Alsop on the Next Big Thing

Stewart Alsop writes in Fortune:

I envision a future in which devices–phones, computers, PDAs or communicators, stereos, whatever–are freed from the physical boundaries of plugs. We already see the path toward ubiquitous wireless communications with some combination of Wi-Fi and the 3G networks being built by cellular operators.

Battery power remains the really tough challenge, but several companies are preparing prototypes of portable fuel cells for notebook computers. Those devices are small enough and cheap enough that it is possible to imagine getting eight to 12 hours a pop from disposable fuel cartridges that cost $4 to $5 each. Two such companies made presentations in early May at Wireless Ventures, a private-equity mobile-computing conference: Neah Power and PolyFuel. Another new company, A123Systems in Boston, is also starting to generate buzz for its low-cost battery technology. Several other firms have been making the rounds on Route 128 and Sand Hill Road looking for money to work on new ideas for portable power.

So there you have it: The Next Big Thing is the elimination of cords and cables, at least for portable devices. That will unleash a fury of innovation and expansion that will make even the most skeptical realize that Silicon Valley’s batteries are far from drained.

Amazing Amazon

Fortune writes about how times have changed for Amazon:

While most of American business is still sputtering, Amazon’s revenues, at $4 billion, are growing by more than 20% a year. Marketing, inventory, and warehouse operating costs, once so high they made old-fashioned retailers look efficient, are now so low that only Dell’s and very few others’ are better. Amazon’s operating profit margin, at 5% in the all-important fourth quarter, beat that of most retailers, and approached Wal-Mart’s 6%. And Amazon is generating so much cash–$135 million last year, rising to an estimated $300 million this year–that it just paid off 12% of its $2.3 billion debt. At a recent $30, Amazon’s share price is at a two-and-a-half-year high, making it one of the top stocks over the last five years, even taking into account its rise and fall during the bubble. It has outperformed Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and GE, to name a few.

“In the physical world it’s the old saw: location, location, location,” Bezos says. “The three most important things for us are technology, technology, technology.” Amazon spent big on software development, but now its platform requires little additional investment. Thanks largely to its conversions to the free Linux operating system, technology and content expenses are down 20% in the past two years. “There just aren’t other companies that let a consumer order two out of what are millions of products in a warehouse and then quickly and efficiently, at low cost, get those two things into a single box,” Bezos says.

A related story looks at Bezos’ management style:

Hire smart Even for menial jobs, Bezos banks on brains. His fear? Mediocrity multiplies: A students hire A students, C students hire C’s.

Depend on data Good information trumps good judgments. Junior employees learn that with the right numbers they can outshine senior execs.

Make employees owners Stock options may be out of favor but restricted stock is not.

Blunt the boss Allow employees to make decisions without asking permission.

Bet on tech Technology gets cheaper while everything else gets more expensive.

Think long term Bezos ignores the critics and keeps firing away at his initial idea.

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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Memex Objectives

Let us begin by outlining the objectives of what we want our Memex to do.

Gathering and Storing: Information and Insight comes to us through various sources email, print, web pages, CDs, webcams, sensors, conversations, and our own thinking. The Memex needs to be able to aggregate all of the information coming in, and store it in a manner where it is easily accessible. One issue to consider is that at times, it may not be enough to just store links to articles. For example, in sites like Wall Street Journal and New York Times, articles in the archives are charged extra after a month or so. So, it may make sense to store a copy of the full-text of these articles locally.

Annotating: As the information items are stored, we may want to annotate them with our comments. This is akin to what many bloggers are doing with links to articles that they like this helps give a context to why that piece of information is useful, even though it may not have an immediate relevance.

Indexing: Vannevar Bush talks about associative indexing connecting a set of related ideas together by association, rather than classes, much the way our memory works. Either way, an indexing system is important so one can find information faster.

Publishing: We may want to selectively publish the information that we have on the Intranet or the Web, once again similar to what bloggers are doing. By making information publish, we are contributing back the system that is, we are making the transition from an information consumer to an information producer. By itself, we may appear a cog in the wheel. In fact, we are more like ants building an anthill. Our local actions help create the global system. This is emergence at work.

Accessing: This is perhaps at the heart of all that we are doing. Most information is not something that can be processed and consumed right away. So, we are storing it with our annotations. The reason is that we want to access it at a later date. This process of information retrieval needs to ensure that we get the right information at the right time. Multiple devices may be available for access from desktops to PDAs to cellphones. It should also be possible to have layers of information for example, first, the search is performed within the constellation of documents that one has stored; next, the search is done on documents within two degrees (think of this as a friend of a friend approach); and finally, the search could be done on the global database that Google and other search engines have.

Recording Trails: One of the key elements of the Memex as Bus has described it is its ability to record the leaps that people make. This is the one weak area in the infrastructure of the Web as we know it (and a point echoed by Steven Johnson in his idea of personalised link collections). Two ways to record the trails of websites visited would be to use the local history of the browser, or to get the data from a proxy server. Either way, the trails links that we select are the decisions we make which need to feed back into the system.

Tomorrow: Memex Objectives (continued)

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