Sohu’s Turnaround

WSJ has a story on the remarkable turnaround at Sohu.com, one of the Chinese Internet portals – the company’s stock price has risen more than 1,300% since August 2002. How did it do it? By leveraging SMS.

Sohu’s strategy was simple: It moved much of its content, such as dating services and chat rooms, from the Internet to the SMS platform for mobile phones. That provided a basic but essential benefit to Sohu and other Chinese Web portals making the same move — allowing them to bill users for content by adding charges to their mobile-phone bills. Suddenly, the content that they had been giving away free on their Web sites could fetch a modest sum on mobile phones. At first, Sohu wasn’t very serious about SMS, but when the company saw the service’s earnings potential, it decided to pursue SMS users at full throttle.

At a cost of about a penny an SMS message, the service might not seem like a money maker. But the main reason SMS works in China is its low cost. An SMS message costs about 80% less than one minute of voice transmission. Another reason SMS proved so successful is that the dull-edge technology can be used on even basic wireless handsets, which account for more than 90% of the Chinese market.

While the rest of the world is investing in higher-value technologies, such as multimedia messaging or streaming video delivered over next-generation mobile networks, China’s infatuation with stodgy SMS shows no sign of cooling down. About 40 million of China’s more than 200 million cellphone users sent out more than 80 billion SMS messages last year, creating such a huge pie that even a small crumb can be enough to drive revenue.

In fact, the turnaround in the fortunes of the Chinese portals (Sohu, Netease and Sina) is perhaps the most remarkable Internet story of the past couple years. Their stock proces are up 40-100x in the past 18-24 months. Besides SMS, the other two factors have been an increase in Internet advertising and gaming.

Intranet Aggregators

Paolo Valdemarin writes:

The basic idea is merge to the same server contents coming from:

– internal sources (accounting, trouble ticketing, exiting document management applications, other data bases: we should be able to get a feed from any internal app)

– k-logs (every member of the group has one)

– external news sources (general news, weblogs, specialized sources, scraped pages)

The output of the aggregator should be both html that people can browser with their browser and more feeds which could end up in personal aggregators or funneled in other applications.

Centralized aggregators should not necessarily mean that every user has to read all feeds. There should be both the kind of personalization allowed by personal aggregators (deciding which feeds to subscribe to) but also added vaue services that would allow users to discover additional sources of information and anyway give different relevance to different kind of information snippets that are displayed on the page.

Agreed!

Dream Office

Joel Spolsky designs the Bionic office for his company. “There’s a lot of evidence that the right kind of office space can improve programmer productivity, especially private offices…Having drop-dead gorgeous, private, windowed offices makes it a lot easier to recruit the kinds of superstars that produce ten times as much as the merely brilliant software developers. If I have to compete at New York salaries against Bangalore salaries, I’m going to need those superstars, so when people come in for an interview, I need to see jaws on the floor. It’s about drama.”

The final word: “The monthly rent for our offices, when fully occupied, will run about $700 per employee…I suspect that $700 per person is on the high side for software developers throughout the world, but if it means we can hire from the 99.9 percentile instead of the 99 percentile, it’ll be worth it.”

Amazon becoming Shopping Mall

WSJ writes about the strategy shift at Amazon:

At Amazon.com Inc., a new strategy is taking root: The world’s biggest online retailer is trying to transform itself into a shopping mall.

This week, Amazon opened a sporting-goods department where retailers such as Golfsmith International Inc. can sell golf clubs, baseball bats and other athletic gear. Lands’ End and online luggage retailer eBags.com Inc. have already set up stores in the apparel section. And Amazon hopes to roll out a gourmet-food store and health-and-beauty shop in time for the holidays, according to people familiar with the matter.

Amazon processes the orders for these departments, but the retailers fill the orders from their own warehouses. Amazon gets a cut of the sales — and can expand into different businesses without making a big investment in inventory. The retailers receive access to Amazon’s most important assets: its customer traffic, $1 billion investment in technology and Internet know-how.

But becoming a shopping mall is creating new tensions in Amazon’s business. Even as Amazon successfully recruits retailers to sell on the site, some popular manufacturers are worried Amazon’s emphasis on discounts might cheapen their brands. Nike Inc. is trying to get retailers to remove its products from the site, and Callaway Golf Co. has asked retailers not to sell its new golf equipment there.

At the same time, Amazon has to worry about risking its own reputation by putting the delivery of products into the hands of outsiders. And as it expands its stable of partners, Amazon finds itself managing relationships with hundreds of retailers, most of them with their own demands about how their blue jeans, shoes and other goods are presented on the site. Gap Inc. and other retailers, for example, have clamored for bigger, sharper pictures of their products on the site or for special features such as monogramming.

Managing Email

[via Corante] David Gelernter writes about the problems faced with email…

No one should ever have to do anything with a mail message except ignore it, read it, or read and respond. When I see people “cleaning up” their mail files, faithfully stuffing each message into a folder or otherwise file-clerking for a machine, acting as their computer’s loyal (albeit menial) employee, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. (Laugh is usually the right answer.)

As volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued further, and the problem gets worse–people set even less store by a mail message, send one out on even less provocation, volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued even further.

…and suggests a solution:

there is a way to counteract ever-higher volumes and varieties of online information: by making the interface far simpler and more uniform. Every digital item you own or ever will own will be stored in a single structure. (Various companies, including one I work for, are building this type of software.) This single structure with all your information inside will be accessible from any computer or quasi-computer anywhere. (Any cell phone, laptop, answering machine, TV, automobile.) It will be easy to display, to visualize, to manipulate. Thus, a sort of “information beam” that grows brighter all the time (as more and more information is added), but can be focused easily with pinpoint precision. To handle rich, varied, and voluminous information, you need a simple and uniform package. The book (the physical object–sheets bound on end) is the finest design in history for exactly that reason. A book might be about anything, but all books work the same way. When software design is a tenth as sophisticated as book design, we will be getting somewhere.

VoIP over Wireless at Dartmouth

NYTimes writes about what is perhaps the largest of its kind application at Dartmouth College:

This week, as classes begin, the 1,000 students entering the class of 2007 will be given the option of downloading software, generically known as softphones, onto Windows-based computers.

Using the software together with a headset, which can be plugged into a computer’s U.S.B. port, the students can make local or long-distance telephone calls free. Each student is assigned a traditional seven-digit phone number.

The software, supplied by a variety of companies, works on laptops and desktop computers alike. Over the next six months, the softphone platforms will expand to include Apple computers, as well as Palm and Pocket PC hand-held devices.

When running, the software appears on the screen as a phone with a dial pad. Phone numbers are dialed by clicking the numbers on the key pad.

Voice over Internet protocol is not new. But running so much voice over a wireless data network is.

“As far as I know, no one has done a wireless voice-over-I.P. network this large before,” said David Kotz, a computer science professor at Dartmouth.

The network is being phased in across the entire campus with plans to reach 13,000 people, including faculty and staff.

TECH TALK: Random Musings (Part 4)

Blogs and I

The importance of blogs in my life continues to increase. There are many things happening simultaneously. For one, my blog is attracting more traffic, which has increased the feedback I get from people and a responsibility to ensure that I keep the updates happening regularly. I am becoming an interactive private radio station. Second, I am making some good connections with people via the blog. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that most of the new people I am coming into contact with now are because of the blog. This is interesting because it is putting me in touch with people I would not have otherwise ever dreamt of being able to connect with otherwise. It would be fair to say that weblogs are the shortcuts in the social world of connections.

Third, I am reading more and more bloggers. Thanks to the Info Aggregator and RSS, adding a new blog to read has become a breeze: whenever I come across a blogger I like, I just add the RSS feed into my aggregator, and can then rest assured that the updates will flow right into my mailbox. At last count, I had 150+ subscriptions. And to think that barely a few months ago, I was reading no more than a dozen bloggers! I cannot help feeling that blogs and RSS are bringing about a dramatic revolution in the way we access, contemplate and distribute information. The implications are far-reaching: no technology in recent times has given me a 10X improvement in what I do in such a short time.

Writing a blog is a significant time investment. But I feel, the benefits are also immense. It takes time for the benefits to accrue, while the time clock starts from day one. I have been maintaining a blog now for over 16 months. The blog has its own value chain to write, I need to read, think and build my own view of the world. It also forces a daily discipline, especially if, like me, one decides that there should be something new every day. It is something I learnt when we were doing IndiaWorld by updating daily, a site can become a constant in the readers life.

I think each of us has something we are good at, something we are passionate about. It could be trekking, photography, fiction, cooking or designing. If we can take that passion and share it with others via a blog, we will find that over time, the community responds, and we get more back then we give. Of course, the receiving takes time that is where one needs to have the patience and faith. Blog daily as if you have a thousand readers, even though there may be none and over time, they will come. Blogs give each of us a voice. They are home pages come alive, and with personality. That is why I believe that blogs are not a fad, they are set to become a permanent, rich part of the web landscape.

Tomorrow: Random Musings (continued)

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