Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Social networks might actually be semi-anti-social

It struck me the other day, watching several phone potatoes doing their "social" thing, that while people are communicating more than ever – on phones and through (ahem) “social” networks and email and text messaging – that they (we!) might actually be more isolated than ever.

You know... Head down over the keyboard, smirking about that zombie bite you just got, or crunched up to our phone screen, hanging on to every word of that really useful twitter from Sally, about how she "likes the hot pepper dip" she's eating while she sits there alone twittering (sounds weird - doesn't it? Sally, sitting alone, "twittering"). Yeah - seems pretty isolating...

What I’m not sure of is whether we are using time which we would be alone anyway to now communicate with others, or are we taking time which we otherwise might have spent with others, physically, to now be alone? Have we just harmlessly, and maybe beneficially, moved the communicating part into bits, bytes and broadband? or have we lost something?

So the “networking” part of “social networking” isn’t arguable, but is it really “social”? I know that It’s more interesting for me when I am in the physical presence of people with whom I want to socialize, but I just don’t have that much time to socialize in the same physical location with others as much as I’d like.

So maybe that’s the key to “social networking” – maybe it makes up for our modern compression of time, to allow us to continue to communicate with others without the normal requirement to plan it and physically travel to a common location. Maybe it’s just like video conferencing at work, which, in theory, saves a trip. The experience is not as satisfying and not as productive, but it’s good enough. So “social networking” is really more like “virtual socializing” ? That puts a negative spin on “Socializing”, rather than a positive spin on “Networking”... but who wants to admit that our lives are just so full of interesting things that we’ve had to downgrade our social experience... Yuck – that sounds really negative – where actually, it’s only negative if technically-based social networking has replaced physical socializing.
It’s actually a positive change if we haven’t reduced real socializing but rather use online social networks and our mobile phones as an add-on to getting together with friends... yeah... I love virtually-social-electronic-communication... really, I do.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Planning Trips Together

Planning trips can be fun...(Ha!) ...vacation trips, not business trips. But no matter what type of trip I'm planning, there's almost always a need to share the itinerary, if not the planning process itself, with other people.
So, of course I see an opportunity to use a Google spreadsheet here (yes - I know Google Calendar is the more natural choice...). I was inspired by another spreadsheet I found online - where Disney trips specifically were being planned - to create a generic template that anyone could use to plan a trip. Knowing how hard that was (the Disney trip), I could relate to the value of having a 1-page view of the whole trip - particularly the meal reservations (don't get me started on that topic).

The main feature of the template is the automatic creation of the "Agenda View", which is a shortened version of the schedule (yes - I know Google Calendar has the best Agenda view)... so as you fill in the Trip Planner matrix on the front page, the Agenda View is populated with that data. You could even share a link to the published version of that simpler Agenda View with people - and as you update your plans on the main page, they'll always see the most recent version (as long as you use the "automatically re-publish" option on the "publish" tab).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Definition: Phone Potato

I mentioned this in a prior post, and got a couple of sideways looks... so.. here's the definition of a Phone Potato (aka "mobile 'tater", derived from the english "couch potato, which is also taken from the latin root "potato" which means "useless until cooked and eaten").

You’ve seen them. They are always “on the phone” – not always talking, but always on... in one of two positions...
Position 1: phone pressed to head - lips blabbing.
Position 2: phone clutched in hands - fingers flailing.
They’re totally connected to anyone they know for... well, whatever...
They never look up at you, even if they decide to talk to you.

These people are in their own state of aloneness, interacting with a device which may or may not include others on the far end (It’s not just for phone calls anymore). They can not bear to be without their phone and they are always actively using it, regardless of what else might be happening at the time. They’re doing it while they walk, while they drive, while they eat, while they hang out with their family. There’s no place they won’t answer the phone – car, restaurant, doctor’s office waiting room, even the potty is in-bounds (regardless of whether their counterpart on the other end cares to hear toilets flushing and, whatever else - they probably even shamelessly say “one sec” while they absolutely need both hands for... you know...). These are the people who would probably halt sex to read that text message.

How do they keep their phone charged? Talking is just one thing – texting is the other... doing everything from finding out what street corner their friends are hanging out on (which is sort of useless, since they have no intention of actually moving their body to that location when they are perfectly happy texting), to checking out the latest buzz on celebrity-gossip or, more likely, school-gossip.. AHA! School...yes... these are often kids... The mobile marketers must have an official age range they target – probably 13-18. They’re a huge crop of potatoes, but they’re not the only ones... the ultra-mobile (ultra-young) professional might be the next largest crop. Always on, always working. They equate being on the phone with working, or, when they are physically at work, they’re multi-tasking across their social and professional existences, which are likely so overlapped, that they are virtually one thing.

Quick - Here come a few now! Get me a pot of boiling water and some sour cream - I'm hungry...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Phones ARE more like TV, but not because of new content

It’s not just the addition of content from television which makes mobile phones and PCs the new TVs. There’s a deeper analogy which struck me (and, yes, which I thought I should share... hey, if you don’t like it, change the channel ;)

The historical adoption of TV into the majority of homes seems to have an interesting parallel to what we’re seeing now with technology products – that is, in theory it connected people, but in reality, while it connected some people in a shallow sort of way, it isolated many others deeply. As TV became mainstream – starting in the 1960’s (?) – people probably used the physical presence of others (in the same room watching the same TV) as a way to justify the sedentary act of watching actors be active rather than being active themselves... “It gives the family a chance to be together”. Right. Sure. Family interaction was the benefit of TV. Each family member in the same room doing the same thing, looking in the same direction, laughing at the same time, acknowledging each other’s presence during commercials (thank goodness for ads!), but otherwise, cognitively alone. I don’t doubt that this is actually true (the good parts) for many families who watch the once-or-twice weekly “24” or “Idol” together as a family. I’m more thinking about the every-nightly spud family.

Becoming a “couch potato” was probably an un-recognized issue for a decade, particularly since remote controls didn’t exist (yes – you had to actually get off your butt to change the channel... but there were less than 13 in the US, so the 10 feet you had to walk for each channel change could not happen often enough to be considered exercise, sorry). The couch potatoes germinated there on the couch whether in the presence of others or not (afterall, potatoes are grown in crops of many, not alone), whether they were trying to do other ativities or not. Once people started eating dinner in front of the TV, it was all over...

Which, finally, brings me to the analogy... The Phone Potato. The person who just can’t stop using their phone. For example, during dinner... They’re not just making that “are the kids ok with the babysitter” call... no, they’re just chatting, or texting... You’ve seen them – maybe even in the mirror (yes, you). And the same is true of the Laptop Potato (who, me?).

I am not being critical of the communication aspects of TV or the mobile phone or the web... the speed at which (valuable) information travels across all technology medium is amazing and absolutely beneficial. The part I’m being critical of is the replacement of otherwise social, creative, innovative, physically active and interactive activities between people (or alone) with the anti-thinking behaviors often observed in the Couch Potato, Phone Potato or Laptop Potato (uh oh... I think that last one might be me!). It's is a sad change which just needs to be, well, recognized, before it consumes too much of our lives without adding value or happiness.

The sad part is that I almost always observe the phone potato behaviors in teenagers – probably parallel to the observations in the 60’s, when young people at that time learned couch potato germination and farming as an innate human activity, which it is not - but through young people, it is being sewn into the fabric of modern human existence (i know, too deep).

"I'm the slime oozing out from your TV set"
- Frank Zappa

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Competing with software today vs. yesterday

It used to be very hard (more investment) to crush (win) a given business area with a killer software product - corporate or consumer. It was harder to actually code (program) quality, easy-to-use software (I think) – which meant it would take longer to produce, which meant you better get it right. “Getting it right” meant spending more time on requirements gathering, more time on testing and therefore, (in our infinite developer wisdom) less time on usability – after all, there was no time for those “nice-to-haves” and no recognition of its value in comparison to getting the business rules right. All of this, by definition, meant that the software took longer to deliver, which, in turn meant that it was more common for users to outgrow the software by the time it was delivered - particularly in the corporate environment.

Users often never got any value (ROI) from software which took 1-2 (or more!) years to deliver. But, even in that environment, (which I think I describe as more grave than it was) sometimes you could get it right and win – and then, as a software vendor at least, you could win big since it was so hard for others to compete (for the same reasons it was hard for you to win).

Gaining market share was even harder. From the customer’s perspective, in the face of their large investment in a software product (nothing was free back then and just the installation cost was something never to take lightly), they had a much stronger “follower comfort” motivation – perceiving it to be safer to go with the leader (“you can’t be fired for using IBM”). That meant you needed customers to get customers. A key reference customer was necessary and critical mass was, well, critical to succeed. In Financial Services, if you did succeed as a software vendor, you were bought by Sungard – they knew how hard it was to win, so they let other companies do it and then just bought them (all... so many, in fact, they have to present them in an alphabetic index ;).

Today, it costs less to enter a given market with an idea and then to fix it, expand it, scale it – or even abandon it. Less up-front time on requirements gathering (because you can credibly limit v1), which means getting software into the hands of users earlier, which provides better usability feedback, which produces better software. There are even basic automated services - APIs - , like transaction processing, storage, etc, which are a snap to integrate.

Overall, the time to produce something valuable is shorter and it's more iterative, delivering value in stages. Programming is easier. And deployment... OH! Deplyment! Those barriers are lifted almost completely – at least for web services (SaaS) – allowing developers to get software into the hands of end-users immediately, without even an approval or onerous legal process (if both sides willingly participate).

All this means there are more competitors. Big companies need to compete with small companies (who, by the way, might be able to alter pricing due to their lower R&D legacy). Old companies compete with new. Customers probably have lower switching costs too, due to their ongoing demand for ‘switchable service’ as part of the service they choose (ironic, isn’t it – that to win a customer’s business today, you hove to prove to them that they can easily stop using your service).

Competing today is actually, well, fun! Got an idea? Try it! Get it out there!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Office 2.0: what it looks like

These were some notes I made before the conference when thinking about "What is Office 2.0?". I didn't bother trying to mention most of this stuff on my panel, as it seemed over-covered, but thought it was worth putting some of these here for...well... just to put it somewhere (and for dispute or expansion, if you are in the mood). I also didn't focus on the technical characteristics of the tools, but rather some higher-level perceptions of the business environment (not really knowing whether that is useful)...

  • Mobile and Remote
  • Flexible (full-timers, specialized part-timers and contractors)
  • More productive and happier (when working)?
  • [negative point] Too connected - difficult to draw the line between work and home life

  • (ignore the buzzword 'knowledge worker' if you're like me, but still fun to check out acidlabs' view which seems relevant here)
  • Collaborative (available, easy and practical via the technology)
  • Easily procured, standard business services (yes, SaaS)….
  • Self-customized services (yes, a mix of standard and customized)
  • More integration between automated tools to support custom workflows (e.g. human interaction supported through integration with communication tools like sms and email)
  • Collaboration supported as an expected feature (as prevalent as copy/paste is today)
  • Lots of standard services used underneath business-specific apps (e.g. S3, Checkout, etc.)
  • Practical do-it-yourself customizations (via options and integrations, not programming)
  • Less package software installations locally
  • Less custom developed corporate software
Competitive Environment:
  • More competitors
  • Faster pace of innovation
  • Many smaller niche businesses quickly meeting specific vertical needs
  • [negative point] Too many choices for businesses, if that's possible, in the shorter term (until real winners rise to the top)
...maybe all too obvious to justify a blog post... oh well - too late.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tough memories of September 11th, 2001

Six years ago last night was a great night. A normal night. I started my commute home at a reasonable time, and sat on the 40-minute train ride with a friend I haven’t seen in a while – Mike Gogliormella. He was energetic that night as he explained to me that 50 of his close associates at eSpeed were laid off that day – meaning he wouldn’t see them tomorrow… but he still had his job. So he was clearly having mixed feelings – happy to still have his job, but sad that others did not. I remember he had a really short hair cut that night and was wearing a baseball cap. He told me about the haircut he got while on vacation with his wife, Daniela (another good friend) and newly adopted daughter, Gillian. He just lit up when he spoke about his daughter and his family. She was only about 6 months old, and given that my first son was just 11 months old at that time, I could totally relate to the joy and amazement he was feeling then and about to experience in the coming months.

That was the night of September 10th. I went home that night and told my wife “Guess who I rode the train with – Mike G.!” and answered all the obligatory questions about how he was doing, the baby, etc. Mike also went home and probably said “Guess who I rode the train with – JR”, and answered the same questions from his wife.

The next morning seemed like the start of any other day...
(this post is long... click here to see the whole story)
Another day where I would try to figure out how to get my new business off the ground, having left a big corporate job to start ITK Solutions only 3 months prior. My partner was traveling in London and I was alone in our new office on the 23rd floor of One Liberty Plaza which faced the South Tower of the World Trade Center directly across Church Street. It was a great office and we worked hard to find it and negotiate it. I did lots of legwork to find all the possible locations for full-service office space, and then went and looked at about 12 locations. I narrowed the search down to 2 choices for my partner to see when she came back from London (she was relocating once I got the business up and running). In May of 2001, while she was in town, we looked at One Liberty Plaza, which we both loved, and then took a walk across the street to see our other choice: a renovation in progress, on the 93rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Margaret Echterman, a very friendly and persuasive sales person from the management company which ran the office space met us in the lobby and rode the long elevator ride with us to give us the grand tour. It was, ironically, filled with lots of dust and studs and debris, but even then, you could see that this office was going to be spectacular. We stood for a while in what would likely be our office, looking down almost 1000 feet. There was nothing like it. In the lobby after the tour, Margaret told us the office would be ready by June 1, and offered us a 50% discount off the published leasing rates. Wow. I was sure that with that deal, this would be our space… so, we took that deal back to Claudia – the similar office manager / sales person at One Liberty Plaza and told her “if you can meet that deal, we’ll take your office, otherwise, we have to go across the street”.
Claudia met Margaret’s deal. So we graciously declined Margaret and moved into One Liberty Plaza. I walked away really liking Margaret, a bit jealous that I wouldn’t be occupying that incredible office space on the 93rd floor of the south tower.

I remember the morning of September 11, 2001, was a perfect, slightly breezy, sunny sky. In my office before 8:00 am, I was temporarily confused by the morning sun beaming into my west-facing window (I think the sun rises in the east, right?). I had to look out and up to realize that it was the reflection of the sun off the east side of the South Tower. In hindsight, that was the only morning I ever noticed that happening.

I stepped out of my office a bit before 9am. Standing at the sink in the mens room, I began to hear an announcement over the building’s speaker system and began to walk toward my office. “We are investigating the problem. Please stay away from the west side of the building. Please move to the east side of the building.”

Naturally, I ignored the announcement. As I walked down the hallway, past the other offices of other small companies, I could see the air outside their windows was filled with paper flying everywhere – a sight normally seen only during a parade for one of our winning sports teams (ticker tape parades, after all, originated down here on wall street). But there was no such parade. I entered my office and saw even more debris flying outside my window. Being so close to the World Trade Center towers, I had to push my face against the glass and look up to see what was wrong – there was a pattern of holes, and clearly the burnt result of fire, on the east side of the North Tower. Given the size of the holes I could see, I remember thinking that a small plane or helicopter must have crashed into the building. I also remember immediately thinking about my friend Mike G., knowing that eSpeed occupied the upper floors of one of those towers. Trying to rationalize this event, my mind was racing. I thought that maybe one of the people who got laid off from eSpeed decided to crash his small plane into the building in a desperate act of revenge.

I walked to the shared area of the office, where there was a TV with live coverage of what we all believed to be a horrible accident. It was much worse than what I was seeing on my side of the building. Several of us who arrive early, but have never spoken were watching the TV with amazement as this event unfolded directly across the street. I remember saying out loud to nobody in particular “people are dying right across the street”.

I walked back to my office and my phone rang. A business acquaintance from London “What’s going on there? Are you ok?”. “I can’t really talk now” was my response and hung up quickly. I called my wife to tell her to turn on the TV and also to tell her that I would likely just leave the city now to avoid all the inevitable craziness later (I had no idea). I looked awkwardly up out the window again just for a minute and grabbed just my phone and headed back into the lobby. I walked past the office of my friend Evan, who occupied an office on the south side of the building, and we anxiously chatted about what could have caused this explosion across the street… in the background, out the window, paper and debris was still falling. “Maybe it was a small plane, or someone shot a missile?”, I think he said... all speculation in our state of complete anxiety.

I went further up the hall to see the TV again – as it felt safer at this point than pressing my face against the glass in my office to see what was happening across the street about 50 stories above my 23rd story window. The smoke was increasing, the situation seemed worse. I walked back toward my office on the West side, ignoring the continuing building announcements “stay away from the west side of the building. Do not leave the building.”. I ignored those announcements too. I passed Evan’s office again and said “I’m just going to go home” and continued walking.

As I put my hand on the door knob of my office door, there was a huge explosion which rocked the building – and I ran. The explosion was so powerful and loud that I expected to see a fireball chasing me as I ran back down the hall. Then Evan screamed “It was a jumbo jet! It was an airline jet! I saw it! A huge passenger jet!” and he then ran with me – to the elevators. You could practically feel our hearts pounding – all the people in the elevator – but nobody talking. The debris on the ground was growing and swirling in the wind, and now there was much more falling from the sky from what we now know was the second plane. I used the east-facing exit doors, thinking that I would have less chance to get hit by anything falling from the sky if I put my building between me and the towers. So many small memory snippets in the next few minutes:
...dust gathered already in the revolving door... people waiting to exit, not sure if they should go out in the storm (just like when it’s pouring rain)... a man in a daze, thoughtfully picking up and analyzing what looked like a piece of a metal wall – maybe even a part of the cabin of the plane... several people hysterical crying… crowds gathered at the intersections on Broadway where there was a view between buildings of the burning towers… cops clearly confused about where to send people and sometimes staring up at the buildings themselves…

I hesitantly walked across Broadway to the subway station under Nassau street, thinking that the risk of being underground was less than the risk of being in the shadow of the burning towers.

Underground, things were eerily quiet. Most people had no idea what was happening above them, but some definitely did. I remember seeing two people I knew really well from my prior job at JP Morgan, and just ignoring their presence. I wasn’t really ready for the “how are you” conversation. There was an elderly woman strangely babbling about how we’re all going to die, and another woman uncontrollably crying and shaking creaming at her to shut up.

I got out at Penn Station, and everything seemed normal. There was no view of the towers. My train would not be leaving to take me home to New Jersey for another 40 minutes…. So I called my wife and she nervously just asked me to leave Penn Station, for fear that it was another target. I walked the streets for 30 minutes and then boarded my practically empty train – it was approx 10:00 I think.

On the mostly quiet ride home, some people were talking about the event and I could hardly listen – it made me sick to hear people talking about it. Then, as we exited the tunnel on the NJ side, someone looked back at Manhattan and said “Is there only 1 tower? Oh my god, there’s only one tower!”. I turned to the guy near me and we gave each other the same “they are crazy” look… I actually looked back a the burning towers in the distance (you could see them from quite some distance away) and said “It’s just the angle we’re seeing them from, the other tower is behind that one”. My mind would not let me see that one of the towers was already gone. Other people on the train who were able to get a connection talked about how planes were crashing into other places in Washington and elsewhere, and how there was a belief that many other jets were still in the air headed towards other targets.

When I arrived in Summit, my wife picked me up and I still didn’t feel safe. I hugged her tightly and cried uncontrollably. I also remember looking nervously up at the sky, irrationally expecting to see a jet descending on one of the local buildings. The sky was perfectly blue. My 11-month old baby was smiling in his car seat, happily naive to the events. The fear at this point was so high, that we decided to fill both cars with gas and stock up on bottled water – which we did. Then we went home and watched the news – for almost 24 hours straight. At one point, Channel 5 was broadcasting live phone calls from people who had “missing” loved ones – believed to potentially be alive at some area hospital or elsewhere, just lost in the all the hysteria… and my friend Daniela was suddenly speaking on TV, asking people to contact her if they knew where Mike was.

I later learned that Margaret Echterman was killed that day, sitting in her newly renovated office space on the 93rd floor of the South Tower. A good friend of the family, Ian Thompson, was also killed, as was Tom Farrelly, one of the nicest people I ever knew at JP Morgan, and John Cruz, a young man I worked with on the trading floor at JP Morgan who took a job with a bond trading firm in the World Trade Center.

I feel lucky to be here to tell this story.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Popularity caused by Popularity

Thinking about the competitive environment in web applications as part of the whole Office 2.0 conference pre-think, it seemed worth analyzing (a gross overstatement) what makes some new applications just zoom past the competition in terms of user popularity - and therefore, success (from a usage, not a revenue, perspective).

The examples already seen are obvious, including auction markets (eBay), Video (YouTube), demographically-focused social networking (MySpace, LinkedIn, FaceBook) and plenty of others. Popularity seems to bring popularity. Once a winner is chosen in a certain cross-section of function and demographic (or business vertical), it becomes a peer magnet. The obvious reason this occurs is:
  • Critical Mass. It often adds value to have more people involved in a service – for example with bidding services, you want 200 potential bids, not 2... or with social networks, there's not much sense to using one which your friends won't use.
But there are 3 other reasons people (or their companies) select particular apps, which might apply more to non-social business-focused apps or at least apps which do not rely on critical mass:
  • Trust. People perceive something that other people already use as more trustworthy and safer. "If Avis and Budget already use Salesforce.com for CRM, than I'm probably ok selecting it for my business".
  • Laziness. Given the time commitment of a proper analysis to chose a service, people are willing to save time by going with what peers are already using.
  • Promotion and Buzz. The more people use a service the more other people hear about it and the more likely they are to at least try it (then it must rely on it's own value).

The speed at which people communicate in this new environment, fosters this phenomenon, since the above reasons given rely on knowing what applications or services others are using. Maybe this is why it seems that a winner in more recent years becomes a winner faster than in the past... or maybe it's just that time seems to be going by quicker...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Office 2.0: Death of the Application?

From the Office 2.0 conference, this session (named the same as this post) addresses a direct question, which is: Are web-based applications going to replace installed software applications? I'm no pro-blogger, so real-time posting during the event, and providing complete coverage was not my goal here (whew... good thing, since i saved much of this post in draft and now posting almost a day later). The main reason I wanted to blog about this topic was that I have some opinions in this area and at the beginning of the conference had this strong sense that 10 years from now, we will actually think back to traditional shrink-wrapped and vendor-customized installed apps and think "wow, remember that? That sucked." (in fact, I've already thought that). I'm also not going to try to provide a transcript of the session here - just some high level concepts which were discussed - so if I attribute things to specific speakers, it's not meant to be a quote... apologies to the speakers if I missed your point...

The panel, moderated by Greg Ruff, includes Mark Bagley, Danny Kolke, Greg Olsen, Ramana Rao, Rajen Sheth and Frank Zamani

So - Is the traditionally 'installed' app dead to be replaced by the web app?
I don't see a binary answer, as there was for vinyl records or rotary dial phones... but there is clearly a shift to web-based services and software, particularly for business applications. This is not a quick transition by any means, but the pain of installing packaged software and "running it" on your own infrastructure (servers or desktops) is just too painful and time consuming when compared to web-based software. Even the traditional "evaluation period" and eventual procurement through the contract process is painful - which seems to disappear with web-based trial and procurement (although it really just takes another form).

The panel had a few interesting points:
- Users might not care at all about the app (whether it's online or installed on their desktop) they just want to get their work done.
- Users are frustrated by the inefficiencies of installed apps, particularly the persistent issues of upgrading, lack of connection to other users, etc. and are therefore willing to take risks perceived in online apps which have very low barrier to start using.
- IT should be focused (in the enterprise) on making the users within the company more efficient.
- CIOs are challenged to understand and then measure the risks with new web-based apps that their internal users want (or demand). The current mentality includes comfort in internally-stored data and fear of data 'in the cloud'.

Questions from attendees:
Question: History had many cycles of 'lots of products early, then consolidation into larger successful players' - will this current cycle buck that trend?
Olsen: within organizations, there will be some drive toward consolidation, but there will be smaller players with persistent success and real value.
Rao: If you think of it as "Sites" - is it reasonable to think there will only be a few 'Sites' one day?
Ruff: past cycles were driven by the economics - efficiencies in the process. This cycle might not have the same inefficiencies to drive consolidation.
Kolke: There are still many companies keeping books on paper ledgers, and desktop productivity app adoption rates are down for the first time ever which might be indicative.

Question: How does 'coolness' relate to success - in other words (i think) as apps are less cool, will there be less activity in development and will they become less successful?
Bagley: might depend on integration between apps
Kolke: faster cycles have a huge impact on success, since user needs are more quickly satisfied (rather than using 2-years ago requirements by the time software is done).
Sheth: Relevance to users is the key - good software will be successful.
Olsen: Products which are successful (that is, they still sell) will live on (me: I like to call this 'success breeds success')
Zamani: Delivery by software providers also requires strong performance to meet the scale of use.
Rao: There is nothing cool now - that's over already. So the new cool is "usefulness".

Question: (fr Dan Farber) Microsoft can't yet feel the impact of the smaller players, so what makes you confident that your bubble won't burst? What makes you think that the reality is user-created apps, web-apps, etc delivered so differently than the status quo?
Kolke: Integration with existing apps make the Etelos platform relevant. There's more pull from users who need solutions now.
Olsen: We can see what people are building with our product - and if they are building useful stuff faster - and there is traction in spaces that are not well served.
Bagley: companies like EchoSign have a value proposition. Time to market is super fast now and deployment costs are virtually free.
Zamani: Yes, it's tough to compete with the largest companies, but there is an opportunity here to build market share while the big boys wake up.
Rao: asked the audience whether they really feel that the smaller companies are just spinning their wheels.
- - - - end of panel - - - -

me: Any shift in product innovation, including technology products/services, opens a door where the smaller players can innovate and roll the dice (i.e. spend money) on winning customers and becoming a successful, viable business. The prize they shoot for is some exit strategy (being bought by the slower, bigger players who just need that advantage of speed) or an actual continuously profitable business.

[Update: Some similar ideas on the Google Enterprise blog post...]

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bloggers do it better than me...

The blogosphere rocks. (hey, Firefox spell checker doesn't recognize 'blogosphere'!... and it asked me to capitalize 'Firefox' ;).

We launch some new features in spreadsheets, and the pro-bloggers provide some super-fast discovery, analysis, tie-ins to other news... and then there's the reader comments, usually adding more value... it's just so consistent.... so follow the above links rather than depend on me to provide the details...

Software as a Service: the objectification of business processes

Software as a service (SaaS) has clearly become one of those dreaded buzzwords which now gets a fair share of buzz in blogs, groups, forums and even in corporate IT circles (Ack! …and now in my blog!). Everyone is on the bandwagon it seems, whether through action or just rhetorical agreement (hard to tell in some cases). Many would just call it good design – the componentization of software down to smaller, expert, well-tested units, but it’s the new(ish) ease of delivery that has come along with web 2.0 which has made this otherwise old concept something to talk about again (with a new acronym, of course). There is, in my opinion, an overlap of 2 specific concepts in many discussions on SaaS - which I mentioned on a recent Panel and thought I should expand a bit here:

First, is the true delivery of software services – that is, things like Amazon’s S3 and EC2 services, which allow developers of business-aligned software to focus on the business and not on the commodities (like storage or CPU scaling). Online mapping services (like, uh… Google’s!) are examples of another huge class of services which help web-masters enhance the value of their sites or provide mash-up artists a (now almost cliché, but) cool way to visualize location data. When creating web content, there are literally hundreds of software services which you can leverage through the magic of http (in the simplest form). This category is not often referred to as SaaS, but sometimes it is mixed in.

Second, though, is the main category of more commonly discussed Business Services – the delivery of specific business processes as, well, true services. “Service as a Service” is what I called it when someone recently asked me about the trends in SaaS. It seemed they were in that gray (or is it grey?) area between software components as services and actual Business Services…

When discussed in the context of how businesses can easily acquire and implement basic business processes using 3rd party services offered online (payroll, contract management, expense reporting, printing services, ...and... Sales Process Mgmt, etc) it seems that business services are the target (business-Service-as-a-service). When the context is an actual software service itself, or the building of a web-based product or service which leverages other software web-delivered components, then it’s Software-components-as-a-service. In those latter cases, the service itself is the delivery of software. Back to that gray (or is it grey ?!) area inside of which things like e-mail, content management, even blogging tools and others might fall… but so what…. I’m not looking to resolve all things into 2 distinct categories here, just trying to help people talk on the same level when they are not in that grey (whatever) area. ;)

I know the term “Service-as-a-service” sounds like an idiotic reference to nothing, but my point is that business services can finally be delivered in a way which is easily acquirable by customers, as true services, with:
- clear, non-obtrusive contracts (the business kind… you know, ToS you feel no obligation to read ;)
- clear communication contracts (the implementation kind… “you give us A , we give you B”)
- pay as you go – with clear pricing
- strong support (imagine that)

Yes, web software makes that much more viable, but it is different than Software-components-as-a-Service. It’s the “objectification of business” – where all business services become clearly defined objects – with associated data and processes, and for which there are (hopefully) experts to service all of our individual businesses. It really is an extension of object-oriented design concepts (from programming) applied to business processes. Modular, simple to develop, easy to understand and maintain, and (probably the most important part when put in the business services context) pre-existing and proven.

The best example in my mind is Payroll services (avoiding the more obvious example used because of their early vision of online services). Who today is starting their own business or running a successful large business and doing payroll themselves? (except ADP themselves, of course). There was a progression somewhere in the history of business automation from do-it-yourself processing (manual payroll, in this example) to do-it-yourself programming (roll your own payroll software - yuck) to packaged software (buy vs. build) to Software as a Service… Aha! That’s why we call 'business services delivered online', 'Software as a Service'… because we didn’t jump from manual business services to web-delivered automation in one step – we went through a stage of business services being automated with packaged software. One day, will we look back and laugh?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

See you at the Office 2.0 Conference

Almost a year ago - it was October 10-11, 2006, actually - I participated in the Office 2.0 conference where we (Google) announced the combination of two of our collaborative content creation/editing products: Spreadsheets, which was in Labs at the time, and the Word Processing product formerly known as Writely. Google Docs & Spreadsheets won't even be 11 months old when this year's Office 2.0 conference is held.... which is really just a shocking (to me) reminder of how young this space is.

This year, I'm humbly participating on the opening panel called "What is Office 2.0 and the Future of Work"... Moderated by Om Malik, Founder, GigaOmniMedia and including the following panelists:
Steven Aldrich, VP Strategy & Innovation, Small Business, Intuit
Denis Browne, Vice President, Development, SAP
Danny Kolke, Chief Executive Officer, Etelos
Richard McAniff, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Office, Microsoft,
...and, uh...
Me, Product Manager, Google Docs & Spreadsheets (yes, mostly the spreadsheets side), Google

If you're in San Fran next week, check out the conference - or just keep tabs at the conference site... or follow Ismael Ghalimi, the creator of this conference, on his company blog. Last year's event turned out to be a place where I met some incredible people with whom I still stay in close contact... so I have high expectations for this year's event.