Substituting stone ground corn meal for flour when dredging fish you are going to fry is great as it give it a even tastier crunch. Can you figure out why it may not go over well some people? Answer in the comments.[read this post in: ar de es fr it ja ko pt ru zh-CN ]
February 26, 2009
February 24, 2009
When people think about economics they usually just think in terms of money but economics is about understanding the flow of limited resources within systems in an effort to make those systems more efficient (or if you are cynical making those systems be more efficient for a specific group). Money is just a system we have used to quantify the worth of those resources to counteract the inefficiencies of bartering. Since money has the ability to be traded for almost any resource (including money itself) it holds a lot of power and has become the focus of most of economics.
However, in the Open Source community a majority of our transactions do not include money. At least not directly. In fact, a majority of our capital is payed in the measure of time and effort; both by the consumers and producers. Both are highly limited resources which in the Open Source world aren’t really given the thought they deserve.
First consumers often give the impression that they think producers have all the time and energy in the world but only a small portion of the community can be classified as producers, and even a smaller subset are full time producers. The only way to grow time and energy in an efficient way is to get more people to become producers. The power of Open Source is not that it is freely available but that anyone can become a producer. Providing that producers work together in some sense of a direction, Open Source growth should be exponential and eventually overtake proprietary development in terms of an efficient economic model and generation of capital. That is why the GPL and other reciprocal licenses are in the long term a better model as they prevent the “picking up and going home once the market expands” syndrome – though there are other forces that effectively prevent that for projects under other licenses. That is all another post though.
The other place where both time and effort are not given enough thought is in the use of the final product. In fact many projects fail to productize their efforts, choosing to leave that up to vendors. I cringe when I hear things like, Linux can do anything you want, you just have to configure XYZ. I don’t know anyone who truly wants something that can do everything. They want something that can do what they want without too much time and effort put into it. Every time we require our users to expend time and effort that is resources they are spending. If the cost is too high they will simply look elsewhere. Believe it or not, the worth of time and effort are readily quantifiable by looking how much people spend a year on unneeded conveniences. It is pretty high.
An example of time and energy wasted is logging into open services. Logins are inevitable but why in a world that prides itself on community are we beaten to the single signon party by the likes of MS Passport or Google checkout? Taking an example from Sound Juicer, the cd ripping app, I have a number of cds which I pick up at local venues because I heard something I liked when walking by. Sound Juicer gives you the option to upload track info to the MusicBrainz database. Unfortunately all this option does is bring me to a login/signup screen after I took the time to enter in all of the track data. Having to get yet another account for something I don’t really care about anymore because I already have the track info is just too much effort to spend so I end up just closing the browser window. Sound Juicer and MusicBrainz does get the consumer seal of approval for making it easy to grab track info when ripping my cds but they missed an opportunity to convert me into a producer which would bring even more value to their consumers. In fact the track grabbing functionality is so transparent – no configurations needed, no extra actions are required – that it is a quintessential example of how an app should be productized. Why adding to the DB isn’t more wiki like or federated with other open services, such as wikipedia, slashdot, lwn, distributions, etc. is somewhat of a mystery. It isn’t a mystery altogether though -
Time and effort on the producer side needs to grow and producers need to work closer together, building bridges instead of just looking to grow their own little island. The Open Source ecosystem, while priding itself on community has often neglected to build technology which works like a community. More cohesion between these islands allows them to grow and innovate on their own but still act as an integrated/efficient experience for the user, minimizing the time and effort it takes to use our software. By having an integrated experience all the way to the producer level we have more of a chance to convert consumers to producers thereby adding more time and effort capital to the entire ecosystem. Make it easier to both consume and produce in the Open Source ecosystem and traditional economics will take over to propel it to the mainstream as it has done in small subsets such as in the business server market.[read this post in: ar de es fr it ja ko pt ru zh-CN ]
February 17, 2009
After reading Jeremy’s blog on the book Don’t Make Me Think I started thinking. That’s part of my job – to think about a subset of problems that plague a subset of individuals so they don’t have to. I haven’t read the book yet but I plan to pick it up at some point. My conjecture is mostly in addressing the “boring makes people comfortable” part of Jeremy’s though I am in no way debating any of his conclusions. I’ve often argued that boring can be a good thing because “thing’s don’t become useful until they are no longer exciting”. Not being someone who views the world in black and white I have also argued the opposite (all be it pretty sarcastically). Both view points are valid as you really need to strike a balance between familiar and new in order to have a successful project. So as I was thinking about all of this I wanted to come up with some talking points for thinking about where that balance is.
What if everything was possible what would the world look like?
Here we define any possibility as being a world with no rules, no systems, no constraints. I know, it is pretty much a kōan because it “contains aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding”. If rules, systems and constraints are not possible in a world where everything is possible how can everything be possible? But if rules, systems and constraints do exist in this hypothetical world, don’t they work to restrict possibilities to a predictable path thereby deliberately making some things impossible?
Thankfully we do live in a world governed by rules we call natural laws, which actually brought about the possibility of life as we know it. Technology is pretty much built on top of these rules and constraints. We harness these systems of rules to obtain predictable results within some threshold of error. That is exactly what projects are, putting together rules in new combinations to obtain a desired result. We can choose to use the same rules people have found in the past to obtain the desired results or we can test new combinations in an attempt to find a more efficient path. Both have their advantages and disadvantages so the choice must be made per project based on cost/benefit and risk analysis.
Scoping Constraints as a Creative Catalyst
I keep coming back to this PBS special on a New Hampshire photo artist who’s life’s work consisted of black and white photos of body parts sticking out of still water. The pictures of a hand and forearm, breaking the surface of a pond with the mirror reflection almost an exact duplicate were both simple and breathtaking. I can’t quite remember the guy’s name but the essence of something he said I can’t forget. What he basically said was by restricting his medium he was able to challenge himself to be creative. Not any black and white photo of water and a hand would be art worthy – he had to really figure out what path would work within the rules he had set for himself. He may have never found it if his rule set was too complex because in the expanded set of possibilities that comes with a more complex rule set comes more combinations that just won’t work. (BTW If anyone knows who I am referring to, let me know. I feel bad referring to him but I can’t remember his name)
Mutation as a Cure to Stagnation
That is not to say your rule set can’t be large, just that having constraints helps move a project along and helps focus on the final goal by having ready to find answers to those little roadblocks that projects run into. Also if the constraints are shared among projects it means those projects can easily share ideas and complement each other. However too ridged constraints can lead to stagnation. Sure users may feel comfortable with them now but will they find the constraints limiting a year from now. Will something that uses new constraints or slightly tweaks the current constraints be perceived as so much better that the cost of a brief period of unease is worth the switch? Will a new batch of users be available with no preconceived notions of how an outcome should be accomplished?
Progress can be defined as “gradual betterment”. In the natural world that often happens via mutations. The ones that don’t work out die out pretty quickly but the ones that can survive and flourish stick around. Mutations are a risky venture but without them there is no progress. For projects, gradual mutation, or in Jeremy’s words, iteration is a must. This doesn’t mean that innovation has to move at a snails pace. In fact projects can often jump start the iteration process by iterating over other projects, even bringing in the ideas of multiple projects under one umbrella. The threat comes when the goal itself is innovation and not solving an actual need; where the rules and constraints of a project are defined and redefined at every step.
Where’s the Balance?
The glib answer is, where it would make a project the most successful. Each project needs to figure out where that point is for them. Stick to the well worn path and risk obsolescence or blaze your own path and risk uselessness. Most projects stick to somewhere in between where the rewards are much more balanced with the risk.[read this post in: ar de es fr it ja ko pt ru zh-CN ]
February 12, 2009
I don’t think it fits in the true definition of ironic because after finding out that Google bought a defunct paper mill I would have expected they would change it into a data center. What would have been ironic is if they had continued to make paper. No this is not ironic but it is highly symbolic – something which I am sure was not lost in the decision to buy the mill. When we look back in better days at the sudden economic downfall, we will be saddened by the upheaval and toll it took on many lives, but we will also be buoyed by the fact that with every great shift comes positive change. Hopefully we will be looking back from a world that wastes less and has more opportunities for all those living in it.[read this post in: ar de es fr it ja ko pt ru zh-CN ]
February 1, 2009
For awhile now the year of the Linux Desktop has been trumpeted – year after year after … Here I present a list of my own thoughts of what is needed for the Linux Desktop to succeed. Feel free to agree or disagree as some of my thoughts may be controversial and some of them may seem negative but you can’t be introspective if all you do is think about the things that we did right:
#1 Mobile is the only way forward – if you aren’t thinking of mobile with every decision you make you are designing for the past. Even desktops can go in power saving modes, sleep and hibernate.
#2 Instant off/on is becoming a reality and something that doesn’t have to be bolted on given that we have access to every layer of the OS. This is not enough by itself to be compelling over entrenched Desktop OS’s but combined with some other advantages and it becomes a killer feature.
#3 Super battery life – Get beyond the 5 hour mark of heavy use and you start to get a full day of passive use on one charge – you can watch 2 DVD’s, a student can take notes in all of their classes, etc.
#4 Single 3rd party application format – e.g. I write software for one class of mobile devices, it runs on all devices with the same security profiles. I don’t care about where the bits come from or how they are stored, just that a person can write something and submit it to multiple vendor’s app stores and have it just work.
#5 Forget about the general purpose desktop – ok don’t forget about it upstream but when making a product you are going to run into the “this doesn’t work like Windows” syndrome. Don’t even mention the Mac because they have been around for a long time and are just figuring out how to push their desktop – and that is through targeted devices like the iPhone and iPod. Even their desktop is geared towards media creation and viewing. The general purpose desktop is just too big a target and will always get compared to the current leader. Guess what, it won’t be the areas where it is better that will get talked about, it will be the areas that don’t quite measure up. In my opinion (brace for it because people will hate me for saying this), all of the Netbook makers putting out general purpose desktops do a disservice to the market by saturating it. Companies coming out with truly innovative products based off the Netbook/Linux combo will be drowned in a sea of Windows wanabe’s. See the next thought.
#6 Products need to be targeted – no one cares you can’t run a full word processor on your phone but they do care when you are selling them a “computer”. Why, because phones do a couple of things really well and every year they can add more computer like functionality without the expectation that it should run like a full computer. Netbooks come from the opposite direction – they are expected to run like full computers but fall short of that goal. Pick a target audience and make it work really well for them and they won’t care that it doesn’t do all the other stuff. In the long run your costs are lower because support is confined to specific functionality. Oh and whatever it does make sure it hooks up to the Internet in some meaningful way.
#7 Change the form factor – if it looks like a laptop, sort of quacks like a laptop, it will be expected to work like a laptop. See above for the issue with that. 20/20 hindsight being what it is I wish the gen 1 OLPC’s were designed like the gen 2 is (it looks like a book), because more than a computer, the XO was a learning device. That kind of got drowned out, first because the project was named One LAPTOP Per Child (catchy but totally forcing us into a box where the rest of the project was thinking outside of it) and secondly because people were asking things like “does it run Word?”. It really should have done a couple of things really well – surf the web, act as an eBook reader and facilitate communications. To be truthful there are a lot of great application written for the OLPC project but by not focusing on targeting the device nothing was highlighting the advantages (of which there were many). The discussion started to revolve around what it couldn’t do instead of what it could (we get back to the fact that phones don’t suffer this phenomenon).
#8 Shed the cheaper is better mantra because while inexpensive can be a selling point that is a different beast than cheap. Inexpensive implies getting more value than what you are paying for, cheap implies getting what you paid for. I hate to say it but the Linux Desktop is considered the cheap alternative. Why was the Linux Server able to avoid this trap? It really is all perception but as they say, perception is reality.
#9 Stop trying to compete in such a small market segment. All of the mobile developers need to work closer together to grow the market, solidify the technology, set meaningful standards and bring down prices while adding value.
#10 Differentiate yourself through the services you offer – if you are targeting a specific group of people there might be some overlap with competitors but the truth is there are so many target groups these devices can appeal to that as a whole the market will have a higher chance of flourishing. Having too many similar choices will just confuse people and they will end up going to what they are familiar with. By tying to services that are of interest to your target group you give them a reason to acquire your device over another and have a vehicle to keep them engaged (e.g. you have a potential continuous revenue stream as opposed to a oneoff)
Feel free to flame me but imagine this scenario – you are going on vacation and you don’t want to lug your work laptop with you. You know there is always going to be waiting involved so you buy a $300 Travel Companion Netbook. You just happen to be a member of Netflix and the box says it works with Netflix. You set it to download a couple of movies and since you also like to read on the plane so you buy a couple of e-books from Amazon. An alert notifies you that you have three hours until your flight but there is a delay so make that four. This is because you configured your Travel Companion to hook up to your travel service provider. You get into the checkin area of the airport and you don’t have to wait for an open kiosk because your Netbook can check you in and the barcode on your screen can be scanned for the ticket. You get on the plane and start watching one of the movies you downloaded but the flight attendant tells you to turn off your device for takeoff. You close the lid and instantly it turns off. As soon as the flight is in the air you flip it open and instantly you are watching the movie you had paused. You read some books on the device, catch some sleep and then wake up checking the flight status which get updated from the plane’s onboard server. You notice the flight is playing that movie you were dieing to see so you stream it from the plane’s server and watch it in full HD. Once landing you pull up a map of the current terminal and directions to the baggage claim. While you wait for your bags you start making reservations for dinner and notify the hotel that you are on your way. You are looking forward to well deserved rest and relaxation and take some pictures of yourself with a big grin, adding a nice “You wish you were here” banner on it. You then send it off to all of your co-workers who are picking up your slack back at the office.
If your Netbook could do half of what I described in the above scenario, no one would be asking, “but does it run Word?” And to think, travellers are only one target audience.[read this post in: ar de es fr it ja ko pt ru zh-CN ]