Economist report on the Telecom crisis

A report in the Economist provides a very good post-mortem on what happened over the past few years. The title says it all – “Too many debts; too few calls”.

The last paragraph is interesting:

The lesson of the past few years is that the industry is notoriously bad at gauging demand for its services. The two most successful new telecommunications technologies of the past decade – Internet access on fixed networks, and text messaging on mobile networks – were both unexpected breakthroughs that emerged in spite of, rather than because of, the industry’s best efforts. So, once the smoke has cleared and the dust settled, expect the telecoms revival to come riding on the back of an unexpected technology that nobody in the industry has yet heard of.

My bet on the “unexpected technology” is 802.11 – wireless LANs using unlicenced spectrum. For emerging markets like India, they can help consumers and businesses leapfrog the last-mile connectivity problems cost-effectively.

Knowledge Sharing

An interview with Robert Buckman of Buckman Labs in Singapore’s Business Times [via Mohan Narendran’s comment on John Robb’s blog]:

We found that over 90 per cent of the knowledge in the company was in the heads of our people and it was changing every minute of every day. It was not written down yet. Therefore, if we wanted to achieve success in the fast-changing environment that we found ourselves in, we had to learn how to move this knowledge across the organisation to where it was needed and when it was needed.

It is this movement of knowledge that creates the value. It is movement in response to a need. That knowledge that moves in response to a need of the organisation is the valuable knowledge that you should capture for future reference. It is now explicit and it is useful to put it into a knowledge base.

The focus, as Buckman puts it, should be Knowledge Sharing, not Knowledge Management. This is where blogs come in.

Successful Teams

Writes HBS Working Knowledge:

In “Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances”, J. Richard Hackman lays out five conditions necessary for successful teamwork: The team must be a real team, rather than a team in name only; it has compelling direction for its work; it has an enabling structure that facilitates teamwork; it operates within a supportive organizational context; and it has expert teamwork coaching.

Says Hackman about team composition in an interview:

Composing teams that are too large and too homogeneous in membership. My rule of thumb is that no work team should have membership in the double digits (and my preferred size is six), since our research has shown that the number of performance problems a team encounters increases exponentially as team size increases. Homogeneity of membership is a frequent problem because each of us works most easily and comfortably with people like ourselves. I would no doubt get along very well in a group whose other members also are middle-aged white male pipe-smoking professors. We might very much enjoy our time together. But our creativity would be higher if our group had a diverse mix of memberspeople who have real substantive differences in their views about how the work should be structured and executed. It is task-related conflict, not interpersonal harmony, that spurs team excellence.

Apple’s .Mac Internet Services

Apple’s .Mac seems a challenge to Microsoft’s .Net My Services. Writes Newsfactor: “Apple’s move into Internet services will cost users US$100 per year for 15 MB of IMAP/POP mail storage and 100 MB of Internet-based storage. The storage will be built into the Mac’s OS X Finder and located on Apple’s iDisk Internet servers. In addition, subscribers will have access to a Web site creation tool, antiviral software and back-up software. ”

The article also focuses on the growing importance of calendars:

Its iCal software will let users share calendars with friends, coworkers and family.

[Steve] Jobs emphasized what he sees as the growing importance of being able to share calendar information quickly.

“Modern life fills multiple calendars,” Jobs said, and with iCal, users can see all the calendars that matter at once. “It publishes changes automatically.”

With a single button, users can post calendars automatically and drag in items from other calendars.

Comments Dave Rogers:

First, as a user, iCal hits it out of the park for me. I live in a nuclear family that fissioned, and scheduling is challenging, even though both parental nucleii use Handsprings. Palm Desktop is a very competent PIM, and I’ve used it since it was Claris 2.0. But having the ability to publish my calendar to the web, and have my ex subscribe to it, and vice versa, will make our lives much easier raising two kids who are sometimes themselves overscheduled.

What makes something like iCal such a winner is ubiquity. One can achieve ubiquity by adopting a standard that is, itself, widely adopted (I have no idea how widely adopted the iCal standard is(isn’t it “vCal?” a la “vCard”). Palm just adopted it, but I don’t think I can publish and subscribe.) Or, the solution has to be baked into the OS, as Apple has done.

From what I’ve read, iCal is a bread and butter calendar, with some useful integration with the Address Book. I suppose one can create some work-around solutions for doing more advanced sheduling things, like tracking room resources and the like by creating calendars for rooms or contacts for resources, but I think there’s still some opportunity for more sophisticated calendaring and scheduling applications to find a market. What would be nice is if they could build off of iCal’s publish and subscribe functionality. Llamasoft’s Life Balance, which I’ve used on the Newton and my Handspring, is a kind of intelligent “to-do” manager. It now has a MacOS X desktop application that might benefit from integration with iCal, iSync and the Address Book.

If iCal is proprietary, but available as an API for other developers to build on in OS X, I think it’s a win for developers and consumers. If it’s not, I think it’s still a win for consumers because nobody was addressing this issue.

Also see the rest of the discussion on Apple as Platform Vendor.

These are services we need to build as part of the Digital Dashboard.

Digital Identity Standards

The Economist writes about the background (and importance) of the release of the Liberty Alliance’s release of specifications to manage digital identities:

Knowing who a user is has traditionally been left to individual websites or software applications. Consumers and company employees tend to have many different identities in the form of passwords and user names. But multiple identities are becoming a serious drawback for e-commerce. Consumers forget their passwords and spend their money offline. Firms fail to purge former employees from their directories, giving them the opportunity to wreak digital havoc.

One basic way to unify digital identities is known as single sign-on. These services let a use – whether a consumer or a company employee or supplier – move seamlessly from one website to the next without having to retype a password. The holy grail, however, is technology that allows businesses to manage identities – and thus risk -in exactly the same way as they do offline, says Jamie Lewis, chief executive of the Burton Group, a consultancy.

Liberty Alliance’s competition comes from Microsoft’s Passport.

Esther Dyson wrote about Digital Identity Management in a recent issue of Release 1.0. An excerpt from the introduction:

Historically, identity management technologies have attached themselves to individual applications or resources. But when computers are linked together, the notion of users with individual privileges and profiles becomes important. Virtually every application in the future will make use of identity information in context for security, for billing, for recognizing friends and customers, for political and social interaction. That said, while its relatively easy to know who someone is by name, its much harder to assess their track record and the predictability of their behavior that is, their trustworthiness.

Contextual identity will transform our virtual, abstract world of content and systems the one we have been building online for a generation now into a concrete, tangible world full of recognized and recognizable people. As this transformation happens, the online world of virtual local villages will develop into one where anyone can travel widely and yet remain as at-home and as visible as in his own neighborhood. Privacy issues are likely to be easier to resolve as users can easily understand, define and control what happens to their data.

FT vs WSJ

The Economist writes on the battle between the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, in a face of a downturn in the ad market.

I read both daily (and in fact, the International Herald Tribune). From a readers’ point of view, to get a global perspective, I think all the three papers are a must. From a technology coverage point of view, I still feel there is nothing to beat the FT’s IT supplements. I like the WSJ’s website a lot more: it is the first website I visit in the morning.

Why read all these papers – they don’t come cheap. Reading diversely is a habit inculcated by my father when I was quite young. That has been a huge help for me all my life. I just have to know what’s happening around the world. When I was growing up, BBC World Service (on radio) was my constant companion. Now, its the Internet and the news sites, along with many of the international newspapers and magazines.

A lot of new ideas and thinking is influenced by what I read. It is very difficult to quantify the return on investment. The newspaper may cost a dollar, but the time we invest in reading it and thinking is much more. For me, they have been the key to developing a global mindset. In today’s world, we have to have an international outlook to have any chance of success. For me, newspapers like the FT, WSJ and IHT are what BBC World Service was 15 years ago (and in fact still is) – windows to the world.

Environment Enigma

On BBC Radio World News, in a span of 6 minutes, I heard 3 items related to the changes taking place in the environment:

– Drought in southern Italy. Rainfall has dropped by 25% in the past decade.
– 13 million people face starvation in southern Africa, with half of Zimbabwe’s population at risk.
– Glaciers in Alaska have been melting faster than previously thought, which means there is greater water supply in the world’s oceans. This can lead to flooding of coastal areas.

Add to this the below-normal rainfall in India for this time of the year. The world’s climate is changing and the environment is hurting. We still seem to be doing precious little.

An interesting point made by a friend recently was that India and China should not be building a lot of highways. If they do so, this will lead to more cars and trucks – by the millions. Instead, the investment should go for improving the railway system. That is much more environment-friendly.

TECH TALK: Tech’s 10X Tsunamis: The Past (Part 3)

Visual Basic (early 1990s)

More than the language, Visual Basic (VB) is about software components. It has made software development easier as easy as assembling Lego blocks together. It created a whole new generation of software programmers, and enabled the adoption by developers of the Microsoft platform. This relationship has endured, and remains one of the single most important factors for the enduring success of Microsoft and the Windows platform. A quote from SF Systems puts the importance of VB on context:

Just over 10 years ago, the process of building a simple Microsoft Windows-based application could have been described as unruly, complicated, and time-consuming. Building these rich graphical applications–a task we today take for granted–was anything but trivial before the introduction of Visual Basic 1.0 in May 1991. With Visual Basic, programmers could for the first time implement Windows applications in an intuitive, graphical environment by dragging controls onto a form. By enabling both professional and casual programmers to maximize their productivity, Visual Basic ushered in a renaissance of Windows-based application development.

The Internet and the Web (1994 onwards)

The combination of HTML, HTTP and Mosaic sparked off a million dreams. Even as email, web browsing and instant messaging became part of our lives, companies like Yahoo, Netscape, eBay and Amazon became the darlings of the stock market. “Dotcom” became a synonym first for all that was wondrous about the Internet, and later for all its excesses. The Internet bubble did burst and it was not unexpected. But on the way up and on the way down, it unleashed a whole slew of forces that we are still coming to terms with.

Two defining moments on the way up came when Cisco for a brief period in time became the most valuable company in the world, and AOL bought Time Warner. Today, the Nasdaq is down more than 70% from its peak. Yet, the importance of the Internet does not go away. If anything, we are only now beginning to realise its real impact.

Email and IM have multiplied by 10X the people we are interacting with (and in many cases, 10X more often). Thanks to the Web, we are processing 10X the information that we did a few years ago. The velocity of business is that much faster it may have been okay to get a fortnight old information about sales and inventory levels just a few years ago. Today, anything less than real-time seems unacceptable.

As David Weinberger writes in his book “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”, “For all the overheated, exaggerated, manic-depressive coverage of the Web, we’d have to conclude that the Web has not been hyped enough.” The Force is still with us and getting stronger.

Bandwidth Explosion (1996-2000)

Moore’s Law promised doubling of the capacity of the processing power of chips every 18 months. Gilder’s Law went one step better. It stated that bandwidth doubled every 9 months. Driven by cheap money, continuing innovations in fibre optics and rising demand, telecom companies worldwide put in place a massive supply of bandwidth in the last few years of the previous decade. Falling prices of ever-increasing communication pipes heralded the “death of distance”.

Telecom companies may now be paying a price for the excesses of that period, but the fact remains that the worldwide bandwidth explosion helped get tens of millions consumers on the Internet, and laid the foundation for eBusiness and the pervasive, real-time infrastructure that we are now seeing.

Next Week: The Present 10X Forces