July 28, 2006

Would a Google PC succeed?

Richard Brandt asked me to look over his post on the oft-rumored possibility of a Google PC. I actually opined on this back in January, when the rumors were rife in connection with a supposed Wal-Mart sales/marketing agreement. I concluded that that would make a lot of sense for internet connectivity and student/homework uses (I didn’t consider work-at-home or gaming uses because that didn’t seem a good fit with Wal-Mart). The reasoning I came up with back then looks good in retrospect, with only minor tweaks (e.g., my new reason for not worrying about IE-only websites is the IE emulation capability in Firefox).

Richard, however, goes further, thinking that Google could succeed in PCs used mainly to run word processing, spreadsheets, etc.. His arguments include:

Read more

July 21, 2006

Google vs. Microsoft

Richard Brandt responded to my challenge by explaining in some detail why he thinks Microsoft will never catch up with Google. His argument basically boils down to a very well-reasoned “Why would they? The reasons why Microsoft succeeded in overtaking almost all other PC software vendors don’t apply in this case.” And clearly Google has enormous resources to throw at businesses like search, plus a corporate culture that seems from the outside to be a lot more productive than Microsoft’s these days.

But on the other hand – what exactly is Google’s sustainable advantage?

Read more

July 20, 2006

Richard Brandt doesn’t suck!

Richard Brandt is under fire for predicting Google will eclipse Microsoft. Now, I haven’t seen him make the argument convincingly, because I haven’t seen him rebut the claim “Microsoft can change its ways in sufficient time.” But then, the criticism I have seen is a lot more naive and mean-spirited than that, accusing him of bias. Read more

June 20, 2006

Why I feel qualified to pontificate about public policy

Maybe I should explain why I feel motivated and qualified to hold forth at such length about public policy issues such as net neutrality, free-world privacy, authoritarian censorship, economic development, and so on.

If you’re reading here, you’re probably familiar with my software industry credentials — top-ranked stock analyst, top-tier product analyst, sometime entrepreneur, etc. If not, there’s always my official bio. But I also have some non-trivial public policy and economics chops. I spent two years at the Kennedy School of Government after getting my Ph.D. Then, turning down an assistant professorship at the Kellogg School of Management as well as research jobs at RAND and IDA, I went to Wall Street — which is, if one chooses to make it such, one heck of a further education in economics. And then in the mid/late 90s, Linda and I actually got active in the internet services market, analyzing, consulting, etc. Indeed, we even (re)wrote a few speeches for Steve Case of AOL, including some Congressional testimony.

Bottom line: Yes, I actually have some idea what I’m talking about. 🙂

June 2, 2006

The US government wants web surfing to be 100% trackable

According to The Register (which on this matter I find credible), the US department of justice wants to be able to track all web surfing. The reason — possibly even sincere — is to fight kiddie porn.

But many other possible uses of that data come to mind. I say again:

We need to strengthen our legal defenses against government (and private sector) use of data. Opposing the collection of data is a worthy tactic, but will only delay the inevitable. The ultimate solution has to be one that works even assuming near-infinite data collection and integration.

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April 8, 2006

UI musings

In the past, I wrote vigorously and often about UI. I knocked heads long ago about the superiority of GUIs to character-based interfaces, and even long before that about the advantages of OLTP (which we called “real-time” then) over batch processing. In the latter 1990s, I put a lot of time and effort into search, better alerts-management, and context-sensitivity in general. And recently I’ve focused a lot of my research on analytics, often with a theme of “Yeah, yeah, the server-side stuff is cool — but let’s talk about how people actually interact with this stuff.”

Still, I feel something has been lacking, probably because there just are so many different UI subjects to talk about. So here are some quick-hit thoughts on UIs. The first ones are from my Computerworld column running next Monday, which is called (with apologies to Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King), Six Things I Think I Think About UIs.

1. “A good GUI interface” is the most important feature a product can have. In many cases, the GUI is the feature set, whether we’re talking about operational apps, BI, or IT administration tools. For example, when I looked into the security market a few years ago, it turned out that Checkpoint’s rise to dominate the firewall market in the late 1990s came about because it had a good GUI rules-administration interface, while otherwise equal or superior competitors didn’t.

2. Web UIs are now, finally, much superior to the client/server systems they replaced. That wasn’t true until recently. But now they’ve leapfrogged client/server a little bit in pure GUI functionality. (I somehow like this article on the technology, even though I’m not sure what I learned from it.) And they’re always been way ahead in application navigability.

3. BI look-and-feel is on the upswing. Business Objects is a good example of this. They brought their thin client products up to client/server GUI standards. They fiddled around in usability labs with screen real estate and so on to polish the dashboard UIs further. And then they went out and bought what is now Crystal Excelsius.

4. Portal technology is headed for a boom. I have a whole whitepaper in the works on that one.

5. Natural-language interfaces are advancing too slowly. Unfortunately, big vendors remain clueless about language-based UIs. Enterprise search is a fiasco. Most single-site web search is even worse; in almost every case, it’s inferior to just googling on search string + site name. As for natural language/voice command/control and navigation – we’re nowhere, Inquira and Sybase AnswersAnywhere notwithstanding. (I bet you can’t name a single user of either product off the top of your head. To tell the truth, I can’t either, except that I’m pretty sure Inquira powers the websites of a couple big-name cellular providers.)

6. Microsoft Office is a huge question mark. Office is facing a huge, if slow-moving, threat from open source. And the product has basically been stagnant for years, in that few users have cared much about any of the newer features.

Microsoft’s stated and obviously sincere strategy is to make Office an important window in the world of database applications. The Proclarity acquisition this week is surely part of that. So are the moves to make XML important in live documents, which dovetail nicely with the XML file formats of Office 2007.

EDIT: See also: You can start to imagine a world of Office as a business application platform,” Witts said.

7. In particular, Excel is a huge question mark. On the one hand, the BI industry is doing ever more to make Excel into a viable BI client. On the other hand, they’re trying to replace Excel as the data storage engine of choice — and in some cases even as the client — for budgeting/planning/etc. It does seem to me as if server-based planning is sweeping the enterprise world. So where does that leave Excel? Will it ultimately be anything more than a glorified calculator?

8. Home UIs are challenging work ones. Back when I consulted a lot to AOL in the late 1990s, I (correctly, it turns out) warned them that their client’s lack of functionality in areas such as email and browsing would get them into big trouble, because users’ expectations were being set higher at work. Now the reverse is at times true. Home bandwidth has caught up with work bandwidth, and webmail is in some ways better than Outlook. Meanwhile, a few websites out there are actually pretty usable, annoying clutter notwithstanding — and most of them are focused on consumer shopping, e.g. Amazon, Land’s End, et al.

9. Usability labs are crucial. Back in the 1990s, usability labs were new. Microsoft and Lotus and Borland had good ones, and Oracle hired Dan Rosenberg away from Borland to set up theirs. Other than that, there mainly were third-party consulting firms, or very primitive inhouse operations.

Well, I’m still not convinced that very many inhouse usability labs accomplish much. But I do know that whether it’s inhouse or third-party, you must use a lab if you’re serious about offering a competitive product.

10. Rules-based interfaces are too primitive. This isn’t really an interface issue so much as a functionality one — but as noted above, the two are inseparable. True declarative rules interfaces, which function with the same flexibility as 1980s-era expert system shells, are way too rare. Executing a set of rules in a set linear order is not the same thing at all.

March 22, 2006

Goodmail, Esther Dyson, Andrew Orlowski, etc.

Esther Dyson weighed in in the New York Times on Goodmail-like services. Andrew Orlowski of The Register responded with his usual clueless misogyny.

Orlowski doesn’t just gratuitously bash Esther; whenever possible, he goes after Ann Winblad too. One hilariously stupid instance is this one, in which he fabricated a marriage between Ann and her business partner John Hummer. Hmm, Mitchell Kertzman is there now too. My mind is reeling at the possible menage’-a-trois possibilities …

Esther’s opinion, which I first heard her express almost 20 years ago, is this: Senders should pay readers for the time they spend in looking at email. And you know what? She’s right. Advertisers in broadcast, web, and print media pay us for our attention, by subsidizing the content we consume. So do event sponsors. Almost everything you read or hear about the technology industry is subsidized in one way or another by somebody who would like to sell something. (E.g., if you’re reading this free blog, I may be interested in selling you consulting services.)

Now to Orlowski’s response. Most of it was the kind of ad hominem trash he loves to dish out, especially but not exclusively about smart women such as Esther Dyson and Ann Winblad. Besides that, the main substance I found was “Think of the poor people who can’t afford to pay to send email?!” Well, Andrew — who are they writing to? Whoever it is, those recipients do NOT have to charge them for sending mail, whether that recipient is their mother, their electric company, or you. If you want to open your mailbox to, say, everything that comes in from the poor country of Nigeria, there’s nothing stopping you. (And you can still apply spam filters if you like.) Personally, I find that I get email from the occasional Third-World businessman or professor, but no starving Guatemalan peasant has ever found the time or motivation to send me a personal letter.

So what would my fees be? Without thinking it over at great length, they might be something like this:

Free — friends, acquaintances, family, return mail from tech support, etc.
Free — some news mailing lists
$.01 — other commercial mailing lists, if I opted in
$.25 — unsoliticited email from commercial vendors I have relationships with
$.50 — everybody else

I imagine the cost to senders would be roughly double the prices quoted above, which is OK.

One beauty of this system is that it would immediately turn spam into a matter of pure financial theft. I.e., you wouldn’t be able to spam unless you got somebody else to pay the email delivery charges, presumably by hijacking their computer and/or identity. Most users would have safeguards in place that made them go through security hoops if they wanted to send true spammishly large volumes of mail. And just as online theft isn’t really that big a problem today, this new form of online theft would probably also be a much smaller problem than spam now is.

Implementation of course isn’t easy. The trickiest part would probably be assigning prices to different senders, then adjusting the prices for different senders, and having the senders be automatically notified of the price adjustments. There’s also an antifraud problem, of a sort; if people are paid to get junk mail, they might make efforts to get lots and lots and lots of it to pad their bank accounts. (Wouldn’t that be just a wonderful recreation for smart teenage boys?)

But the technical issues, while non-trivial, are all solvable (or at least controllable — this scheme would indeed add more complexity that could then annoyingly malfunction). So what about adoption? Here’s one scheme that might work — email service providers might compete on the basis of not only being free, but of actually rebating cash to their users. This gets around what could otherwise be a bottleneck, namely the reluctance of consumer service providers such as AOL to share revenue with their customers.

What about nefarious uses? E.g., the government of China is all too eager to control information coming into the country, and this could be another tool. Hmm. I don’t have a fast answer. But I have even less of an answer as to what good would be done is this regard by refraining from using the technology in the rest of the world. After all, they can adopt it themselves if they want.

OK. I’m on board. How do we make this happen?

January 4, 2006

The Google PC could be a winner

EDIT: News reports are now carrying vigorous denials of the rumor. Oh well.

The Register is highly skeptical of the rumored Google PC. Admittedly, it’s playing in the intersection of several areas with bad track records, including:

Even so, I think there’s a lot of potential for this idea.

To see why, please consider that there basically are four major uses for home PCs:

  1. Work-at-home
  2. Gaming
  3. Internet/communication
  4. Schoolwork

Presumably, people won’t look to get their work-at-home or gaming PCs at Wal-Mart. That leaves internet/communication and schoolwork. Well, Google is one heckuva heavyweight in internet/communication. If you want a machine to do web surfing, email, instant messaging, and so on, why exactly would Dell/HP/Microsoft be more attractive suppliers than Google?

And how does one do schoolwork on a PC? There’s a lot of internet use, some lightweight use of word processors and other personal productivity tools, and occasionally some use of specialized software (e.g., development tools if you’re learning programming, or various kinds of educational java applets in all sorts of disciplines). Any good machine for communication can meet all those needs perfectly well.

What about IE-only websites, you might ask? Well, the only reason those survive outside Redmond is either total idiocy on the part of webmasters, or a smug reliance on the fact that everybody has IE available at least as a backup browser. But the thing is — they don’t. Mac support for IE has been dropped, and there still are a bunch of Macs out there. IE-only sites, already on the decline, can be expected to dwindle away fast. This is no longer a serious barrier to non-Windows PCs.

Another change from the past is the role of ISPs. These days, there is no role for ISPs, at least in the US. Internet connectivity is being taken over by the telephone and cable TV companies. And they’re just as (in)capable of supporting non-Windows PCs as they are of supporting Windows connections.

Most likely, the Google PC will fizzle at first simply because neither Google nor Wal-Mart really knows how to market it. Besides, the idea of Google as a complete provider of Microsoft-alternative software is slightly futuristic. But if they take their lumps, come back with Version 2 quickly, and then follow Microsoft-like with a kickass Version 3, Google could make a serious dent in Microsoft’s market share.

So that’s the Google threat to Microsoft. Coming soon (I hope) — a post on the Microsoft threat to Google.

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