IBM’s WebFountain

ResourceShelf writes about an exciting web search technology, described by IBM’s Paul Horn as “Google on steroids.”

The company has high hopes for Web Fountain, which was originally developed for a record company. The technology reads and understands text, and uses natural language to make correlations between words. Unlike traditional search, Web Fountain searches everything on the Web, including chat rooms, when set to that parameter. In the case of the record company, Horn says Web Fountain was a two-week leading indicator of sales. “The buzz in the chat rooms for an upcoming CD indicated what was going to be a hot seller.” Alfred Spector, vice president of services and software for IBM Research, says the company will begin selling pieces of this technology later this year. It can be applied not only to basic search but tacked onto call center and e-mail applications.

Career Options

Don Park discusses a possible career change and discusses his options:

1. Startup – pick an idea and raise it like a child.
2. Software Investing – build software for startups in return for equity.
3. Idea Investing – provide ideas to companies in return for equity and/or percentage of revenue generated from the idea.

#1 is the most difficult for me because I am practically drowning in ideas everyday, each one as alluring as supermodels.

I have done #2 before, made money on one out of three. Not a bad odd and I get to play around more often than #1.

#3 is what interests me the most at the moment. Companies often stagnate and can’t think outside the box. There is no big opportunities in teaching people how to think differently, but companies can use great ideas.

So I spend a few days with company executives, analyze their business, and come up with ideas and solutions. If I don’t come up with anything they find valuable, it’s a wash for me and cost the client no more than my travel expenses. If I do, equity, royalty, or consulting fee follows. It is a long term investment in my part, investing ideas instead of capital.

Idea Investing sounds so very interesting, Don. But do it yourself – that is, do #1. Start your own company. Look at the world’s emerging markets and how new ideas can make a difference there.

Marketing for Geeks

Eric Sink has an excellent weblog for technologists who need to do marketing. In a recent post, he writes about how geeks make the assumption that everyone is like them and what can be done about it.

To reach mainstream customers, we sometimes need to ignore our own preferences and just do what the customers want. Non-geeks in marketing generally have no trouble with this. Once they decide what the market prefers, all they want to do is get that product into the customer’s hands. They don’t have strong opinions about technology, so they don’t have trouble separating customer preferences from their own.

Not so with us geeks. We care too much about technology. We chose software development careers because we love technology for its own sake. We fight amongst ourselves in religious battles that seem arcane and irrelevant to normal people. We debate vi against emacs, Linux against Windows, C# against Java, RSS against Atom. We have strong opinions and we make them visible to everyone around us.

And when we get involved in marketing, we can stumble over those opinions. We need to talk about what customers want, but our own preferences get in the way. We bring our technology prejudices and biases to the discussion, often without ever being aware of the problems they can cause.

So it’s important to learn how to set aside our own preferences when appropriate. However, we don’t want to also set aside the deep technology understanding we have. Those two things come together, like the two sides of a coin. The religious preferences are inseparable from the expertise. The former is an obstacle to marketing discussions, but the latter is a tremendous asset.

Learning from Video Games

WSJ has a Technology Review article on computer games help kids multi-task in era of ‘continuous partial attention’:

Much as earlier civilizations used play to sharpen their hunting skills, we use computer games to exercise and enhance our information processing capabilities. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that kids who regularly play intense videogames show better perceptual and cognitive skills than those who do not. It isn’t just that people who had quick eyes and nimble fingers liked to play games; these skills could be acquired by non-gamers who put in the time and effort to learn how to play.

Mr. Eric Zimmerman, GameLab’s cofounder, argues that what makes playing Arcadia [four basic Atari-style games on the screen at the same time] possible is the degree to which each of the minigames builds on conventions. We take one look at these games and we know what to do. Yet, the Rochester research suggests something else — that people over time simply become quicker at processing game information and can play more sophisticated games. In a new book, What Videogames Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee argues that games are, in some senses, the ideal teaching machines. Mr. Gee suggests that educators can learn a great deal about how to sequence a curriculum from watching how game designers orient players to new challenges and how they organize the flow of activities so that players acquire the skills they need just in time for the next task; the goal is for players to find each level challenging but not overwhelming. Games teach us, Mr. Gee argues, without us even realizing that any education is taking place.

All of this research points in the same direction. Leaving aside questions of content, videogames are good for kids — within limits — because game play helps them to adapt to the demands of the new information environment. Surgeons are already using videogames to refine their hand-eye coordination for the ever more exacting demands of contemporary procedures. The military uses games to rehearse the complexity of coordinating group actions in an environment where participants cannot see each other. And all of us can use games to learn how to function in the era of continuous partial attention.

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Wired News reports on a new venture launched by Lindows founder Michael Robertson in Internet telephony:

SIPphone sells $65 phones that call anywhere in the world essentially for free. Users don’t pay per-call or per-minute fees, just the cost of their regular broadband service and a one-time cost for the device, which arrives pre-configured with a unique phone number in the area code “747” (“S-I-P” on your phone keypad). Turn the SIPphone on, plug it in to your broadband connection and place your call.

But unlike services offered by many of its established competitors, with SIPphone you can only call other compatible SIP devices, not “regular” land lines or cell phones.

The service is based on session initiation protocol, or SIP, a voice-over-IP, or VoIP, technology standard that manages voice traffic moving throughout Internet-based networks. For more than a decade, proponents have touted VoIP as a cost-saving, flexible alternative to the conventional public telephone network, but its use has so far largely been limited to corporate users and tech-savvy early adopters.

By offering low-cost SIP phones — $129.99 per pair, with plans to reduce the price to $40 per phone within a year and $20 within two — Robertson hopes to tap into SIP’s early momentum, just as he did with his Linux and MP3 ventures.

“Wherever there’s massive potential disruption, there’s massive business opportunity … that happens wherever you can completely digitize a product — with music, MP3s; with software, Linux; with voice communication, SIP,” says Robertson. “By moving something from the offline world into the digital world, you’re placing it back in the consumer’s control.”

“There’s no per-minute cost for the phone company to zap electrons from one set of copper wires to another, so why do we pay per minute?” he says, “If you intersect with the (regular phone) system, you inherit their cost structure. With SIP to SIP, it can all be free.”

Indian National Service

Atanu Dey has an idea that could transform India – compulsory national service.

Imagine India requires two years of military duty upon finishing high school or reaching the age of 19, whichever comes first. In these two years, every able bodied 19 year old is taught, among other things, discipline, hard work (both manual and intellectual), taught to live in a standard of material wellbeing that is common to all irrespective of how rich or poor their parents are, and so on. Imagine that after a couple of months of boot camp, they are assigned to work in all parts of India–mainly rural. Those who are literate, are assigned tasks that involve teaching the illiterates. Those who are from a farming background, teach urban kids how to work in a farm. All kids are given some physical training, sports training. All the camps are mixed in terms of language and economic status of the participants. Basically, an egalitarian society for just two years.

It need not be called military service. It can be called National Service. Part of the training can be military too. But not necessarily. Each batch could take up some project or the other. It could be irrigation canal building, or road building, or some other infrastructure project. You could involve volunteers of all ages to associate themselves retired people, professional people, NGOs. Professionals, such as teachers and doctors, could take a few months off to help coach these 19-21 year olds.

In all, tasks that require a disciplined force of workers can be assigned to these National Service task force. At the end of these two years, some valuable lessons can be expected to be learnt by all.

How much would it cost? I would estimate that it should not cost much at all. The National Service Task force should be required to build and grow whatever they need. The first batches can start by building the housing that will be needed. They can also start the irrigation systems, the farms, the workshops that will be needed. Basically, they will build the infrastructure as they go along. In computer terms, they will do a bootstrap start.

Once they finish their 2 years, they can go off and do whatever they were to do go to engineering schools, medical schools, work in farms, or go back to their villages.

I can even imagine that there is a part two to this National Service. NS Part II is a short duration of, say, only 3 months. That you have to do if and only if you graduate from college and you are between the ages of 25-28. So you come back and be a ‘facilitator’ or a teacher to the NS people because you have gained an educationin engineering or math or history or whatever. So NS-II is only for those who are the lucky ones to have been able to get a college degree. So once you finish your college by say age 25, you have three years in which to serve your 3 months of NS-II.

So that is the bare outline of this compulsory quasi-military service. It is something that would lead to nation building on a scale that would transform India within a 20 years. What do you say?

The transformation of India has to come from within, and who better to do it than all of us living in India. We have to help build the New India. Getting Indians to do national service would create a heightened appreciation of the realities of India, keep more of them in India, and get solutions to the problems that we face. It is also a bottom-up movement, which is important. Many countries have compulsory military service – in India, we need a mandatory “national service.”

TECH TALK: IT’s Future: Hagel-Brown and GM CIO

IT Matters

John Hagel and John Seely Brown wrote a strong rebuttal to Carrs article in the July issue of Harvard Business Review (part of the Letters column download).

We believe this is an important article because it very effectively captures the backlash sweeping through executive suites against IT spending. Certainly much of what Carr writes is spot on: companies have spent too much on IT in the past with only minimal (if any returns) and there is a need to focus on the increasing vulnerabilities we face as we become more dependent on automated operations. But Carrs article is also dangerous because it endorses the growing view that IT offers only limited potential for strategic differentiation.
We would briefly recap the three key points we made in this rebuttal:

  • Extracting business value from IT requires innovations in business practices. In many respects, we believe Carr attacks a red herring few people would argue that IT alone provides any significant business value or strategic advantage.
  • The economic impact from IT comes from incremental innovations, rather than “big bang” initiatives. A process of rapid incrementalism enhances learning potential and creates opportunities for further innovations.
  • The strategic impact of IT investment comes from the cumulative effect of sustained initiatives to innovate business practices in the near-term. The strategic differentiation emerges over time, based less on any one specific innovation in business practice and much more on the capability to continuously innovate around the evolving capabilities of IT.

    Previous technology innovations began to stabilize and commoditize as a dominant architecture emerged (e.g., think about the standard railway gauges that helped to connect tracks and establish a national railway system). We have yet to see a dominant architecture for IT emerge. In fact, we believe we are on the cusp of another major shift toward a true distributed service architecture that will represent a qualitative breakthrough in terms of delivering more flexibility and fluidity to businesses.

    Bottom line, far from believing that the potential for strategic differentiation through IT is diminishing, we would maintain that the potential is increasing, given the growing gap between IT potential and realized business value.

  • A Users Perspective

    Ralph Szygenda, CIO of GeneralMotors, is quoted in InfoWorld):

    Nicholas Carr may ultimately be correct when he says IT doesn’t matter. Business-process improvement, competitive advantage, optimization, and business success do matter and they aren’t commodities. To facilitate these business changes, IT can be considered a differentiator or a necessary evil. But today, it’s a must in a real-time corporationIt’s getting much harder to achieve a competitive advantage through an IT investment, but it is getting much easier to put your business at a cost disadvantage. I also agree on spending the minimum on IT to reach desired business results. Precision investment on core infrastructure and process-differentiation IT systems is called for in today’s intensely cost-conscious business versus the shotgun approach sometimes used in the past.

    Yes, IT has aspects of commoditization. PCs, telecommunications, software components such as payroll, benefit programs, business-process outsourcing, and maybe even operating systems and database-management systems are examples. But the application of information systems in a corporation’s product design, development, distribution, customer understanding, and cost-effective Internet services is probably at the fifth-grade level.

    Tomorrow: NYTimes and Gartner

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