolve to build on what they have? What will be Rupert Murdoch's aim be? Be a buyer or a mediator or both?

As ever with Fickle Fate, a new player could easily sweep the field.

Like any war the strategies of the protagonists will differ but the ultimate goal remains the same: to mediate between those who want the attention and those who provide the attention.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Whose pockets are the deepest?

In discussions I've had over whether the teleco's are going to weather the current cat 5 hurricane that is pummeling the incumbent telephone industry, an oft quoted reason why the telcos will survive is the depth of their pockets.

But how deep are they really? How do they compare the mortal enemies of the telcos?

A close of business today Vodafone' market cap was ~US$139 billion, Deutsch Telecom's market cap was ~US$72 billion, Bellsouth's market cap was ~US$51 billion, AT&T (SBC)'s market cap was ~US$99 and Telefonica's market cap was at ~US$73 billion. A grand total of ~US$434 billion

A close of business today Google's market cap was ~US$120 billion, Microsoft's market cap was ~US$295 billion, Yahoo!'s market cap was ~US$50 billion, eBay stood at ~US$62 billion and IBM at ~US$139 billion. A grand total of ~$US666 billion.

While market cap is not a scientifically rigorous measure of measure of pocket size nor cash flow it serves to illustrate the point. The telco's playing a team that masses half again their size. A team with a better cash flow than the telcos going on their last reports.

Unfortunetly for the telcos the other team isn't playing a game of my hardware is better than yours. Instead they are playing my services are more useful than yours. A game the telcos' aren't that good at playing. The rules have changed and the old ways and old business models aren't working. Sadly, few of the telcos seem to realise this and insist on playing by the old rules.

Link: James Enck's Eurotelco Blog covers the gory details for the European telecommunications industry very well. James Enck gives some results on the hemorrhaging that all the European telcos are facing.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

IPTV I knew yea too little

The last few weeks has seen various announcements about Broadband TV and services going live There was AOLs/Time Warner with In2TV, AOLs investment in Brightcove, BBC's on demand video service, ITV local 's broadband TV channel to name just a few. All signs of the gathering momentum behind Broadband TV. Broadband TV is now a definite threat to the viability of the IPTV strategies of telcos.

There are three aspects to the threat. Firstly, broadband TV is less capital intensive system than IPTV. Broadband TV uses commodity hardware and tried and trusted Internet protocols. Nothing new is being done with Broadband TV. This means that the barriers to entry to this market are low opening up the market to a much larger number of entrants and consequently competition. IPTV requires access to the local exchanges to put in new hardware or build your own network. Very capital intensive.

Cost of content is the second challenge. Content usually passes through several hands before arriving at the consumer. All of whom add their own markup to the price of the content and thus inflating the price to the end user. And this will be no different for IPTV providers. With Broadband TV many, if not all, the middlemen can be cut out. Broadband TV allows content providers to build a relationship directly with the user. Dis-intermediating the middlemen whether they are aggregators or telco (or cable company or satellite provider or broadcaster). This provides higher margins at lower cost to the consumer. This will be serious price competition to the IPTV and will make some IPTV offerings uneconomical.

Broadband TV will from the get go have a much larger market size than IPTV. IPTV's market size is limited to the size of a telco's network. Nor will their be 100% take up of IPTV by everyone on the telco's network. Broadband TV's market size is the Internet. Even if a Broadband TV provider is limited to a nation that is still at least an order of magnitude greater market size. Even with the competitive environment of the Internet, a Broadband TV provider will have a huge market size to serve.

IPTV is going to face an uphill battle against Broadband TV. Not the least because every computer and every next gen games console is a Broadband TV set top box. There is nothing new for the customer to buy or provider to subsidise. And now GYM are at the crease for their innings. Interesting times.

Link: Om Malik on Broadband TV vs IPTV

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1000 Channels for mortal men, 1 Channel to rule them all

Walking home from the shops, my thoughts meandered to pondering where the value lies in MySpace. MySpace addresses a market that is notoriously fragment but fad driven. The fads rise and fall faster than the seasons change and so socially immobile as to put even the most hidebound British Peer to same.

Yet MySpace works. Why? Because MySpace is a collection of hundreds of channels each targeting a specific teenage cliche. What MySpace does is not unique; Geocities and Tripod came before MySpace. The uniqueness of MySpace is not the number of channels but how the channels fused into one super channel.

MySpace meets the needs of teenagers to indulge their passions but the lose bonds between each of the channels enables viral spreading of memes throughout the whole super-channel. Those bonds are the teenagers themselves. The memes are moved through MySpace by the users creating momentum and osmotic pressure so that the memes can even cross the social boundaries of teenagers.. MySpace is both targeted and diffuse and that is MySpace's advantage.

MySpace allows memes to take advantage of the whole Long Tail curve from the heady heights to the tippity tip of the Long Tail of the teenager market. That is what Murdoch paid big bucks for and that is where the value lies.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

RSS and Press Releases

RSS is an excellent method for distributing press releases on the Internet. A fact that some larger companies (Microsoft, Google and CISCO all have pages with an RSS feed of their press releases) have already recognised.

Where RSS press release distribution will have the greatest impact is for small businesses. RSS allows small business to avoid the high costs associated with a PR distribution company that often goes only to professional journalists and media publications. Often an audience not interested in a small business' press release

By using RSS to distribute press releases small business now has the Internet as an audience. A larger audience, the more likely someone will be interested. Using RSS also enables Yahoo! and Google to easily collect a company's press release and add it to their business news pages. RSS increases the likelyhood that a companies press release will be noticed. The essential purpose of a press release.

Companies, small businesses in particular, should distribute their press releases by RSS. But the trend needs to be started. The best people to start the trend are the VCs like Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Brad Feld of Mobius Partners and Jeff Nolan of SAP Ventures. They are able encourage their portfolio companies to put their press releases into a RSS feed and become the start point for the meme to spread to every company on the Internet.

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