Microsoft and File Formats

Digital media: Will Microsoft win again?:

Microsoft hopes to use its Windows monopoly as a launching point for making its file formats the de facto standard for digital content, which is why the company gives away its authoring and serving tools with Windows 2000 server and its media playback software with Windows XP, Gartenberg said. Companies such as Apple and RealNetworks charge for some of these products.

“It’s the typical Microsoft strategy, where they use this almost as a Trojan horse to bring something into play,” Gartenberg said. “The more ubiquitous it can make its file formats, the more they think that will drive adoption rates. This is a critical, critical effort for them.”

Whoever controls the most popular file formats can harness them for selling server software. This is something Microsoft demonstrated with its Office productivity suite, in which the ubiquity of file formats is considered a major catalyst for driving Windows sales.

“Microsoft’s main goal with Windows Media services is to sell as many servers as possible,” said Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff. “That’s why it’s only possible to host and stream and create Windows Media Format files on Windows servers.”

More than anything, control on file formats (DOC, XLS and PPT) is the biggest entry barrier for desktop alternatives.

Email Search Utility

Information Management for the Desktop: “I’ve wondered from time to time, however, how I might use the database to centralize all the information on my system. For example, I have some useful information floating around in e-mail archives, never to be read again. I suppose I could learn the search/grep commands that would let me revisit old e-mails, but that doesn’t seem productive to me. Now, if the old e-mails with useful information could be transferred to my database, I think that would be nifty. ”

Using IMAP is one possible solution. Posting important messages on to a “mailblog” can be another idea — it allows for quick scanning of messages (more than can be seen in a mail client at once glance).

Emergic’s Three Phases

An update to how I see Emergic evolving in the coming months:

Phease 0 is what we are currently doing with the Messaging Server MailServ. This is a Linux-based product which has been deployed at 100+ corporates in India at 300+ locations.

Phase 1 of Emergic combines Thin Computing with the Digital Dashboard. The two taken together put in place the underlying IT infrastructure in enterprises: a computer on every desktop at a very low cost. The Digital Dashboard (comprising RSS Aggregation and Blogs) also provides a different user experience in terms of getting access to information in a faster, cheaper and better manner.

Phase 2 is building Content and Community to bring SMEs together online. This envisages an SME eZine and getting associations to pool the brainpower of their members in a Slashdot-like manner.

Phase 3 is creating the Visual Biz-ic framework and the Enterprise Software components. Visual Biz-ic is the foundation on which the Lego-like software can be built by software developers to provide an integrated eBusiness suite for SMEs. Events happening in the enterprise are published on the “information bus” in the enterprise and can be subscribed to by people and other applications. The goal is to enables SMEs to become RTEs (Real-Time Enterprises).

RSS, Blogs and Events

Have been doing some more thinking on the Digital Dashboard and how it needs to be put together. The thinking has also been motivated on how best we can integrate the work being done internally by three different teams as part of the BlogStreet, Digital Dashboard and Enterprise Software projects.

What the user sees is the Digital Dashboard. For now, it is just a page in a browser with three tabs (Mozilla allows tabbed browsing, instead of opening three separate copies of the same application). The three tabs are for:
– the RSS Aggregator
– the home page of my Blog (Reading)
– the New Entry window (Writing)

The RSS Aggregator needs to have the following features:
– add/edit/delete RSS feeds
– show the items (viewing): this can be done as an Outline
– support for multiple pages, so I can segragate feeds
– automatically set up filters to route specific feeds
– stored in a database
– filter by source, time
– show only new items
– search in the archives of the RSS feeds (which means storing old items)

The interesting feature here would be the “auto-route” filters. One way to look at RSS feeds is to look at what we want to do with email. Filters are an important part of mail management. In the RSS case, the auto-route filters should be able to do more than just posting to a blog or re-sending to email/SMS. We need a simple language to take certain actions on the items coming in. Sieve used in the Cyrus IMAP Mail Server could be a good starting point. But we may need more rules than what Sieve provides.

Today, people can subscribe directly to an RSS feed. This may need to change, especially in an organisation. I should be able to restrict who can subscribe to my feed. This becomes somewhat like IM – both sides have to accept to communicate. This will enable me to distribute feeds selectively. A person’s email address may work as authentication (just like many listservs do for subscription to email newsletters).

It may also be possible to build an “RSS market / exchange” where RSS feeds are aggregated together from different sources. A market approach also gives the option of charging for subscriptions. It also enables creation of feeds and their availablity for sources which don’t have the feeds available at this point of time.

An interesting feature in RSS would be to “overwrite” an existing item if unread. For example, a sports website could periodically send updates of the score. It the last item hasn’t been read by the user, then the new item should “in-place” update the old item, so that the user does not end up with a lot of items. This is somewhat similar to the ideas that Zaplet had when it had launched its product (it did the updates in place in email).

The next key component is the Blog. I should be able to do the following:
– post to multiple blogs
– each blog should have multiple categories
– blogs can be individual or comunity managed
– posting should require some authentication
– each blog should publish its own RSS feed, with the entries and the comments
– in an enterprise, do blogroll and link analysis to automatically identify clusters
– upload the blog to another location for hosting

This is the underlying infrastructure for putting in place the Digital Dashboard. The one platform which comes close with many of these features is Userland’s Radio which costs USD 40 a copy. In the open source world, there are many components, but what’s not happened so far is the seamless integration of the entire chain.

Once this infrastructure is in place and users begin with feeds coming in from various news sites and bloggers (within and outside the organisation), it will be time to “switch on” the next upgrade: the ability to route events from business applications through the same RSS-Blogs network. This combination becomes the foundation for the real-time enterprise.

The Digital Dashboard ideas are akin to today’s Corporate Portals. The problem with the latter is that they are expensive and mainly focused on the bigger organisations. What’s needed is a simpler, grassroots platform the the mass market of enterprises.

This is also the way for the Linux Desktop to make inroads into the enterprises. By just asking people to switch applications (Windows to Linux, Microsoft Office to StarOffice or OpenOffice), there’s going to a huge reluctance because people are used to the applications, the keyboard short-cuts, etc. What’s needed is a change in the way people interact with information and computers – which really is what they are supposed to be doing. It is the way Nvidia is switching the game from CPUs to GPUs. The Digital Dashboard needs to become the new Enterprise Operating System, the new Desktop for people.

The Lens

All of us acquire a “lens” through which we see the world. This is based on past experiences, our readings, our interactions with people and our thinking. Multiple external inputs come together to create the lens for us. This becomes a frame of reference, the “context” in which we see the world. Once the lens is in place, our thinking crosses a “tipping point” giving increasing returns for the time invested. What is also important is to expose ourselves to multiple inputs so that we can have a richer and diversified lens.

The usefulness of having this lens in place becomes evident as we work on building our views on the future and imagining what tomorrow will be like. The lens helps us see elements of the future (and the present) which we would otherwise have missed. It helps us relate developments in other areas to what we are doing. It also helps us apply principles and ideas from segments which may seem quite tangential back to what we are doing.

This is, according to me, one of the ways by which we can make ourselves think innovatively. Aggregating and assimilating readings and writings from different people and viewing them through our unique lens can lead to new and different ways of looking at existing challenges.

TECH TALK: Rethinking Enterprise Software: Whole Solution for USD 20 a month

Real-time Enterprises, Software Components, Visual Biz-ic, Digital Dashboard all may seem as good concepts. So also do a lot of items in showrooms on Fifth Avenue in New York. The question is: how much is it going to cost?

Heres my answer to what is needed to make this a mass market: hardware, software, training and support for no more than USD 20 per person per month. For this price, an employee working in a company should be a given a desktop computer, all the software needed, the training needed to use it and the support to ensure uninterrupted usage.

By bringing down the total cost of ownership to USD 20 per user per month (pupm), it now becomes possible to look at making computing available to everyone in a company earning more than USD 200 per month, with the assumption that the computer will make that employee at least 10% more productive and thus pay back for the investment.

In the SMEs (small and medium enterprises) today, penetration of computers is limited to a few. In India for example, there are no more than 4-5 million computers in enterprises (small, medium and large), with the number increasing by 1 million each year. This is because at price points of over USD 1,000 (for hardware and legal software), desktops are given to only the top managers and a limited number of people in each department. This is what needs to change, and this is why we need to we worry about computing when we are actually talking about enterprise software.

Software needs to be sold on a subscription basis few SMEs will be able to make large up-front investments for it as most enterprise software of today demands. It is, therefore, important to increase the installed base of computer users. SMEs in the emerging markets need a whole solution so even as focus on enterprise software, the problem cannot be looked at in isolation.
The challenge is to realise Bill Gates vision of a computer on every desktop (and in every home). But this will not happen at the current price points of hardware and software. What is needed is a dramatic reduction in the cost of the desktop computer the hardware and the software. The objective should be to bring down the cost of the desktop to USD 100-150 (Rs 5,000-7,500) and the cost of software to USD 5 (Rs 250) per person per month.

As we think of the possible solutions, it is useful to keep the following excerpt from a recent Business Week special report on Innovations:

One of the most important rules of successful innovation is to develop technologies for new markets where industry stalwarts have no status quo to protect — and no need to steal someone else’s customer to succeed. In management-speak, this is called “taking root in disruption.”

One example [Clay] Christensen points to is the rise of the personal computer. The original Apple II computer was targeted at kids — the only customers willing to play around with such a dorky machine. But as PCs improved, parents started paying attention. By listening to these new customers, Apple and rival PC makers were able ultimately to unseat the computing incumbents, who were still focused on mainframes and other large, professional computers.

According to Christensen, a company with a new technology has only a 6% chance of success if it tries to make a similar but better product than an incumbent and sell it to the same customers. By contrast, he says, the chances of success for a “disruptive strategy” are 33%.

Equally important is the principle that new technologies should disrupt competitors, not customers. Too often, new technologies try to make customers change the way they do things. Instead, Christensen says, innovation should help customers do things they already do more easily, conveniently, and for less money.

So, what are our disruptive strategies to bring down the cost of computers?

Tomorrow: Whole Solution (continued)