Archive for July, 2007

30
Jul
07

The High Cost of Getting What You Want

Catching up on the news this morning, I came across Wired‘s report on American tech spending. Not surprisingly, we’re spending a chunk of money to stay connected. According to Wired:

the proportion of US household budgets spent on tech products and services—computers, game consoles, cell phone service, cable, TVs—has held steady at about 5 percent for most of the past decade. We’re just spending that money—more than we pay for health insurance—on different stuff. (link)

What’s different? We’re “spend[ing] a lot less on TVs (as prices have dropped) but more on cable and satellite services (we need our HBO).”

I wasn’t really shocked by how much we’re spending (I’ve bought several goodies in the last few months; unfortunately, none were particularly cheap.). The number Wired used for comparison did surprise me. We spend more money on tech than we do on health insurance. What?!?!

Lately, as I’ve listened to the debate about health care in this country, I’ve been struck again and again by this idea that as a society, we want, as the cliché goes, to have our cake and eat it too. National health care, whether you agree with it or not, comes with a price tag that few seem willing to pay even as they prepare to get in line for the benefit.

The same principle applies in any event when society expresses a desire for anything of late. Vocal proponents for every cause from saving the earth to ending the ware in Iraq rarely address the cost of these choices. This post isn’t about the validity of any of these causes or others like them but rather about the unwillingness of a society to actually discuss the consequences of a decision.

We’ve gotten into a dangerous habit of skipping past the details in our efforts to achieve the goal and get what we want. We fell in love with Google and forgot to ask the basic question about what it was doing with all that search information. And now there’s growing questions about Google’s information policies. We’re doing it all over again with social apps like Facebook and MySpace. What exactly are the doing with all that user-posted information? It’s probably spelled out in legalese in the user agreement, but when was the last time you read a user agreement?

Perhaps the moral is a tried but true one: be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. And I’d make a small addition—are you prepared for the consequences?

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29
Jul
07

Building Worlds Harry Potter-Style

I hope you’ll excuse my absence the last few days. I’ve been madly devouring Harry Potter since last Thursday (I’m now on book 4). And one of the things that’s stuck out is Rowling’s ability to build this wholly believable world. I’m left wishing I wasn’t such a muggle.

What Rowling does so well and with seeming ease, I think we all wish we could do and try to do in one way or another. We attempt to build worlds on a regular basis. Whether it’s within the latest social app like Twitter or Facebook, we’re building a community that reflects our perception of what we see and what we hope to be true. We create our own circle of friends and enemies, we fashion our own definitions of reward and punishment. In all, we’re seeking after a world that fits us.

And until we find a world that fits us, we’re a bit uncomfortable and fight the urge to tug at the too-tight, invisible collar. What’s even more intriguing are people’s attempts to convince us that if the collar’s too tight for them, it must be too tight for us too. Recent posts (Allen Stern, Robert Scoble, Fred, Rex Hammock) about Jason Calacanis declaring “Facebook bankruptcy” reminds me a bit of this mindset. Who is Mr. Calacanis really trying to convince? Himself or you? Who’s world does his position serve? Yours or his?

I’m far from convinced that Facebook will fit in my world. I’m still testing the waters. However, Facebook not meeting my needs or fitting in my world doesn’t lead to the ultimate conclusion that Facebook doesn’t fit in anyone else’s world. Taking potshots at it serves little purpose if I’m not willing to pose a solution. Mr. Calacanis has opted out of Facebook, and in some ways, the discussion (I’m still perplexed by his “no comments” position). Do I have any takers that in spite of opting out it won’t be the last time he posts on the subject of Facebook?

I’ve watched post after post fly around, particularly during the last year, about the next greatest thing and how if you aren’t already participating, you’re behind. Then, at a similar rate of speed, the opposite occurs, and once-vocal promoters have tossed aside what was great for the next greatest thing. The cycle creates opportunities for individual discovery because you may find that something that’s no longer “in” fits your world just fine.

I’m not a proponent of staying stuck in the past out of fear of the future. I am a proponent of sticking with something if it adds to your world. At some point, genius developers will come up with replacements for Twitter and all the other social apps floating around. The only question you have to ask yourself isn’t, “What would Jason do?” but rather, “Does this help me build my world?”

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24
Jul
07

Microsoft, You Missed An Opportunity

A few days ago, I wrote a post calling attention to the trouble Atlantic correspondent James Fallows was having with Windows Vista. Apparently, even he has had enough of Vista and reverted to XP. This situation leaves me shaking my head. However, Mr. Fallows makes the excellent point that:

Sooner or later, we will all (in the PC world) be using Vista. That’s how new computers will come.

So given the choice, wouldn’t Microsoft prefer that users actually wanted to use their operating system? Forced migration to something not as good rarely leads to a happy ending. Tossing aside the argument of Mac vs. PC for a minute, I’m left wondering why a company wouldn’t aim for better results, for happier customers.

Here’s the thing, I remember the days of having to boot up my computer using disks to run DOS. Windows 3.1 seemed light years ahead of what I could do in DOS (programming wasn’t my strong point). Windows 95 didn’t seem quite as amazing, but 2000 acted more stable (I loathed ME). Then there was XP. I’ve loved XP. However, I prepared myself for the day that Microsoft would ask me to move on to something else. I figured whatever came next would look like that leap between DOS and 3.1 because XP played out what we already expected in an operating system. Instead, we got Vista—the memory-draining, battery-sucking, DRM mess masquerading as an operating system.

Optimistic, I ordered a new laptop for my grandmother with Vista. Short story—she hasn’t had any serious issues, but the little I’ve had to work with it to set up email and network connections left me hating it. I went from planning to buy a new computer loaded with Vista to scrambling for a new PC that offered XP. I did the happy dance when Dell announced that certain models would offer XP as an option. (Yes, I considered a Mac, but I’ve had a less than stellar experience with Macs. I know, the exception to the rule. I do think they’re pretty.)

Microsoft isn’t the only company to stumble over its past. American car companies are still trying to recover from the Japanese invasion that shows no signs of slowing. Companies like General Motors are exhibiting more life than others. Cars and operating systems are only the beginning. The publishing industry, the music business—any of these sound familiar—are both struggling to stay relevant in the changing marketplace.

Even as a “technology” company, Microsoft is not immune to the changing tide and the need to innovate. Within the bowels of Microsoft, some really smart people are probably planning their next move to battle Google for world domination. In the meantime, if Microsoft can’t deliver a positive experience for individuals like James Fallows who were willing to give Vista a chance, it won’t matter what Microsoft plans for the future.

Although adoption of Vista is growing while Mac OS X use is staying flat, what will happen in the fall when Apple unveils its latest operating system, Leopard? Given Apple’s recent launch of the iPhone, and past results of other Apple launches, the user experience will likely surpass that of early Vista users.

During the recent dual interview of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Jobs was asked about what drove the turnaround of Apple. He made the very astute observation that “Apple wasn’t going to beat Microsoft. It didn’t need to. It needed to remember that Apple was Apple.”(link) I think the same reasoning could apply for Microsoft with a twist.

Is it possible that Microsoft no longer needs to be all things to all people? What if Microsoft became the expert at providing the flexible framework for all other developers to hang their programs on? (I’m not a programmer, so if my idea isn’t feasible, please give me some wiggle room.) As I understand it, one of Microsoft’s big headaches is trying to make the thousands of programs, drivers, and all the other bits and pieces compatible with its new operating systems. What if that was someone else’s job? Wouldn’t that free Microsoft to build a truly dynamic operating system? Wait, it almost sounds like I’m describing an open development process. Now wouldn’t that be an amazing leap forward?

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24
Jul
07

Rebel With A Cause

The last few months, I’ve been surprised by conversations I’ve heard between my parents. Neither are overly political; however, recent weeks have highlighted their growing irritation and dislike for both major political parties. In the past, I can’t remember either being quite so vocal. For example, my mother mentioned her disgust over the government building the U.S. embassy in Baghdad at a cost of almost $600 million. (link to A.P. story) My parents’ obvious aggravation with the political status quo made me curious about the tipping point for ordinary citizens to veer from their individual attitudes or at least speak up.We each have our personal foundations, foundations based on individual beliefs related to business, politics, economics, morals, etc. What happens to jolt the comfortable out of their rut? Keep in mind, I’m not thinking about the already active and plugged-in citizen. I’m talking about your average citizen, mostly content to get through her day and too busy to pay much attention the political nonsense on Capital Hill.

From a Supreme Court opinion (American Communications Association v. Douds) of all things I found the following:

It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error. (link)

We’re a country disgusted by its politicians, but unwilling to a get behind a third party or shake up the status quo. We’re happy to supply debate questions to YouTube for CNN, but shy away if the politicians actually use hard truths to answer those questions. We’ll wait in line for iPhones for hours on end without complaint, but hesitate to wait in line to vote on Election Day. This attitude goes beyond politics. Have we grown complacent? Do we show the disturbing tendency to wait for someone else to tell us how to act?

For a country founded on rebellion, we’ve shown a startling lack of it during the last 225+ years. We go about our days, content to leave the running of our country to others, only complaining when it impacts our daily routine. Even beyond politics, has there really been nothing worth rebelling over as a nation since the country’s founding? The complaints against Microsoft are legion, yet other than Apple and Linux, who else has dared enter the arena? Is Microsoft really as good as it gets?

The excitement over Web 2.0 rests to a large extent on the idea that users are generating the content. But how many are actively generating versus passively consuming? Beyond tech-friendly centers like Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, New York, I suspect user-generated content becomes a minority activity rather than a majority behavior.

Back to the earlier question…what does it take to jolt the comfortable out of their rut? How obvious must the blip be to catch their attention? There’s been recent discussion of late about Google’s interest in purchasing the 700MHz wireless spectrum. Is that a big enough blip? Before Google entered the conversation, how much attention were we paying? Even now, how much do you know about it?

I could play 20 questions all day long about current events. The point still remains that you have to WANT to know something is going on. Maybe that’s what provides the necessary jolt—you decide it’s time to start caring. What will it take to push you out of the rut? Or are you already out?

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23
Jul
07

Social Apps Mirror Class Reunions

I went to my 10-year class reunion last weekend. I thought 10 years enough time for most anyone to get over issues from high school. For a good 75% of the class, 10 years was enough time with plenty of laughing and reminiscing. The other 25% seemed more inclined to stick with the same group from high school, ignoring the larger group unless someone ventured into their territory. But that’s a story for another day.

I went as an observer more than anything, not sure who’d actually attend. However, I ended up genuinely happy to see my classmates, many who I hadn’t seen since graduation. We saw each other on an almost daily basis for 12 years, and then our lives diverged. As a group, we’ll only interact as a “whole” at reunions. Leading up to and after the event, I’ve tried to determine why we’re both drawn and repelled by reunions.

Reunions of all kinds are an interesting thing. It’s a combination of our past, our present, and our future all at once—rarely a comfortable experience. But in some ways, I think this combination is what makes social media like MySpace and Facebook so popular.

Our profiles on these sites capture our past, present, and future—they’re how we establish common ground, find friends, and expand our network. We share details about ourselves to make connections. In many areas of our lives, we show only one facet of who we are. In the workplace, we highlight the skills and background that appeal to bosses and co-workers. In our personal lives, we highlight the hobbies and interests that appeal to romantic conquests and friends. Rarely do we enter a situation that encourages sharing all of these facets.

A reunion pulls these pieces together as we seek to catch up with one another and reconnect—where have you been, what are you doing, and what do plan to do—but it’s usually only for the day of the reunion. Social apps like Facebook and MySpace create a perpetual kind of reunion. You can revise and add to this public profile, making changes to your past, updating your present, and predicting your future.

The popularity of these apps shows that in some contexts, we’re happy to share ourselves, sometimes too much of ourselves if you agree with the critics. However, Olly makes the valuable point that “…it’s not as if that information is particularly difficult to track offline as well as on.” I know that reunion organizers found a lot of people through online avenues like MySpace and Facebook. In spite of the mumblings about the constant chatter over Facebook of late, it and other similar social sites are here to stay. I’m curious to see how they’ll change, especially if open environments, like the one at Facebook, are duplicated in the future.

There’s been some discussion that apps like Facebook will end the traditional class reunion. My take? We may love technology, but we still love seeing people in person. My class reunion ended with a vote to wait 10 years for the next one. A few people protested at waiting that long. I suspect an unofficial 15-year reunion will happen among an interested group. Perhaps they’ll get together and arrange it on Facebook.

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20
Jul
07

Coming to You Live—News Via Blogs

Where do you get your news? A year ago, I would have said reading news websites or reading the paper (I hate TV news). Now, I get it from reading blogs. Case in point, I learned about the NY steam pipe explosion via Rachel Clarke’s blog. Later in the day, she posted a video that captures the roar of steam escaping from the pipe. I only checked out the story through “traditional” sources (cnn.com) after reading several other blog posts on the event.

I doubt I’m the only one who gets their news through a blog “channel.” And if I were a “traditional reporter,” I’d be worried about my job. Jeff Jarvis has frequently discussed the current newspaper situation with much greater detail and knowledge than I can offer. However, from my perspective, here’s why I’m paying less attention to “traditional” news sources than ever before—I don’t know them.

We’ve gone from a time where we “invited” the evening news into our homes to not paying much attention to Katie Couric’s swan dive on CBS. Individual reporters feel replaceable, if only because they don’t want to seem too different from one another. I can flip between the broadcast networks and have difficulty identifying a particular reporter with a specific network. The other two nightly anchors, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson, remind me more of Ken dolls with their suits, perfectly lacquered hair, and flawless makeup. The times when I see them out of “formal” wear, it seems contrived, with sleeves rolled just messy enough to look casual. I don’t know these people, and their reporting leaves me cold.

Going back to the NY steam explosion, my initial response was, “I know this person. I hope she’s ok.” After that initial gut check, then I got to see her street-level view of what was happening. It was real and immediate. No gloss and a little shaking of the video made it that much more real. That’s what I find missing in “traditional” news, whether it’s in a newspaper or on the TV.

Perfection is boring. I’d rather see actual reporters looking like they chased a story than looking perfectly groomed as they stare into a camera. When I read the news, I’d actually like to read a story and not some dry dissection of “just the fact.” Journalism has lost its edge, leaving the door open to citizen journalists. Via Riehl World View, I found a great description of this very thing with the NY story as the backdrop:

It’s now being termed a “steam pipe” explosion. But what caught my eye via Drudge was this picture. Everyone is taking video, or snapping photos with their cell phones.

I imagine they easily outnumber the journalists doing the same.

For so long, the only conduit for information was an intermediary like a newspaper or a network. The Internet, with applications like YouTube and Facebook, has dumped this reality on its head. It’s been said before, but I no longer have to wait for 5 p.m. to roll around for my news. All day long, I have access to information and news that matters to me, customized to fit my lifestyle and schedule. Frankly, I don’t know how “traditional” media will compete without a change in attitude.

I do have a special affection for newspapers, dirty fingers and all, from my time spent writing on school papers in high school and college. Some of the best stories ever told were in newspapers. I don’t want them to die, but they need to do something that might seem a little crazy in today’s news world—they need to tell a good story. A good story will stop me every time. Rachel told a good story the other day. CNN didn’t even come close.

Comments?

18
Jul
07

A Whole(some) Apology?

A follow-up to yesterday’s post…Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has issued an apology for his Rahodeb antics.

“I sincerely apologize to all Whole Foods Market stakeholders for my error in judgment in anonymously participating on online financial message boards. I am very sorry and I ask our stakeholders to please forgive me.”

His apology may not be enough to save his job, and I have my doubt about whether it saves his individual integrity.

Throughout history, we’ve seen repeated examples of individuals whose not so great behavior becomes public. Then, on the proverbial bended knee, these same individuals come begging for our “forgiveness.” Politicians are famous for such campaigns. However, what’s left after the campaign is complete?

Politicians may enjoy our “forgiveness” at the ballot box. Movie stars prone to public rants about whatever “ism” bothers them may still pack them in on opening night if they’ve undergone the requisite sensitivity training. And CEOs may keep their jobs—for now—with a public apology after taking anonymous jabs at competitors.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but with every peccadillo, every rant, every underhanded maneuver, I lose more respect for those individuals. Those events stick out a hundred times longer than the positives, especially if it seems so contrary to the original vision I held of an individual. In many instances, they never get my respect back. And realistically, they don’t really want my forgiveness or my respect. They want my vote, my money, or something else that contributes to their success.

Any potential good said individuals may accomplish will always exist under a shadow of previous behavior. For businessmen like John Mackey, sometimes the only thing you have that separates you from everyone else is your credibility. With this incident, his credibility is damaged, and a brief, two-sentence apology doesn’t really change things.

People may remember John Mackey as the dynamic co-founder of a company that changed how the retailing world viewed organic food. I suspect, as many, if not more will also remember his starring role as Rahodeb. Unfortunately for Mr. Mackey, he should have passed on the role and let someone else be the anonymous hack.

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